As Nate McMillan remembers it, the superstars filed into the room, one by one. It was Team USA’s first team meeting. Some of the biggest names in basketball—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony—took their seats. Many of them sat toward the back, as was customary for these kinds of talks. The assistant coaches were in the first row. Kobe Bryant, then a 29-year-old superstar guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, was perched by himself in the second row, noticeably apart from his Olympian peers, absorbing the sermon of Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Bryant had not built much of a rapport with the rest of his USA teammates yet. He missed the 2006 FIBA World Championship with an injury, and one meeting wasn’t enough to develop a deep bond. The rest of the guys chilled in the back, talking, laughing, joking and doing all the things that teammates are wont to do. “He knew them, but he didn’t know them in a sense,” McMillan says.
One reason for that was Bryant’s killer instinct. “Kobe is a guy that doesn’t allow himself to be that close with opponents,” McMillan says. “All of those guys, even though they played in All-Star Games against each other—and some of them together—he didn’t know them like that.”
After the meeting, Bryant took to the gym to get some shots in by himself. McMillan, an assistant with Team USA, approached him and volunteered to rebound for him. The two began talking—about what lay ahead at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and about Bryant and his role on Team USA. There was a dire need for unity among a team of superstars, McMillan said. For Team USA to be successful, Bryant would need to help facilitate that spirit of cohesion.
Bryant listened. Though, he admits now, he also had other things on his mind.
He was in the prime of his career—he had been brought in shortly after his historic 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors—but he was already starting to lay the foundation for his post-career life. In his spare time, he had been dedicating himself to his creative work, laying the intellectual foundation for what would eventually become his animated short, Dear Basketball, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and his first book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, which is set to be released in October.
“I have such a narrow focus,” Bryant says. “As you can see, I didn’t have much time to socialize at all, because when I wasn’t in training, I was writing, and I was studying the art of writing, of filmmaking. So my days were booked. It wasn’t like I went out of my way not to be social. I was busy preparing for what I’m doing now, so I was working around the clock.”
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That Bryant was so famously obsessive when it came to practice would prove valuable. He led Team USA to gold, imparting his “Mamba Mentality” on his teammates long before such wisdom had its own tagline. Ten years later, that performance remains as memorable as ever. And it was largely of Bryant’s doing.
The “Redeem Team” is still considered the greatest cohort of American-born basketball players assembled outside of the original 1992 Dream Team. It also was, as those who were a part of it recall, a rebirth of sorts. Kobe was turning an important corner in his personal evolution. In doing so, he helped restore USA Basketball to its global prominence.
From the moment it began using professional players in international play in 1992, USA Basketball dominated the international scene. The Dream Team, led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, obliterated its opponents at the Barcelona Olympics. Opponents occasionally lined up to secure the autographs of athletes they had only previously seen on television. For more than a decade, Team USA went undefeated in international play, winning easily in 1996 and 2000. (As did the U.S. women’s national squad.)
However, the global hoops community began catching up in 2002. The reckoning for USA Basketball came at the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis, when a talented Argentina squad led by recently retired Spurs star guard Manu Ginobili stunned the United States, 87-80. It was no fluke: Team USA suffered a humiliating defeat to lightly regarded Puerto Rico in its first game at the 2004 Olympics two years later, and it only earned a bronze medal after Argentina again triumphed in the semifinals.
“We kind of felt like when we lost in 2004, that our players in the U.S. didn’t look at the Olympics the same way that they had in the past,” says McMillan. “We had a bad rep from some of the games. People said we had attitudes. We had a bad reputation, and we wanted to bring that back. We wanted to be respected. We wanted to come across as the best in the world at this game that we were once considered.”
In 2005, USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo led a complete overhaul of the program. The goal? To assemble basketball’s version of The Avengers. He wanted to install a committed team after several key players dropped out in the lead-up to the 2004 debacle. He asked for three-year guarantees from the players. He brought in marquee talents like James and Milwaukee Bucks sharpshooter Michael Redd.
But the key was getting the buy-in from Bryant. Colangelo pitched him, asking if he would be willing to refashion himself as a distributor on Team USA. Bryant agreed. A big reason why was Krzyzewski.
Coach K, a former West Point grad, instilled in his players the importance of representing their country. He brought in military generals to speak with the players, as well as Navy SEALs, who shared some of their insights on what it meant to serve.
Bryant was taken aback by the stories of the service members. Basketball was a call to duty: “Our small way of representing the United States of America,” he recalls. “You can play for the Los Angeles Lakers, you can play for the Spurs, the Heat, the Mavs, whoever, but it’s different when you put on a USA jersey because now you’re playing for country.”
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After missing Team USA training camp in 2006 with a knee injury, Bryant made his debut the following summer while the team was preparing for the FIBA Americas Championships.
“His first day of practice when that team got together that summer, he set the tone,” Colangelo says. “The ball was up in the air, it hit the floor, and he dove for a loose ball, and there it was. That was the beginning.”
There was speculation about how Bryant would mesh with other players. “The talk was always gonna be between LeBron and Kobe?” Jason Kidd, the team’s lone 30-something-year-old, says. “Can they get along? Can the two alpha dogs coexist?”
Bryant was a bit polarizing at first. “In some ways, he was a little bit of a loner,” Colangelo says. “People didn’t really have a good read on him. People looked at him in a particular way and just kinda put him in a box.”
