At the 2004 Olympics in Greece, the basketball world was stunned when the U.S. Men’s team failed to win the gold medal. It was the first loss that the U.S. Men’s basketball suffered in the Olympics since NBA players were first allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1992.
After the shocking defeat, the USA Basketball committee immediately revised its program to recruit and develop a national team. Their vision was to implement a long-term project where NBA players would commit to playing for the team in advance instead of accepting invitations weeks before the start of the Olympics. In 2008, The Redeem Team was born.
Released on Netflix on October 7, The Redeem Team tells the story of the U.S. Olympic Men's Basketball Team’s quest for gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and how they re-established America as the epicenter of basketball. The documentary offers a riveting portrayal of the dynamics of team building and features insightful interviews with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, “Coach K” Krzyzewski and the late Kobe Bryant.
EBONY caught up with Wade, who executive produced the doc, and Jemele Hill, an acclaimed sports journalist and host of the popular podcast Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, before a special screening of the film at CultureCon NYC, and discussed the lasting legacy of the Redeem Team on their psyche.
While the U.S. men’s basketball was at a crossroads during the 2008 Summer Olympics, many members of the team were also at pivotal stages in their NBA careers. Wade recalled his struggles of dealing with several injuries and not making the playoffs the season leading up to the Olympics. He said that being a part of the Redeem Team helped to revitalize the second phase of his career.
“We all came to the team with our own individual baggage. Even while we were at the Olympics we all had to deal with personal issues with our families and our health. Ultimately, after losing in the Olympics in 2004 and the FIBA World Championships in 2006, we realized that the way we were going about it wasn't going to lead us to accomplish our goal which was to win the gold medal. So we had to do something different," said Wade. "We had to open our ears up and listen to the messages that came from people like Doug Collins who was on the Olympic team that lost to the Soviet Union in 1972 and the military officers that Coach K. brought in to speak to us about what real sacrifice is. We had to listen and take it all in."
In basketball circles, there is no shortage of debates about who was the better squad—The Dream Team or The Redeem Team. Wade argues that no one expected the Dream Team to lose, and the 2008 squad was under more pressure because the 2004 team didn't bring home the gold. Also, professional basketball had grown into an international game, which made the competition much tougher from other countries that also had NBA players representing them. But the 13-time All-Star said he welcomed the pressure because that’s how greatness is manifested in sports and in life.
“There was no pressure on us in 2004 because everybody thought we were going to win but in 2008, the pressure was on. If you’re a great athlete, you live for those moments of pressure like we had in 2008” he explained. “Obviously, it took a lot of work from us as individuals and a lot of work as a team to get to that point but that's what makes it fun. Practicing may suck sometimes and you have to do it. But the game is fun. When your palms are sweaty, that’s when the kid in you comes out. That’s what you see from us in the gold medal game and throughout the entire tournament. We got the chance to showcase how great we were on and off the court.”
Hill added that several of the players were under constant scrutiny from the media at the time. She stated that the Redeem Team was on a mission to change the narrative about U.S. basketball and their own careers in the league.
“I definitely think for LeBron, it was an important juncture for his career. Kobe was also dealing with perceptions that he was selfish and unlikeable. For him to join this team went against what the perception was,” Hill said. “LeBron, if we remember, was receiving a lot of criticism about if he was a winner or a true leader which seems crazy looking back on it now. Carmelo was also facing a perception that he was a selfish player. To see all these guys who were fighting their own battles come together to win a gold medal was a phenomenal achievement.”
When asked if there would ever be another Olympic squad on par with the Redeem Team, Hill said she believed so because the 2008 team raised the standard for U.S. men’s basketball.
“I think we will and the reason is because of this team. After 1992, 1996 and 2000, there was this feeling that America is good and they'll wax the rest of the world in Olympic basketball. But we found out in 2004 that the rest of the world had something to say,” she noted. “Culturally, they changed how people looked at the Olympic team. It stopped being a throwaway or “If I feel like it" team. Now when guys get that call, they have more of a responsibility to participate and that was the part that they had to restore. Not only did they redeem USA men’s basketball but they redeemed the feeling of pride of wanting to play for your county.”
Reflecting on his experience, Wade said that the greatest lesson he learned from being a member of one of the greatest teams ever assembled was patience. According to the future Hall of Famer, no matter how talented a team is, it takes time to build trust and camaraderie.
“We had to be patient. It took time. I think we all want to microwave everything. When we came together in Jacksonville, Florida, just two weeks before the Olympics in 2004 and tried to win the gold medal, that wasn't our calling. It didn’t happen for us like that,” shared Wade. “So we had to respect the game and respect the basketball gods. We had to go through the process and we had to learn how to win together just like you have to do in the NBA. It took us three years to learn how to win together and we got it done.”