The way Mike Krzyzewski tells it, “the world had a lot of confidence in playing the United States” when his tenure began as head coach of the U.S. men’s national basketball team. The mystique of the Dream Team was gone, erased by the fearless generation of international talent that the 1992 squad had inspired. Three losses in the 2004 Summer Olympics hastened Krzyzewski’s hiring; even then, the U.S. lost to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
That all changed when Kobe Bryant entered USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas.
There are many reasons why the 2008 U.S. men’s national team is still remembered so fondly, 10 years after winning a gold medal against Spain at the Beijing Olympics. There was a group of young players that has since changed the face of basketball. There was the cast of veterans who counteracted the European style of play and popularized the pace and space of today’s NBA. But Bryant was the match that lit the so-called “Redeem Team” afire.
“He doesn’t f— around,” says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, an assistant under Krzyzewski on the last three Olympic gold medal-winning teams. “He doesn’t care if it’s summer, winter, fall or spring. He does not take any prisoners. That’s what you’re looking for as a coach.”
Bryant set that tone in his first Team USA game at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship.
“He’s a killer. He comes out to kill people. He was up 40 points pressing some poor kid from Venezuela,” adds Boeheim, referring to Greivis Vasquez, who carved out a seven-year NBA career. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I don’t care. If he’s out there, I’m coming after him.’ It’s just the way he is. He goes after it. He’s super over-the-top, all-time competitive. Him and [Michael] Jordan are the two guys I’ve seen who come to kill you. They don’t come to play.”
A month removed from his Los Angeles Lakers losing the 2008 Finals to the Boston Celtics, when most players would be easing back into game shape after an extended vacation, Bryant returned to Las Vegas with the same drive that carried him to two more NBA titles.
“He comes into breakfast on the first day of practice with ice on his knees,” says Chris Bosh. “I figured I was going to get up early, get breakfast, start stretching, and he already had ice on his knees. So, automatically, you saw that focus and how much he pushes himself. He beat me to the gym, and he had just finished playing. I had been off for three months. … That showed me this guy really wants to be the best. People were making it a big deal that LeBron [James] is next, if not now, and he’s the new guy. But Kobe still had a lot to prove.”
Lessons learned from Team USA’s 2004 and 2006 losses
The lesson from 2004 for Krzyzewski was that the U.S. had to reimagine its team-building practices. “We didn’t have a culture for USA Basketball,” he says, “and we didn’t have an infrastructure to build on.” Adding Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to holdovers James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony formed a core that could grow together in a system. They were all still in their early twenties, and it showed against Greece in 2006.
“After that loss, it was humbling and, to be quite frank, it was embarrassing,” Bosh says. “But sometimes you have to have that embarrassment to make things a little more special.”
Krzyzewski discovered a new lesson beyond the need for collective growth. The Greeks ran a high screen-and-roll on almost every trip down the floor, and the Americans had no answer. So, Team USA sought help from veterans Jason Kidd and Tayshaun Prince, who showed why they would respectively hold NBA head-coaching and front-office positions by age 40.
Mike D’Antoni was an assistant under Krzyzewski, and Kidd was tasked with bringing the then-Phoenix Suns coach’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense to life on Team USA. “You know D’Antoni,” Prince says. “Any time somebody had the ball, he was like, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’”
Kidd was named captain, and even though he only played the first handful of minutes of each half, he set a pace that reserve guards Paul and Deron Williams were eager to sustain. Just as Kidd was an extension of D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy, serving up seminars on relentlessness to the next generation’s point god, Prince — four years removed from winning a title with the Detroit Pistons — filled a similar role on the defensive end.
“Whenever we were going through a scouting report defensively,” Krzyzewski says, “after I’d say something, I’d kind of look at [Prince] to get his approval, because he was so smart.”
Prince carried enough cachet that when he pulled Bryant aside, Kobe listened. Bryant was so used to playing patiently in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, dissecting opponents before methodically working his way to whatever spot he wanted, that he played that way out of habit in the 2008 preliminary rounds, even in the face of a 2-3 zone stacked against him.
“Out of anybody on our team, those international guys, no matter who we played against, all them dudes wanted to guard Kobe,” says Prince. “That was their guy. They looked up to him, and every time he got the ball, there were two or three guys around him.”
Prince told Bryant to play faster, and later in the tournament, Bryant made his moves a little quicker. The game began to open up for him.
“He don’t have to give me no credit for that, though,” jokes Prince.
Dwyane Wade and the underrated Redeem Team stars
Wade headlined a host of unheralded performances, averaging 16 points in 19 minutes and wreaking havoc in transition, where “we’d just throw him lobs right and left,” says Prince.
