USA Basketball was at its nadir in the early aughts after losing to Argentina in the 2002 FIBA World Championships and again in the 2004 Olympics, where they also suffered an L to Puerto Rico before finishing with the bronze medal. It was the first time Team USA had failed to win gold since NBA players were allowed to represent their country, and the poor showing led to Jerry Colangelo's dramatic makeover to return Team USA to preeminence. Kobe Bryant would have a starring role in that plan.
There are a lot of anecdotes about the team, by way of a new piece from Bleacher Report, especially as Kobe got to know the new crop of NBA stars—Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony—on the precipice of taking over the league when Kobe was in his prime.
That summer coincided with Bryant's defeat in the 2008 NBA Finals, despite the mid-season acquisition of Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. (The trade was considered so much of a coup at the time that Gregg Popovich complained about it.)
Bryant had an opportunity on the very first play in the preliminary stage of the 2008 Summer Olympics to send a message to his still wet-behind-the-ears teammates, as well as his new Spanish partner on the Lakers. Right after the tip against Spain, Bryant noticed Pau about to set a screen to spring sharpshooter Rudy Fernandez behind the arc. That's when he let his USA teammates and Pau know just what it takes to be a champion:
"He knows me, man," Bryant said about it, per Bleacher Report. "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."
Pau wasn't the only one who received Bryant's message loud and clear. "The first play of the game he ran through the chest of Pau Gasol and got a flagrant," LeBron previously recalled to Cleveland.com. "I was like, 'Yeah, this guy is on another level.'
"Yeah. I loved it," James continued. "I mean, he wasn't my teammate, but I was like, you guys can find that clip and you'll see what I'm talking about. It was one of the first plays of the game. 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."
Head over to Bleacher Report to read the full piece on Bryant and the "Redeem Team."