EITHERn August 15, 2004, the United States suffered sporting humiliation, on the most global stage. At the Olympic Games in Athens, Puerto Rico defeated the US men’s basketball team, 92-73, in the first game of the preliminary round. For the first time, the US men’s team lost in Olympic competition while outfitting NBA players; Professionals such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson first played in the 1992 Olympics for the Dream Team. A dozen years later, the likes of Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, and a very young LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, were getting crushed.
The United States would lose two more games, to Lithuania and Argentina, during that Olympic tournament and finish with a bronze. After that embarrassment, USA Basketball reformed its national men’s program. Jerry Colangelo took over as managing director, Mike Krzyzewski became coach, and they set out to build a true national team. Kobe Bryant, James, Wade and other stars bought: Their request to win back the gold medal during the 2008 Beijing Olympics is the subject of a new documentary, the redemption teamnow streaming on Netflix.
TIME caught up with Wade, a key member of the 2008 Olympic team and current minority owner of the Utah Jazz, to talk about the film, highlights of the Redeem Team’s road to gold, and basketball’s latest sensation: French teenager Victor Webanyama, who shone in recent games while playing in the US, is sure to be the top pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
Not to upset the 2004 Olympic team, but that experience was formative: Team Redeem was looking to avenge the poor performance in Athens. What was the low point for you in 2004?
Wade: I was just talking about this with Melo. [Carmelo Anthony] at a screening last night. Just getting the bronze medal and watching Argentina celebrate. Just seeing the joy. That was a happiness and a joy that you don’t really get to see. These guys grew up together. You realize how much it meant. And so I remember. It’s in my brain, seeing them celebrate and jump. It hurts much.
That moment for me will never go away. Even now. We won [in 2008]. But I still remember that moment. It meant more to them. We looked at it and said, OK, I want to feel that.
In 2008, we did a cover story for the Trade Team, centered around LeBron James. I asked you and Kobe Bryant to describe LeBron’s personality. They both replied, “Strong.” Does any example stand out, from that time, from LeBron’s volume?
He appears in small moments in the documentary. I think people also have to understand, when you look at the document, you’re looking at a 19-year-old LeBron at one point, and a 22-year-old LeBron at another point. This is a young, young boy. You watch his vocality on the court, how he talks to his guys, how he talks to his teammates… people don’t do that. People don’t really talk on the pitch. They just play.
He’s a conductor, right? At an early age. He never shut up, which is great. And then off the field. As he said in the document, Kobe needs to laugh too. He likes to have fun. He wants to be accepted. So he does a great job at the Olympics of knowing how to use his comedic timing and his jokes. He always took advantage of those moments, whenever he was calm, to make jokes. He does starting lineups with other voices. Whether he was on the ground or on the bench of the bus, he was always coming at that time. I’m sure he is very different now, as he gets older. But when he was young, he only had that engine.
(From left to right) Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant in ‘The Redeem Team’
Courtesy of Netflix
Another striking moment of the documentary was seeing the joint interviews of LeBron and Kobe Bryant from that time. What goes through your mind emotionally now when you see them together?
You’re looking at two guys who are polar opposites. They couldn’t be more opposite, in many ways. But the resemblance is the greatness that both carry inside. The demand to be great, which requires those around them, if they have it, to be great.
There is more than one way to do it. It’s not just Kob’s style, it’s not just Bron’s style. There are many ways to achieve the success you want for yourself and your teammates. I remember being there when they were going to do that interview. You have to understand, they didn’t have much interaction outside of being competitors at the time. And back then there was a lot of talk about who was better, the young LeBron or the old Kobe. None of us had seen the interview. It wasn’t like they were coming to show us off. I think the first time a lot of people will see this is now.
It was one of those moments where we all thought, man, we all hope it turns out the way it should. Not that they had beef. It was what the media was building. We know the competitor that Kobe is. We know what Bron is trying to accomplish. And a lot of it is you have to take that guy off his throne to be called the best in the game. That’s what I look at when I watch that interview.
The film also covers your personal journey on this team: you got hurt before the Olympics. There were questions about whether he could be rehabilitated in time to play. Why did you try so hard here?