“As a sixth man or someone coming off the bench, I don’t think anyone in my five [Team USA] championships did that better than Dwyane Wade,” says Krzyzewski. “He kind of set the example for that in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.”
Adds Boeheim: “He might’ve been our best player. He was phenomenal.”
Prince called Bosh “our most important player,” because he allowed the U.S. to switch everything on defense, a strategy the Golden State Warriors have since popularized. This was the counter to Greece’s high screens and the blueprint often employed against them.
“Dwight had a hard time chasing out to those big fives who could shoot the basketball,” says Prince, “so when he would come out and we would put Bosh in, we could just switch pick-and-roll. … When we put Bosh in at the five, we had so many different variables that we could do from a defensive perspective, and he was the big cog in our defensive style.”
And there was Olympics Melo, a prolific NBA shooter who turned efficient scorer on the global stage.
“He played great in all three Olympics,” says Boeheim, who coached Anthony to the 2003 NCAA championship during Anthony’s lone year at Syracuse. “He fit his role and just did what he does — make shots and score. Hopefully, he can get that in Houston this year.”
The masterstrokes of Mike Krzyzewski
Prince called Krzyzewski “a master motivator.” Bosh remembers the coach bringing a war veteran to talk to the team. The man had lost his eyesight in the line of duty and re-enlisted.
“It’s like, OK, we’re representing our country. I don’t want you to forget that. This is America,” says Bosh. “[Coach K] gives us a ‘Win one for the Gipper’ speech for the troops, and you can’t help but be pumped up about that. Those were some of my favorite parts. I looked forward every day just coming in to see what he was going to say, and I really enjoyed it.”
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and the alpha-dog title
But for all the motivation, chemistry and continuity, it still came down to talent. The Redeem Team had the two best players on the planet at the time: Kobe and LeBron. It was the first time they appeared on the same roster, and by all accounts Bryant held the upper hand in 2008, when he was a 30-year-old in his absolute prime coming off his only MVP season.
“Kobe was obviously on top, and Bron wanted to get there,” says Bosh. “We all wanted to get there.”
“I don’t know if LeBron would say this, and I’m not going to put words in his mouth,” adds Boeheim, “but I felt Kobe raised the level of everybody, especially on the defensive end. If we had a weakness in 2006, it was on the defensive end. We weren’t committed. In 2007 and 2008, we were much better there, and I think Kobe was responsible for a lot of that.”
This isn’t to say LeBron sat quietly in the backseat behind Kobe, even at age 23. His friendships with Wade, Anthony and Paul grew stronger in 2008 — “They were in the card games,” says Boeheim. “They were always together” — and there was no mistaking the leader of that next generation. LeBron’s combination of basketball ability and IQ commanded respect not just from his peers, but everyone on the roster. When he spoke, they listened.
“Even though Coach K made Jason Kidd the captain, LeBron was pretty much a captain as well,” says Prince. “Because whether it was trying to do a breakfast in the morning or go work out at the gym before practice or any of that stuff, LeBron was the guy who was calling everybody and saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing this, man, if we all want to get our chemistry together and try to get this thing rolling the right way.’ He was the guy setting things up so everybody could be together. For him to be doing that at his age at that time, it was impressive.”
Kobe took a different tact. “His mentorship was going out, playing hard all the time, putting in the work, and letting you see it,” says Prince.
A chemistry explosion could have sent Team USA home early. But the two all-time greats vying for supremacy found common ground.
“It started with those two,” says Bosh, “and just the competitive spirit with Kobe being so serious, ‘Bron starts being serious, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, damn, I’ve gotta get serious.’”
“They developed a great relationship,” says Krzyzewski. “They both did things to make it easy for their teammates to see and for me to see that they were going to get along and do what was necessary to help win the gold. In 2012, Kobe was not at the end of his career, but in the latter stages of his career, and LeBron had taken the spotlight of being probably the best player. Again, that relationship that was formed in 2008 continued. They both knew. That’s the sign of a great, special player, where you can use your talents along with another guy, and the two of them really played as one, and as a result we won two gold medals.”
But when it came down to it in 2008, this was Bryant’s team. After winning its first seven games by an average of 30 points in Beijing, including a 20-point semifinal win over Argentina’s Manu Ginobili-led golden generation, the U.S. was in a barn-burner when a Rudy Fernandez 3-pointer brought Spain within 91-89 in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game.
“That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt in international competition, and in that timeout, Kobe and the rest of these guys — but especially Kobe — said, ‘We got it,’” says Krzyzewski. “We didn’t even run a play. We got accustomed to just believing in one another. [Kobe] made a couple plays … and all of a sudden we won.
“I would not have been the coach in Istanbul in 2010 if Kobe Bryant didn’t step up there,” Krzyzewski added. “But thank goodness that we had that type of team dynamic where he felt good and the guys felt good about him stepping up. And he did.”
