If anyone seems an ill-fit for the role of scrappy underdogs fighting for respect it’s a team comprised of NBA legends LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmello Anthony and the late Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
The Redeem Team largely works so well for stripping these megastars of the shoes, championship glory and limitless endorsement deals and instead focuses on their pride. Not just for themselves as athletes, but for their country.
Director Jon Weinbach, a producer of the acclaimed The Last Dance, offers plenty of context for why the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team needed redeeming in the first place.
The men’s team dominated the competition for decades to the point that winning gold wasn’t just the hope, but the expectation. Losing a game was considered a disappointment. That myth was shattered in 1988 when that Olympic squad failed to not win the gold medal. For basketball historians this was the first legitimate loss in the Olympics. Weinbach would use the first loss in the Games to far greater dramatic effect later in the documentary.
With The Dream Team restoring order in the global basketball front and expanding the worldwide reach of the NBA, everything seemed to be settling back into place. Right until the 2004 Games where the U.S. team only managed to earn the bronze medal — far off from their expected spot on the podium.
James, Wade, Anthony and fellow 2004 teammate Carlos Boozer detail their disgust and frustration with losing on the world’s biggest stage. It’s fascinating seeing these legends as young stars still trying to establish their place in the NBA let alone the Olympic stage.
Just as important, Weinbach establishes these superstars as regular guys, who despite the gaudy amount of money, just want to win and compete to the fullest. Devoting so much time to the failures in the Olympics and subsequent qualifiers also creates an obstacle and a challenge for them to overcome. For these stars used to being the best on the court in every game, this huge heaping of humble pie proves enlightening.
Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski, assigned the task of leading these professional stars, also makes for a surprisingly charismatic figure showing off a subtle mix of self-depreciation and snark. Anthony also comes off like a gifted storyteller with a knack for the setup and expert payoff.
Weinbach gets wide access to the majority of the team including Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh.
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For many Los Angeles Lakers — and basketball fans in general — the documentary hits an unavoidably emotional gut punch when Bryant joins the team. As his teammates smile and reflect on their time with The Black Mamba, there’s a clear sense of adoration, respect and obvious appreciation for playing alongside one of the game’s all-time greats.
Weinbach doesn’t run from controversies like this particularly rough patch in Bryant’s Lakers career en route to his fondly revered second act, which could in part be attributed to this Olympic journey.
Basketball can be poetic in the way the players move and create without the ball. Weinbach balances the appropriate amount of game footage with the stories behind the games. The latter is far more important in this presentation, including a memorable one with Bryant’s Lakers teammate, Pau Gasol, a star of the team from Spain.
Given the redemptive storyline, it would have been a nice touch for Weinbach to include more interviews with players on the men’s teams that failed to bring home the gold. In lieu of many, getting former player/coach/commentator Doug Collins was the most fitting. While The Redeem Team keeps an upbeat mode throughout, Collins’ reflections on a moment with Bryant felt like all that was needed.
The film ends on a joyous note with James and Wade proclaiming to James’ handheld video camera that they’re going to bring back the gold. It’s an interesting conclusion in that it keeps the focus strictly on the Olympic journey.
Still, the Redeem Team’s triumph caused a major seismic change in the NBA’s landscape. Bryant (and Gasol) would go on to win consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010. Inspired by his success playing with other elite talent, James would make his “controversial” decision to take his talents to the Miami Heat and ultimately win two championships — not five, not six, not seven — with Wade and Bosh in 2012 and 2013.
Granted, this might have been too much self-congratulating for James and Wade, who also served as producers of the film, but it felt somewhat odd not to have some dedication/tribute to Bryant.
As far a singular look at the men’s basketball team scraping and clawing back to the mountaintop, The Redeem Team is a compelling and revealing documentary that further explores the hearts of champions.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Netflix