/ 19 November 2022

One Documentary, Two Takes: The Redeem Team

The Redeem Team Creditioc Courtesyofnetflix Pho10278095 Foreditorialuseonly
Leap of faith: A scene from The Redeem Team, a documentary about the US basketball’s journey to victory at the 2008 Olympics. Photo: John Huet/Netflix/IOC

Netflix’s The Redeem Team is the ultimate dream-team film, following the journey of the 2008 United States Olympic basketball squad to bringing home a gold medal after an embarrassing loss to Argentina at the 2004 games. 

The documentary features interviews with some of the best-known figures in basketball, including Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Those with late basketball legend Kobe Bryant add a bittersweet touch as you are reminded of  his impact. Bryant had the drive, determination and wit needed to sustain a lasting career in the competitive and performance-driven sport. 

Directed by American TV producer Jon Weinbach, the documentary starts with a series of interviews and scenes from previous Olympic Games showing the American team’s losses in 2000 and 2004. There is a scene where you witness the disappointment and frustration on Anthony’s face as that final bell buzzes in 2004 to mark the loss of yet another Olympic tournament. 

Just a clip before, we see Anthony telling journalists in the locker room there’s a lot of pressure for them to redeem themselves. These scenes set you up for the comeback by the US team, which you anticipate after feeling the pressure Anthony talks about through the sports round-up clips which describe the team as an “embarrassment” to the country. 

The team was desperate for a win like that of their predecessors Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who took home gold at the Olympics in 1992. You can imagine what a blow it was to players like Anthony and Wade to be part of a losing team and that’s what the documentary captures. 

But, like any story of triumph, there is someone who changes the trajectory of the narrative and in this case it is coach Mike Krzyzewski, who becomes the man who takes the team to success, with Bryant as the leader. Often referred to as “Coach K”, he gained a reputation for being a grouchy and mean person in the basketball world. He did, however, train the 2008 team to success. 

The real star of the show is Bryant. At one point in The Redeem Team Krzyzewski leaves an article taped to Bryant’s locker detailing how Argentinian Manu Ginóbili was the best shooter in the world. It made the player more determined and driven than ever. You witness his can-do attitude and the power of his self-determination and drive, making this documentary somewhat of an ode to Bryant’s legacy in basketball. 

Although this documentary will be enjoyed by basketball fans, the message of resilience and the triumph of willpower make it worth watching for anyone. — Bongeka Gumede

The thread running through Jon Weinbach’s The Redeem Team begins and ends with Argentina. It is the South American nation’s Olympic basketball team that is responsible for the fall of the US team in Athens 2004. The next four years are dedicated to an intensive programme designed to return the Yanks to the pinnacle of the sport they invented by the Beijing games.

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were rookies in the team that embarrassed a nation and it is their perspective that anchors the redemptive plot. Carmelo Anthony shares in their ignominy as the under-utilised bench of a spluttering team, haphazardly spliced together without concern for strategy and team chemistry. Veterans ignore youth and vice versa in a generational rift that results in players playing for themselves.

To kill the egos, coach James Krzyzewski is onboarded. An egalitarian culture of hard work takes root at the core of the group, whose reputation as work-shy prima donnas stubbornly clings to them through the preparation cycle. Visits from military personnel organised by Coach K illustrate the meaning of national service to the sports millionaires.

The individual talents of the NBA stars are nationalised under the militaristic reserve of a taskmaster who is at odds with the hagiographic tone pervading this production. Krzyzewski’s pragmatism disabuses his players of any egotistical notions they might carry into camp. 

The late arrival of Kobe Bryant’s black mamba-mindset obliterates any remaining complacency. Days off are to tour the town and enjoy the nightlife, until returning revellers bump into Kobe in the foyer on his way to lift weights before scheduled training. From there on the team culture changes, because no one wants to be the slacker who is pointed at when the chips are down. Training before practice becomes a ritual for the players, shamed into it by one bloody-minded veteran.

The Kobe effect is appropriately lionised by the documentary’s supporting cast, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer. Critical insight you will not find here but watch for the thigh-slapping anecdotes instead. Also unwelcome are inquiries about Kobe’s post-mortem — the tragic figure’s death is not permitted to kill the redemptive vibe. In fact, so dedicated is his screen time you could be forgiven for thinking Bryant was alive and well. 

The closest we get to a tribute is the former teammate Pau Gasol appearing for his interview in a Bryant T-shirt. That is not to say there is any disrespect to Kobe’s memory; the place for eulogies is not here. The Redeem Team just happens to be an unashamedly feel-good story. — Lumumba Mthembu