The 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team was the Dream Team. It was the first US Olympic squad to include professional players, and what players they were, headed by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. Yes, they won the gold. The 1996 and 2000 teams did, too. In 2004 the United States lost, though, leading some to refer to the Cream Team. So the 2008 squad was going to be the Redeem Team, assuming they could live up to the name.
“The Redeem Team” is the title of an engaging new Netflix documentary about how — spoiler alert — yes, they did take the gold at Beijing. It starts streaming Oct. 7.
Four members of the 2004 squad also played in 2008: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Carlos Boozer. For them, redemption was personal. “It was ugly to watch,” Wade says of losing in 2004. “It was terrible to watch. It was ugly to be part of.” For James and Wade, this is now also business: They’re both executive producers of the documentary.
In fairness to the 2004 team, a number of top players had declined to participate, fearing possible terrorist attacks in wake of the invasion of Iraq. There was also an assumption of US inevitability. One of the only times the US men hadn’t taken the gold in basketball had been in 1972, when it’s fair to say they lost because they got jobbed by the refs in the gold-medal game against the Soviet Union. (Good thing Johnny Most wasn’t calling it: The number of cracked eardrums would have been catastrophic.) “This has become a world sport,” Larry Brown, the 2004 team’s coach, warned his players. “We better respect the people we play or we’re in trouble.” He was right.
A new coach was brought in, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Additions to the roster included Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Jason Kidd, and, most important, Kobe Bryant. Bryant was named captain. The other players agree that his intensity set a standard for the team. There’s a very funny story about training camp in Las Vegas. Several players got back to the team hotel in the pre-dawn hours after a night on the town. Waiting for an elevator to go up to their floor, they met Bryant getting off an elevator on his way to the weight room. Lesson learned.
The documentary weaves together game footage, talking-head interviews (Wade and James have a lot to say, and Anthony is rather endearing), and, best of all, behind-the-scenes footage. Highlights include several Coach K pep talks and a birthday party for Bryant. It’s pretty funny to hear a bunch of deep voices singing, “Happy birthday, dear Kobe/Mamba.”
Although highly watchable, “The Redeem Team” isn’t “The Last Dance,” the engrossing ESPN epic from 2020 about Jordan’s final season. Coach K isn’t as compelling as Bulls coach Phil Jackson, and neither LeBron nor Kobe is as compelling as Jordan (who is?). The intricate narrative braiding that was so much of the fascination of “Dance” isn’t to be found here. It can’t be. “Team” clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes vs. eight hours for “Dance.” Director Jon Weinbach, a “Last Dance” producer, doesn’t have enough time to do much tricky dribbling with chronology. Instead, a countdown regularly appears on the screen — “1 Year Until 2008 Olympics,” “4 Months Until Beijing Olympics” — which gets a bit silly.
Bryant was probably the best player in the world in 2008. Almost as important, he was still smarting from the Celtics’ defeat of the Lakers in the NBA Finals (heh, heh). So he felt he had multiple things to prove. Fans of the Green will not want to miss the beginning of the documentary, which has Bryant telling an anecdote about a Disneyland encounter with a guy wearing a Celtics jersey. Bryant steeled himself for a razzing. Instead, he learned that someone could be a fan of Green Team and Redeem Team both.
THE REDEEM TEAM
Directed by Jon Weinbach. Streaming on Netflix, starting Oct. 7. 96 min. TV-MA (casual obscenity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.