LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, “The Last Dance” producer Jon Weinbach, and NBA Entertainment team up for a fully authorized but thoroughly absorbing Netflix documentary about the 2008 United States men’s Olympic basketball team and their quest to recapture the gold medal glory that our country had once taken for granted. That long and arduous process became the stuff of a classic American sports movie, as the NBA’s biggest stars — brought together by a reserved but militaristic coach — put aside their individual egos to play for each other and the people back home.
“The Redeem Team” is that movie to a tee. It’s every bit as candied and superficial as you might expect from such a self-mythologizing stroll down memory lane, but its subjects bring some occasional edge to it (I cackled at James recalling the moment when he realized “we about to beat the shit out of Spain”), and the documentary’s slickness befits the story of a team that had been created to promote the NBA on the world stage.
If Weinbach’s film hadn’t felt like a feature-length commercial for its players, it probably wouldn’t have amounted to such a lucid portrait of how they learned to stop selling themselves against each other. And that’s really all “The Redeem Team” wants to be, to the point that it refuses to explicitly acknowledge the elephant in the room: The 2020 death of Kobe Bryant.
Bryant is one of the first voices we hear in Weinbach’s film, which opens with the late NBA legend sitting next to LeBron James and insisting that winning Olympic gold was more important to him than any league championship. It’s one of those things that superstar athletes say whenever they’re allowed to play for their country — and one of those things that sounds particularly forced when coming from someone who had a reputation for selfishness — but “The Redeem Team” convincingly argues for the sincerity behind Bryant’s sentiment.
That process starts with some much-needed context, as Weinbach retraces the history of America’s Olympic basketball teams, which lost a grand total of two games between 1936 and 1988. It was that second defeat — in Seoul — that led the NBA to allow its players to participate in the games and inspired the creation of the ridiculously overpowered Dream Team, whose domination at the 1992 tournament has always reminded me of the “Civilization II” cheat code that allowed you to use nuclear weapons against rival villages that were still fighting with sticks and stones.
But Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (et al.) did such a good job of promoting David Stern’s basketball to international markets that people all over the world soon wanted to play at the most elite level; it wasn’t long before many of the NBA’s top draft picks were coming from outside the United States, and the national teams that countries like Spain and Argentina sent to the Olympics started to become recurring nightmares for the Dream Teams that America cobbled together during the off-season. James was just coming off his rookie season when the U.S. lost to Argentina in 2004, but no one has ever looked more disgusted to have a bronze medal hanging around their neck.
And so, with oodles of excellent archival footage courtesy of NBA Entertainment, along with talking head interview testimony from just about everyone involved in the 2008 “Redeem Team” — including Bryant, who plays such a prominent role in the film that it seems like he was alive for its production — Weinbach begins assembling the story of how America’s best all-stars were sewn together under the same flag. It’s the story of how this country nationalized its basketball team rather than just relying on individual talent. The undercurrents of patriotism and national pride run deep, but the Redeem Team was created to disabuse basketball’s notions of American exceptionalism, and so Weinbach’s documentary sidesteps the question of who deserves to win (and the top dog/underdog dynamic that goes with it) in favor of focusing on the personal commitments required for these players to win together.
It helps that the 2008 team was a ridiculously charismatic group, and that most of them seem eager to share candid memories of their time together. James and Wade are naturally front and center — the latter’s need to keep proving himself despite a hall of fame career makes for a poignant wrinkle after he sustains a season-ending injury just a few months before the trip to Beijing — but it’s supporting players like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Carlos Boozer (who appears to have been interviewed in a zillion-dollar suit on a yacht dock somewhere) who really bring the movie to life. Their memories of the practices and games are sharper than their insights regarding how they felt about each other off the court (it might have been nice to see more of the players interviewed together), but it’s fascinating to see how legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski motivated them to be all that they could be.
The tenor of the documentary shifts rather dramatically, however, when Bryant is drafted onto the team at a precarious moment in his professional career. Notorious for bouncing Shaq out of LA and causing all sorts of related chaos for the Lakers, Bryant swoops into the picture at a moment when his veteran experience seemed at odds with his juvenile self-interest. He was the volatile X factor of an Olympic team that needed something to galvanize them together, and his arrival on the scene has a similar effect on Weinbach’s film about them.
For reasons that are obvious but never stated aloud, the surviving members of the Redeem Team speak about Bryant with far more candor and personal detail than they do when talking about each other. They talk about the baggage he brought to the table, the wall that he put up around people, and the work he put into getting over himself; one story, about how a night out in Vegas ended with the rest of the players coming home from the club at the same time as Bryant was hitting the gym, is positioned as one of the most crucial moments on the team’s path to the podium.
By the time we see Bryant plow through NBA teammate Pau Gasol on the first play of the gold medal game — James, Boozer, and everyone else reflecting on that sequence with ear-to-ear smiles — it’s clear that he found a way to let the rest of the Redeem Team share in his single-minded determination. That Gasol agreed to be interviewed for this movie, wearing a t-shirt honoring Bryant’s memory no less, is a powerful testament to how these players made the game bigger than themselves. And if that message is merely in service to a glorified commercial for the NBA, well, their product has seldom done a better job of selling itself than it does here.
“The Redeem Team” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, October 7.