Whether he was picking up coffee or wandering around the aisles in a grocery store, Kobe Bryant noticed something unusual about the interactions he had with basketball fans in the summer of 2008. “You see a guy with a Celtics jersey at Disneyland, I’m ready to kill him,” he recalls, LeBron James sitting next to him on a red couch during an interview. “Just ‘cause he’s wearing a Garnett jersey, you know? I’m pissed.”
Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers had just lost the 2008 NBA Finals to the loathed Boston Celtics. Wounds from that hurtful loss still so fresh, the Lakers icon could already feel another taunting quip coming — but it never did.
“Bring back the gold for us,” Bryant recalls the man saying instead. The guard had heard the phrase over and over again in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which the U.S. men’s basketball team approached with only one goal in mind after the crumbling third-place finish in Athens four years earlier: redemption.
Directed by “The Last Dance” showrunner Jon Weinbach, Netflix’s “The Redeem Team” follows that redemption journey up to Team USA’s 118-107 victory over Spain in the 2008 tournament’s final. And the documentary covers it from many different angles, telling a story that takes place on the court as much as it does off it — which might come as a surprise to some.
“The Redeem Team has been sort of overlooked,” Weinbach tells Lakers Nation.
The movie discusses the political implications of 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq that shifted the perception of America in the world — and how both events impacted the team that traveled to Athens. It also emphasizes basketball’s transition into a global sport that produced Spain’s Gasol brothers, Argentina’s Manu Ginobili and the Puerto Rican underdog team that beat the U.S. in its opening matchup at the 2004 Games.
Yet, as Weinbach notices, the general view of basketball being Team USA’s game to lose persisted. That view only amplified the need for the men’s team to avenge the embarrassing loss in Athens — marking only the fourth since 1936 that the U.S. didn’t claim the Olympic gold in men’s basketball — sandwiched between two disappointing performances at the FIBA World Championships in 2002 and 2006.
The stakes are high ahead of the Games in Beijing and “The Redeem Team” spotlights it from the very beginning, cutting straight to Bryant’s “bring back the gold” anecdote in the opening sequence.
To tell the Redeem Team’s story, the documentary uses an ample amount of historical footage from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and NBA archives, as well as clips of the team’s coverage by American TV networks. At the same time, Team USA’s players and coaches — and members of the media — offer their commentary in interviews conducted by the filmmakers themselves.
Early on, the abundance of background information can almost overwhelm, particularly in the absence of a narrator. To set the stage for Team USA’s redemption mission, the movie brings back clips of American basketball players at the Olympics dating back as far as 1952. Simultaneously, “The Redeem Team” introduces the many personal arcs of redemption of the players and coaches involved with USA Basketball in the 2000s.
Bryant needs to prove he can be a team player in the second chapter of his NBA career. James needs success to confirm he’s the next big deal. Meanwhile, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has to overcome his divisive Duke pedigree to show he can lead a group of NBA superstars even though he has never coached outside of college basketball.
But the filmmakers make an effort to help the viewer digest the complexity of the Redeem Team’s becoming. Visually pleasant graphics and smooth animations assist in breaking down the numerous narrative layers while background music helps sense the tone of each scene. All to provide the broader context that, Weinbach says, is of paramount importance to understanding the story’s uniqueness.
“The team’s called the Redeem Team,” he points out. “You need to know what they’re redeeming.”
The filmmakers’ access to the Olympic archives proved quintessential to the documentary’s inception. Weinbach credits co-producer Frank Marshall for the deal with the IOC, made possible by Marshall’s past executive role with the U.S. Olympic Committee — in addition to his stellar resume, which includes work on the “Jurassic World” and “Indiana Jones” franchises. The Committee entrusted Marshall with producing a premium documentary series about the Games after the launch of the Olympic Channel in 2016, Weinbach explains. “And part of the arrangement,” he continues, “was, ‘Hey, you get unfettered access to the Olympic archives to do these projects.
“And that’s like manna from heaven if you’re in documentaries and you want to tell stories about sports and the Olympics.”
The documentary manages to bring Bryant’s character back to life in big part thanks to the acquired footage. The filmmakers themselves never had a chance to interview the five-time NBA champion for “The Redeem Team.” Weinbach says the filming started around January 2020, the time of the Lakers icon’s helicopter crash that also took the lives of his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people.
However, they found an interview with the guard from 2015 in the IOC‘s archives, which serves as the primary interview in “The Redeem Team.” As a result, Bryant can be seen discussing the 2008 Games in the documentary just like co-executive producers James and Dwyane Wade do — with the movie hinting at the Lakers legend’s tragic death only once and in a very subtle manner.