For ’04. I was part of it now. And in 2006, we lost again, in the World Cup in Japan. I took some hard L’s back to the States. I was embarrassing.
It’s one thing to lose in the NBA Finals. It’s okay to lose to Dirk [Nowitzki], Jason Kidd and all those guys. But when you’re losing to guys nobody knows, these are faceless players to a lot of people. It has an embarrassing effect. And now in 2007 I got injured, I’m there in Vegas, I’m watching the team [in Olympic qualifying] and I see them win and I’m happy for them. But now I’m starting to feel a bit left out.
I worked hard to be part of the team because I wanted to win a gold medal. I wanted to redeem us as a team, but also at that time in my life I wanted redemption for myself. Many people said that it was over for me. They said I was going to have the injuries that Anfernee Hardaway had. Or even though she had a great career, T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] was hit with injuries, and they said I was going to be that guy. I needed to go out and tell a different story.
There has always been talk, in basketball circles, that Mike Krzyzewski likes to swear. The documentary showed that he wasn’t afraid to drop some F-bombs. Did his propensity for foul language surprise you?
[Laughs]. In the words of Coach K, I was very surprised.
I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have been surrounded by coaches all my life. When you’re in competition, you’re not looking for the right word. You are looking for the word that is going to put the emphasis on something. Coach K, I was dropping them. And I was like, “Oh, I like this guy.” He was just being himself. I think it was because we didn’t know much about Coach K. You see the wins, the smile, the bowl cut when he was younger. Then I got to experience the man, and the man is intense. And it was a little surprising, but it was a nice surprise, coming from an intense organization like the one I come from.
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony in ‘The Redemption Team’
Courtesy of Netflix
Another surprise from the documentary was Kobe Bryant absolutely beating his then-LA Lakers teammate Pau Gasol on a screen in a preliminary round game against Spain. I had forgotten about all that. How did they not expel Kobe?
In fact, they allow you to get very physical in a play abroad. That’s something that struck me when I first got there. Because you hear this notion that foreign players are soft. You realize once you get there, they are not soft but very skilled. I got away with a couple of hits. And people got away with a couple of jabs at me over the years. It was a different game. And Kobe knew it. In that game, because it wasn’t a gold medal game, I don’t think he even thought about it, or even cared. He was trying to send a statement. We are coming for you. He was showing us that this is not my brother. All my brothers.
Do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes story from your time with the trade team?
It’s going to be a bit selfish. I never really talk about it much. She was coming off injuries, but she was a star in the league. At the time, I felt like he was one of the top three players in the league, with LeBron and Kobe. So one of the moments that was important to me, and it showed a lot about our team, was when Coach K and I talked about me coming off the bench. He was still the third best player on the team. And possibly, at times, I thought he was one.
Kobe came to me right after practice. I wasn’t down. I was just like, I have to figure this out. Coming off the bench, how am I going to do this? Kobe came up to me and said, “Okay, so when we’re in the game together, and he completely passed me coming off the bench,” he said, “Me, when you and I play together, I’m going pick up 94 feet. And when I answer, I’m going to turn my guy, and I want you to come through the passing lanes. And if you watch any of that, you’ll see me running through the passing lanes to steal. And a lot of it was because Kob he let me know.
Think about it. He is the champion. He is the 30 year old. I am the youngest. He knew my strength. And he let my strength shine, knowing he was coming off the bench. So that gave me a lot of confidence. That’s one of my favorite stories that I never really talk about much. That is leadership.
And that talk paid off: In the gold medal game against Spain, he scored 27 points off the bench, helping the team to a 118-107 victory. Very quickly before you go: have you been able to see the 18-year-old French sensation, Victor Wembanyama? What do you think about him?
I don’t know how much I can comment on Victor, because I own the NBA. Obviously we’re all fans, and everyone loves the potential of these young guys and all that, but I don’t know how much I can comment.
I see. So I can’t ask you about Utah’s interest in him, wink wink.
The whole league has an interest in, what did ‘Bron call it, an alien?
Yes, an alien.
Why wouldn’t everyone be interested in him? And obviously the teams that are going to have the best opportunity [to get him] it’s going to be the teams that aren’t as good as the Golden State Warriors, right? But everyone has an interest in something we have never seen.
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