The Redeem Team’s lasting legacy on the NBA
Perhaps nobody got as much out of the Redeem Team experience as James. LeBron wasn’t considered a killer then. Quite the opposite, actually. But he saw firsthand how Bryant took a knife to a championship game. LeBron has since won three championships, capping his most recent one with a dagger block that sealed a 3-1 comeback victory against the greatest regular-season team in NBA history. That alone should be enough to consider him a killer.
There are still those who aren’t willing to give James his due, who discredit his two rings in Miami because he teamed up with Wade and Bosh to get them. But Krzyzewski sees it differently. He thinks the player empowerment era that LeBron ushered in, the seeds of which were sown in Beijing, has raised the level of everyone’s play and evolved the game.
“What USA Basketball has done is given these guys an opportunity to be together,” says Krzyzewski, who retired from Team USA in 2016. “They didn’t have to be the best player on the Knicks, Cavs, Heat or whatever. They were an outstanding player on a U.S. team, and they developed friendships that they may have already had, but they were done at a different level. That familiarity and friendship has helped the NBA. It’s helped basketball, and as a result, probably gave them ideas about what they might be able to do in the future.”
While the NBA’s next generation, including LeBron, arrived in Las Vegas in 2008 with the mentality that each could lead a team on his own — could be the next Kobe — they left that Team USA run having learned how well they worked together.
“Just being honest with myself, I’ve got Kobe, LeBron, Dwyane and Carmelo, I probably shouldn’t ask for any touches” says Bosh. “I found the knack for defense and talking on defense and bringing energy.” Likewise, Wade found his change-of-pace burst complemented other superstars, and LeBron commanded the room.
There was no backroom summit in Beijing to join forces in Miami in 2010. “I mean, we had each other’s phone numbers,” says Bosh. “People still ask me, and I tell them, ‘Look, I wish it was that cool, like a secret room with James Bond, but unfortunately it didn’t go down like that.’” The groundwork was laid even before 2008. James, Wade and Bosh all signed three-year rookie scale extensions instead of the five-year max that fellow Class of 2003 member Anthony signed in Denver, meaning they would hit free agency together in 2010.
While there was no pact, there’s no doubt the friendships they furthered abroad — and their experience of playing together — planted the seed for what transpired two years later.
“It was on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” says Bosh. “It started with all of us signing three-year deals instead of five-year deals, just to maintain flexibility. We were looking at it like we needed to remain flexible, and usually it’s great to lock yourself in … but at the same time in this game, you want to be flexible. You only get so many years to get something out of this game. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own now. It’s crazy now, but the game is always going to evolve. It’s always going to change. People just have to change with it.”
Take a look at the USA Basketball rosters since the Redeem Team, and it’s easy to see the bonds that have been forged by the continuity and culture Krzyzewski helped set. Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant first played together at the 2010 FIBA Worlds. Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins teamed with Curry for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. James Harden joined Paul and Anthony on the 2012 Olympic team. The lot of them are expected to battle each other in a Warriors vs. Houston Rockets Western Conference finals rematch.
“I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but looking back, every time you have a team, certain guys get closer,” says Boeheim. “That’s just the way it works during that 35 days. There’s no question bonds were formed on the Olympic team between a lot of guys over the years. Everybody has great respect for each other on those teams. They were great teams to be on. Everybody got along. It was a very unique experience, being around those teams.”
Their small-ball approach helped change the way the NBA looked, and their love of playing with each other helped change the way NBA teams looked, but the Redeem Team didn’t just transform how we view basketball on the court. There was a self-awareness that later gave way to social consciousness when James, Wade, Paul and Anthony turned in their card table for a national TV pulpit in 2016, addressing racial injustice on stage before the ESPYs.
“It was evident that they were special players,” says Prince of his 2008 experience. “There’s no doubt about that, but I just think over time those guys understood what they were doing, that they can expand it and make it even better off the basketball court. At the time, for LeBron to be a leader, to put his voice out there and try to command everybody and get the level of respect, he showed those signs at an early age. … That ’03 class not only set the tone with their talent of being one of the best five or six picks, but they definitely have set a marker of what to do, and hopefully these younger guys follow their lead.”
Where Kobe was a killer, LeBron was a uniter. Team USA doesn’t win in 2008 without Bryant, but the culture that has resulted in zero losses since that defeat against Greece has sustained because of James. The blending of those traits, and the fact that each of them set aside their egos in shared pursuit of a gold medal, left a lasting legacy of sacrifice and collective empowerment that still permeates USA Basketball and the NBA. Ten years later, the players who wear the red, white and blue have a lot of confidence facing the world.
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