Weinbach admits to feeling emotional when he rewatched those Bryant clips. “I grew up in L.A., I’m a Laker fanatic,” he says, pointing to a frame on the wall behind him with a painting of an animated Bryant in his No. 8 jersey. It’s a trophy from his “30 for 30” film — “Sole Man” — about Sonny Vaccaro, the marketing executive who signed the then-Lakers rookie to Adidas. “Kobe was two years younger than me, I watched him my entire adult life,” Weinbach adds.
And while Bryant’s death didn’t impact “The Redeem Team” content-wise — his storyline was always going to be one the filmmakers wanted to explore at a great length — Weinbach says it changed the crew’s approach to it.
“There was a level of responsibility to tell the story well, to tell it with the beauty of his own redemption story for that team — and what he brought to it,” Weinbach says.
“The Redeem Team” does make for a moving tribute to the legendary Lakers guard, who traveled to Beijing as a freshly-crowned NBA MVP. Bryant gradually manages to change his reputation of a “loner” who “rolls by himself” — as Carmelo Anthony puts it — and becomes the team’s leader who motivates his fellow NBA superstars to quit partying and get in the gym in the early morning hours.
He can be seen joking around with James during Team USA’s training camp, foretelling how their stories would intertwine in the future. He’s also in the picture imprinted on the front of Dwight Howard’s yellow hoodie, which the center wore during his “Redeem Team” interview, showing Howard in the embrace of the Lakers No. 24 during their tumultuous season together a decade ago.
Eventually, “The Redeem Team” cuts to Bryant celebrating the Olympic gold with Vanessa and the two-year-old Gigi, a moment that makes it difficult not to shed a tear, even an involuntary one.
Individual arcs of redemption, such as Bryant’s, come together to show the ongoing change in USA Basketball’s attitude to international tournaments. The governing body’s new director, Jerry Colangelo, and Coach K want to instill continuity in Team USA and encourage player commitment, and the change is well-reflected in Krzyzewski’s attempts to stir up patriotic sentiment in his players. In the lead-up to Beijing, he invites Iraq War veterans — one of which has lost both eyes but still continues his service — to visit his players and give a lesson on the value of selflessness. The visit also helps the players realize that Team USA will be playing for those same veterans at the 2008 Games, alongside hundreds of millions of other Americans.
The Iraq War that alienated American athletes in Athens now suddenly serves as a source of inspiration for the team headed to Beijing.
Coach K successfully encourages the players to drop team allegiance and become a monolith — while hoping to seed the idea of representing America internationally as an honor and responsibility, not a chore. But he doesn’t shy away from tapping into the wilder side of the NBA superstars on his team. Wade and Anthony recall Krzyzewski printing out quotes that sang Ginobili’s praises ahead of the semifinal rematch with Argentina — four years after Argentina eliminated the U.S. from the men’s basketball tournament in Athens. In those moments, James and Wade — and, to a lesser extent, Anthony, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer in his full-on cocktail attire — do a phenomenal job at narrating the story, offering invaluable insight and reactions, and sharing their emotions as “The Redeem Team” explores different stages of the group’s preparation for Beijing.
“I was blown away at how gracious, funny, emotional, candid [and] human all of these guys were,” Weinbach says of the players. “This is a story that [they] wanted to talk about.” Weinbach points out the interviewees’ candor extends to the moments of embarrassment and defeat — even in Pau Gasol’s case, even though he and Spain lost to the U.S. twice at the 2008 Games.
“Pau is just such an absolute first-class human,” Weinbach says of Gasol, who sat down for an interview with the “Redeem Team” crew at the director’s house amid the limited window of time they had for the shoot.
“Hopefully, one of the takeaways from the film is — let’s not forget how great that Spain team was,” Weinbach adds. And his genuine admiration for the Spaniards shows in “The Redeem Team,” perhaps most explicitly when James recalls how he thought “these f——rs won’t go away” over game highlights of the Europeans coming back from behind time and again.
“That was an incredible performance,” Weinbach says of Spain.
Hoops, politics, humor, drama, tension — “The Redeem Team” has it all, offering a compelling account of one of the greatest wins in USA basketball’s history. In a way, the documentary completes the story of Team USA’s iconic performance as it explains why exactly America’s craving for the Olympic victory in men’s basketball was so strong in 2008.
And strong it was if all a Celtics fan had to tell the very Kobe Bryant straight after a Finals win over the Lakers was: Bring back the gold.