The Redeem Team’s modern history of America in the world

THe was Barack Obama, the icon of American life in 2008, the one we’ve been waiting for, the hinge between the ages, the basketball fan who taught America to say “yes” at the end of a terrible, stupid decade of “no.” Yet such is the alienation of the world of just 15 years ago that Obama’s unmentionable and off-screen presence doesn’t seem odd. Redeem teamA thrilling new Netflix documentary about the United States reclaiming its rightful gold medal in men’s basketball in Beijing that year.

There’s plenty of psycho-political baggage the filmmakers could pile on top of the Mike Krzyzewski-trained triumph. The Larry Brown-led US team led by Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan limped to a bronze medal in Athens in 2004, a national embarrassment that occurred at the nadir of the Bush administration’s Iraq defeat. War and basketball are two subjects in which Americans envision themselves as undisputed global leaders, but Argentina’s national team and a coalition of jihadist lunatics cast fundamental doubts on cherished myths of American superiority. Communist China, the host of the 2008 Summer Games, showed a way out in a world shaped by rapid American decline — and yet Obama, and perhaps Team USA alpha dogs like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, showed that decline was not inevitable, that America was still dynamic enough to improve through its failures.

Director Jon Weinbach doesn’t address any of that stuff directly, at least not directly. The broader dimensions of the story he tells emerge naturally through the film’s tight focus on basketball. The movie will never come out and say it, but the 1992 Dream Team, the first US Olympic team comprised of NBA players, helped inaugurate the limitless post-history of American dominance, a time when our full-spectrum dominance over the entire world was a glorious inevitability. Perhaps that mindset isn’t so healthy, suggests a talking head. “We got into the idea that we’re good because we’re Americans,” says journalist Sam Smith, introducing the combination of NBA stars in red, white and blue jerseys that creamed the world’s lesser nations throughout the 1990s. But that idea was right — There is correct right? If it weren’t for some ineffable connection between Americanness and basketball dominance, the 2008 team wouldn’t have achieved much. And yet, as Smith rightly notes, “Dream Team is not about patriotism. They weren’t really doing it for America. They were doing it for the NBA” — for the money, basically. The film keeps the politics to a minimum, but it’s still a story about how our national purpose can be clearer, sharper, and less cynical at a time when we’re losing.

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In showing how the Americans won again, Redeem team An unexpectedly intimate duel becomes a portrait of two of the most important basketball titans of the 21st century. One of them, Mike Krzyzewski, coached his last game earlier this year. Another, Kobe Bryant, died in a helicopter crash in January 2020 along with his young daughter, an event that a large subset of the older millennial demographic experienced as a “Day the Music Died”-type reality-bender, a spectacular ending. Any ultimate illusions of youth. The film depicts the height of an era that is very recent and definitively over.

After the Athens disaster, USA Basketball was placed under the sole control of former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who made the risky decision to select a college coach to guide a team of NBA stars. Krzyzewski, a middle-aged West Point graduate and Duke University captain who won three national championships, is at no point matched by Dwyane, LeBron, Kobe or any other multimillionaire with a single name. In team meetings, Coach K is unfailingly quiet, a bit monotone — an “army coach,” as sportswriter Bill Plaschke described him.

In the name of ultimate victory, Krzyzewski persuades a collection of showboats with athletic shoes bearing his name to adopt the superior pick-and-roll style of the international game. He releases theories of basketball that double as theories of America. Don’t suppress your own NBA-sized egos, he says in a team meeting. “You must give me the egos you have…and put it under one ego.” “That was meant to be!” exclaims Dwyane Wade, recalling the moment 15 years later. Highlighting the mystical connection between American basketball dominance and our deepest self-concept, Coach K’s team learns about “selfless service” from an Army colonel recently returned from Iraq, as well as an active duty soldier with both eyes blown off by enemy shrapnel. “Hearing these stories, our players allowed their hearts to open, and as a result, they became the US,” Krzyzewski recalls today.

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in Redeem team, Krzyzewski’s greatness is something the mind can grasp: he joins such an understanding of human psychology to an appropriately grand conception of the task at hand. Contrary to Coach K, Kobe’s greatness lies in the grandeur of the field. In the movie, he is remembered as having been possessed by a terrible, God-like human being – the “mortals”, in this case, Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James – from the edge of all existence, a place where only he belonged. Kobe is a friendless, “comfortable” loner, according to Carmelo Anthony. Only the superstars get along with him: One night, during a Las Vegas training camp, the rest of the entire team returns from a night of clubbing at 5:30 a.m. to find Kobe drenched in sweat in their hotel lobby. Early morning workout. By the end of the week, the clubbing had stopped and the entire team was on a Laker guard schedule.

It would be a disservice to give every great Kobe anecdote in this film. We get the full backstory on the infamous body check he performed on the Lakers’ Gasol in the opening minutes of an Olympic round-robin game against Spain, a still-amazing feat of a truly pathological winner. One of the film’s unspoken assumptions is the American value of “pathological winning.” Ironically, this insatiable will to succeed is part of why Americans are sometimes loved abroad. In Beijing, the documentary depicts how the Chinese public treated Kobe as if he were Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, as thousands of screaming and fainting fans followed him through the Chinese capital.

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At the time, the crowd on the Team USA bus seemed reassuring evidence that Chinese society was in shock at the liberalizing influence of American culture. In retrospect, the power dynamic was almost the opposite — LeBron James, now America’s chief celebrity apologist for Beijing’s atrocities, must have seen Kobemania as a foreshadowing of his own commercial future in a basketball-mad communist dictatorship. (One puzzling omission in this film is that there is no mention of the US’s blowout of host nation China in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, which, at the time, was believed to have the largest television audience of any sporting event in history. LeBron James, incidentally, was one of the film’s executive producers.)

Redeem team A great national victory is a satisfying look back, but even a historic sporting achievement becomes bitter over time – and in less time than one might expect or expect. The film ends with Dwayne and Kobe icing a series of oddly angled long jump shots to thwart a late Spanish comeback in the gold medal game. Every basketball fan knows that happened. Do they remember a time when the NBA seemed to have a bigger impact on China than China had on the NBA? For that matter, do they remember Carmelo Anthony being baby-faced in 2004 and as a high school freshman in 2008? Redeem team A gold medal won in a distant world is a record – and for many observers, uncomfortable proof that we’re not young anymore.

Armin Rosen is a reporter based in New York Tablet.


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