TThe iconic figure in American life in 2008 was Barack Obama, the one we’ve been waiting for, the hinge between eras, the basketball fan who taught America to say “yes” at the end of a horrible decade and stupid “no”. Yet such is the alienation of the world of just 15 years ago that it does not seem strange that Obama is not mentioned and does not appear on the screen in The rescue teamthe thrilling new Netflix documentary about the United States reclaiming its rightful men’s basketball gold medal in Beijing that year.
There’s a lot of psychopolitical baggage a filmmaker could heap on this Mike Krzyzewski-trained triumph. A Larry Brown-led U.S. team captained by Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan limped to the bronze medal in Athens in 2004, a national disgrace that came at the nadir of the Bush administration’s debacle in Iraq War and basketball were two things on which Americans fancied themselves the undisputed world leader, but the Argentine national team and a coalition of demented jihadists had challenged the cherished myths of American superiority. Communist China, the host of the 2008 Summer Games, pointed a way forward in a world marked by rapid American decline, but Obama, and perhaps also Team USA alpha dogs Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, they showed that decline was not inevitable. that America was still dynamic enough to improve through its failures.
Director Jon Weinbach deals with none of these things, at least not directly. The larger dimensions of the story it tells emerge naturally through the film’s narrow focus on basketball. The movie never comes out and says it, but the 1992 Dream Team, the first U.S. Olympic team to include NBA players, helped usher in a seemingly limitless post-history of hegemony America, a time when our full-spectrum dominance over the entire world was a glorious inevitability. Maybe that mindset wasn’t so healthy, suggests a talking head. “We came up with the idea that just because we’re American we’re better,” says reporter Sam Smith, presenting a montage of NBA stars in red, white and blue jerseys that created the world’s smallest nations during the 1990s. But this notion was correct… is correct right? If there wasn’t some ineffable link between Americanness and basketball supremacy, the 2008 team wouldn’t have been redeeming much. And yet, as Smith rightly points out, “The Dream Team wasn’t about patriotism. They weren’t really doing it for America. They did it for the NBA”, basically for the money. The film keeps politics to a minimum, but still becomes a story about how our national sense of purpose can become clearer, sharper and less cynical at a time when we’re losing.
By showing how the Americans became winners again, The rescue team it becomes an unexpectedly intimate dual portrait of perhaps the two leading titans of 21st century basketball. One of them, Mike Krzyzewski, coached his last game earlier this year. The other, Kobe Bryant, died alongside his young daughter in a helicopter crash in January 2020, an event that a large subset of older millennials experienced as a reality-bender of sorts. “Day the Music Died,” the spectacular end to any final delusion of youth. The film represents the peak of an era that is very recent but also decisively over.
After the disaster in Athens, USA Basketball was left under the one-man control of former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who made the equally risky decision to choose a college coach to guide an all-star team of the NBA. At no point does Duke University skipper Krzyzewski, a middle-aged West Point graduate and then winner of three national championships, look the least bit outmatched by Dwyane, LeBron, Kobe or the other one-name billionaires under his charge. In team meetings, Coach K is unfailingly calm, even slightly monotone—he’s “an army coach,” as sportswriter Bill Plaschke describes him.
In the name of ultimate victory, Krzyzewski is persuading a collection of showboats sporting his name to adopt the high pick-and-roll style of the international game. He issues basketball theories that could double as theories of America itself. Don’t suppress your own NBA-sized egos, he says during a team meeting. “You need to give me the egos you have…and put it under an umbrella.” “That made sense!” Dwyane Wade exclaims, recalling the moment 15 years later. As if to highlight the psychic connection between America’s basketball dominance and our deepest self-concept, Coach K has the team learn about the “selfless service” of an Army colonel recently returned from the ‘Iraq, next to an active duty soldier who had both eyes blown out. by enemy shrapnel. “Hearing these stories, our players let their hearts open, and as a result, they became America,” recalls the current Krzyzewski.
In The rescue team, Krzyzewski’s greatness is something the mind can grasp: he unites a sage-like grasp of human psychology with an appropriately grand conception of the task at hand. In contrast to Coach K, Kobe’s greatness is in the realm of the sublime. In the film, he was remembered as terribly self-absorbed, a god who mocked mortals—the “mortals,” in this case, Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, and even LeBron James—from the pinnacle of all existence. , a place where only he belonged. Kobe has no friends, he’s a “comfortable” loner, according to Carmelo Anthony. Mere superstars seem frivolous next to him: One night, during a training camp in Las Vegas, the rest of the team returns from a night of clubbing at 5:30 a.m. to find Kobe in the lobby of his hotel, drenched in sweat from an early morning workout. By the end of the week, clubs had ceased and the entire roster was on the Laker guard’s schedule.
It would be a disservice to give away all of Kobe’s great anecdotes in this film. We’ve got the full background on the infamous body test he put on Lakers teammate Gasol in the opening minutes of an Olympic round-robin game against Spain, the still-impressive act of a truly pathological winner. That “pathological earning” is an American value is one of the unspoken assumptions of this film. Interestingly, this insatiable will to succeed is part of the reason why Americans are sometimes loved abroad. The documentary shows how in Beijing, the Chinese public treated Kobe as if he were Michael Jackson or Princess Diana, with thousands of screaming and fainting fans following him around the Chinese capital.
At the time, the crowds crowding the Team USA bus seemed like reassuring proof that Chinese society was coming under the liberalizing influence of American culture. In retrospect, the power dynamic was almost the opposite: LeBron James, now America’s leading celebrity apologist for Beijing’s exploits, must have seen Kobemania as an advance of his own business prospects in a communist dictatorship maddened by basketball (The only puzzling omission from this film is that there is no mention of the United States’ blowout of the host nation, China, in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, which, at the time, was believed to have the largest televised audience of any sporting event in history. Incidentally, LeBron James is one of the film’s executive producers.)
The rescue team it’s a satisfying look back at a great national victory, but even a historic sporting achievement turns bittersweet over time, and in less time than one might hope or expect. The film ends with Dwyane and Kobe hitting a series of odd-angled long jump shots to prevent a late Spanish comeback in the gold medal game. Every basketball fan knows this happened. Do they remember a time when it looked like the NBA would have a bigger impact on China than China would have on the NBA? For that matter, do they remember Carmelo Anthony being baby-faced as a high school freshman in 2004 and even 2008? The rescue team it’s a record for a gold medal won in a world almost far away, and for many viewers, it will be uncomfortable proof that we’re not young anymore.
Armin Rosen is a reporter from New York at large tablet