What helped bridge the gap between Bryant and his teammates was proximity. “In that time, we were all…in the same hotel, generally the same schedules,” Bryant says. “That’s when I got to know guys a little bit more.” Bryant woke up early to practice. And other players soon followed suit, waking up early with Bryant, adjusting to his schedule.
Wade was the first player to join. “He met me in the gym at five, and then LeBron started showing up at five, and then they all started showing up at five. And then next thing you know, most of the guys were in the gym at five getting some work in,” Bryant says.
That time in the gym built a kinship among teammates and became known as the Olympic breakfast club.
“Me and guys started getting up really early and coming in to join me in my workouts and staying late with me and shooting after, and that’s how I came to know the guys much better,” Bryant says.
With his peers’ ears, Bryant turned his focus to film study. He requested, received and reviewed footage of each national team’s primary scorers. He thought his opponents had an advantage. NBA games are easily accessible. The world could study their moves and habits.
Since there was a lack of game film to review, Bryant cautioned his teammates not to be overly confident. American athletes weren’t necessarily superior to those coming from overseas, he insisted, and the talents of their overseas counterparts were better-kept secrets. He knew this from his time on the international hoops scene.
“All the other guys are still young, right? I mean, they were extremely young, no championship experience,” Bryant says. “It was important for me to impress upon them, ‘Look, these international players can play. Just because you might not see them in the NBA doesn’t mean they don’t have the option of coming to the NBA.
“Most of them just choose to stay and play overseas, but these players can play, and if you do not pay attention, they will wear your ass out. Trust me, I know. I grew up overseas. I’ve seen all these players play, and you sit up and you just go by the eye test, you’re gonna be in deep shit. And so it was important to stress that message.”
When it came time to play in Beijing, Bryant set the tone for Team USA early on. In one of the early games against Spain, he traced Rudy Fernandez’s route to behind the three-point line and noticed Pau Gasol planted in his path, setting a screen. Gasol had recently been traded to the Lakers, and he and Bryant had reached the NBA Finals that season. While this was just a preliminary-round game, Bryant delivered a message nonetheless. He sent it with his shoulder, sending Gasol sprawling onto the court.
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“He knows me, man,” Bryant says. “I don’t play, and for us, it was important to send that message, too. We had just come off losing to the Celtics, and I wanted to send Pau a message as well in, ‘This is what you have to be willing to do in order to win titles.’ So, it was kind of a dual message, one for our team and USA and winning this game, winning this medal, but also for Pau in understanding this is the line that you have to cross in order to be a champion.”
For LeBron James, the sequence became one of his all-time favorite exhibits of Bryant’s competitiveness.
“It was one of the first plays of the game,” James told Cleveland.com in 2015. “I was like, ‘This guy’s all about winning and whoever he’s playing for or who he’s playing with at that point in time.’ He really forgot Pau was his teammate. Like, he really forgot that he was about to see him in like three weeks in L.A. I swear. It was crazy.”
Team USA swept through the preliminary round, 5-0. The Americans topped Australia in the quarterfinals, 116-85, and Argentina in the semifinals, 101-81. In the gold-medal game, the U.S. faced a Spain roster full of NBA talent, including the Gasol brothers, Ricky Rubio and others. Spain pestered the U.S. throughout the game, turning Team USA’s offense stagnant.
Down the stretch, Gasol brought Spain to within a bucket of tying the score at 91. (The drama was enough to rile Colangelo’s nerves. He moved downstairs to watch the game from the corner of the arena.) Bryant answered with a basket and followed with assists on both a Deron Williams three-pointer and a Howard dunk, but Spain rallied, closing the game to within five points. On the left wing, Bryant jab-stepped against Rudy Fernandez before rising for a three-pointer. Officials called Fernandez for a foul as the ball whistled through the net.
Another three-pointer from Wade closed the door, and Team USA won, 118-107.
“It was a lot of fun,” Kidd says. “Those guys celebrated.”
James hugged Redd. Wade pointed to the sky. Bryant turned and saluted the crowd.
“I think that the journey, I think becoming friends, teammates, understanding each other better, I thought the celebration was great afterwards,” Kidd says. “And I think from that there was a lot more respect for one another, as not just basketball players but as a person.”
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
The Lakers proceeded to win championships each of the next two years. Four years later, the U.S. claimed another gold medal in London. But what the Redeem Team did in 2008 remains the standard, and largely because of Bryant. He was able to be an alpha dog on a team of alpha dogs. But he also learned a lot from his peers.
“I think for LeBron, he benefited from Kobe, and I think vice versa,” Kidd says. “I think you can look at Kobe and everybody got better, everybody had great years that following year. ‘Melo, Chris Paul, those guys got better seeing Kobe in that light, and LeBron.”
Colangelo still looks fondly on what the Redeem Team accomplished. “One of my great joys was watching him during the time with USA Basketball, how he came out,” he says. “He was a different guy, at least perception-wise. He led. [That’s] how he fit in. It was different.
“If anyone had seen or known Kobe in his Laker days before all the Olympic stuff, that was one thing,” Colangelo adds. “I think the Olympic experience gave people a different opinion, viewpoint about Kobe, and I think the experience helped Kobe going forward.”
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams