It’s easy to forget amid Team USA’s recent stretch of dominance in international play, but it wasn’t that long ago that the state of this country’s Olympic basketball squad was in disarray.
Those alarm bells rung loudest in 2004, when Team USA was embarrassed by Puerto Rico in its Olympics opener and ended up barely squeezing by Lithuania to win the bronze medal. That output revealed a steady 12-year decline that could no longer be ignored. The original Dream Team featured names like Magic, Jordan and Bird. The 2004 team gave major minutes to Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom.
That’s why the 2008 Redeem Team was such an important group. They brought the gold medal back to the United States and restored the program into one that nearly every American star wanted to join, no matter how accomplished on the court or famous off it.
"I used the word redemption a lot," Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo told the Wall Street Journal in 2008, when asked about the origin of the team’s ubiquitous nickname.
Colangelo was brought in to oversee USA Basketball following the humiliating 2004 performance in Athens and rebuilt the organization from the ground up. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was hired as head coach. The word "program" was tossed around frequently. Those on the roster were expected to show up to Vegas for offseason training camps and devote their summers to competing in the qualifying tournaments. Players were required to make a three-year commitment to the team. Colangelo interviewed prospective members.
The big guns, who had repeatedly skipped out on suiting up for Team USA, signed up. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade all had an uncomfortable experience at Athens in 2004, but still made Team USA a priority. Jason Kidd, who played for Team USA in 2000 but not 2004, returned to the squad. Even Kobe Bryant, who had blown off the program in the past, was down to play, and not just when the Olympics came around. Bryant suited up in 2007 for the FIBA Americas Championship, a warmup qualifying competition Team USA should have easily won with or without him.
It was Kobe’s presence specifically that signaled to the rest of his peers that the United States actually viewed Olympic basketball as worthy of serious attention. Bryant had never competed in an international competition before, and that might have remained the case had Colangelo not pushed him to help save the program. But Bryant has never been one for passing up chances at history. The opportunity to be remembered as one of the men responsible for fixing USA Basketball was too important to ignore.
Bryant was fantastic throughout the Olympics, but his impact was most felt in the Gold Medal Game against Spain. That marked the first time all tournament that the Redeem Team was tested. With just eight minutes left, Team USA was desperately clinging to a two-point lead and needed on-court leadership to finish the job.
Spain had a number of former, current and soon-to-be NBA players on its roster — most notably Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro and Ricky Rubio — and all of them were giving Team USA fits. The once-fluid Team USA offense that had thrived off ball movement and fast breaks was stagnating.
That’s when Bryant decided it was time to throw the rest of the team onto his back. He created 10 straight points with his scoring and playmaking to ward Spain off. Then, with 3:10 left on the clock and Team USA up five, Bryant received the ball on the left wing. He jabbed once, jabbed again and rose up. Fernandez bumped him and the whistle blew just as the ball whipped through the net.
Bryant raised his left pointer up to his mouth. You could hear the screams from the Team USA’s bench as the cameras panned to Kidd pumping both fists.
While Wade led the team in scoring that night, it was Kobe -- the elder statesman who finally agreed to represent his country under Colangelo’s leadership -- who carried the team through the last leg with 13 fourth-quarter points. Redemption was complete.
It had been years since the NBA’s stars had put so much effort into taking home the Olympic Gold. There were six no-brainer Hall of Famers on that team in Bryant, James, Wade, Kidd, Anthony and Chris Paul, along with six other NBA players that willingly sacrificed something, be it shots, minutes or a starting spot.
The Redeem Team made it clear that the United States could beat other countries playing their international game. More importantly, it signaled that stars like Melo and LeBron are now proud to represent their country and eager to honor all those who had done so before them.
A few minutes after receiving his gold medal, LeBron made his way over to the sidelines to find NBC broadcaster Doug Collins. In 1972, Collins had been part of the United States’ Olympic basketball team that lost on a controversial (and possibly corrupt) last-second basket to the Soviet Union. Collins and the rest of the team protested the outcome and refused to attend the medal ceremony. To this day, they’ve yet to claim their silver medals.
Before leaving for Beijing, Krzyzewski asked Collins to speak to his players. The talk resonated with many and so LeBron, upon being handed his medal, approached Collins, embraced him and draped his gold medal around his neck. The rest of Team USA was right behind.
"We feel like you're a big part of this," James said to Collins. "Thanks for what you did for us."
The next generation of Team USA stars will say the same thing about the Redeem Team.
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