Five-ring Circus

Dunks, Mom, and Apple Pie

The marketing genius of USA Basketball’s “Redeem Team.’

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Kobe Bryant in the U.S.-Australia Olympics basketball game

On Aug. 11, USA Basketball formally sought to trademark the nickname “Redeem Team,” including, in its application, a list of 64 pieces of apparel that might one day incorporate the phrase. Among them: Redeem Team hosiery; Redeem Team basketball shoes and Redeem Team basketball sneakers; Redeem Team aprons; Redeem Team undergarments; Redeem Team beach coverups, Redeem Team bathing suit coverups, and Redeem Team bathing suit wraps; Redeem Team bikinis and Redeem Team tankinis; Redeem Team “baby bibs not of paper”; and, of course, the Redeem Team “novelty headwear with attached wigs.”

This has been the story all along with the so-called Redeem Team, which has vivisected the field in Beijing, including a 101-81 dismantling of Argentina on Friday morning. The Americans have played brilliantly, bird-dogging the ball, breaking out into transition, and shooting opponents out of their zone defenses. The Redeem Team’s greater triumph in these Games, though, has been one of marketing, branding, and message discipline. With assistance from Nike, which partnered with NBA Entertainment to make a five-part Team USA documentary called “Road to Redemption,” USA Basketball has relentlessly peddled the notion that this new bunch has embraced the virtuous and selfless habits of international ball. The New York Times helpfully called it an “extreme makeover,” a clean break with the Dream Teams of recent vintage, which, to hear everyone tell it, had John Wayne Gacy running point and the Bloods and the Crips coming off the pine. “We needed to change the culture,” said Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball.

If you believe any of that talk, I have a genuine Redeem Team tankini to sell you. Surely, by now no one reckons USA Basketball (the governing body that selects and manages the American Olympic team) to be anything but the NBA wrapped in an American flag. (Those with lingering doubts will please note that the preceding clothing list also appears verbatim, right down to the novelty headwear, in the bid by Sonics owners, since dropped, to trademark the name “Oklahoma City Supersonics.” They will also note that NBC plays John Tesh’s old NBA theme music during every game.) USA Basketball may stress its newfound adaptability to the international game, and the players may once again pose for post-game photos with their opponents (just like 1992, only this time choreographed by a film crew from NBA Entertainment), but in reality this has precious little to do with spreading global goodwill. From here, at least, these gestures look a lot more like signal flares sent up by the NBA to appease its allegedly disgruntled fans back home.

It’s not as if the players’ images need any buffing abroad. Right now, there is amateur video on YouTube of Kobe Bryant eating french fries in the Olympic Village; at last check, it’s been watched just south of 25,000 times. When Bryant tried to take in a U.S. women’s basketball game recently, he was mobbed by Chinese fans along the steps of the stadium and barely made it out of the scrum with his smirk intact. His jersey, we’ve been told time and again, is the top seller in China, outranking even Yao Ming’s. (His unruly popularity in the Middle Kingdom may not be as mystifying as it seems. A friend in Beijing says that the idea of Kobe as the next MJ, having long ago been dismissed stateside, still resonates thereabouts, especially in TV commercials.) The team was even swarmed at a side entrance to the Great Wall, of all places. It’s a funny quirk of Americans. We need foreigners to remind us of our occasional native genius, like the Rolling Stones with the blues or Jerry Lewis with the French.

Of course, the sporting press now judges the character of an athlete by the kabuki he performs in front of a television camera. And in that respect, the Redeem Team has been especially brilliant. The whole team sounds alike, which is no mean feat for a group that includes the genuinely funny Chris Bosh and Bible-thumpers like Dwight Howard and Michael Redd. In post-game interviews, they all take great pains to mention defense and ball movement and, in an occasional flight of fancy, the glory of hearing your own anthem from the medal stand. They talk about the rest of the Olympics, about hanging with the karate guys. They have made a point of being seen at other events: NBC’s cameras have caught Jason Kidd at beach volleyball, LeBron and Kobe at the Water Cube.

The media have swallowed it whole. As one typical column put it: “The big names signed on—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade—and they checked their egos at the door. Jerry Colangelo built the team and Mike Krzyzewski, a college coach, molded it. By the time they came to Beijing, they were a dedicated unit determined to show the world not just that American NBA players are the best in the world, but also that they’re not the self-centered, spoiled brats that many people thought they were.”

This is all Colangelo’s handiwork. He has made a few substantive reforms. Upon taking the helm of USA Basketball in 2005, he required his carefully selected group of players to make a three-year commitment to the team, thereby allowing for more continuity and more practice time than in years past. He also wisely jettisoned the 2004 Team USA coach, Larry Brown, who still doesn’t get nearly enough criticism for his and his squad’s surly and indifferent performance in Athens. Yes, the team was a collection of mismatched parts—Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury pounding the air out of ball in the same backcourt—but Brown threw the match in the barrel of gasoline. Among many things, he inexplicably benched LeBron James, the American player who best embodies the supposed international ethic of all-around play, thought to be a lost art in the NBA by people who haven’t watched a game since the Reagan administration. (Seeing Argentina’s Carlos Delfino fire away like some World B. Free of the Pampas should force everyone to rethink the international-equals-unselfish stereotype.)

Otherwise, Colangelo’s true accomplishment has been to sell the ridiculous idea that his team comes from a finer moral stock. Colangelo, who personally interviewed prospective players (and an unctuous plutocrat who represents his country far more obnoxiously than Derrick Coleman ever did), speaks fondly of his meeting in 2005 with guard Michael Redd. It seems that Redd, having driven from Milwaukee to Chicago, came into the executive’s hotel room wearing sweatpants but carrying a garment bag. He excused himself, went to the bathroom, and emerged in a suit. “Pretty darn impressive,” Colangelo has said of the interview. “In that kind of setting … you find out a lot about individuals.”

Which explains the anointing of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. The sort of taskmaster who tends to grate on professional players, he is nevertheless perfectly tailored to Colangelo’s purposes. Where Chuck Daly, coach of the original Dream Team, was a sort of genial uncle to a group of veterans that needed little guidance (and famously, not a single timeout), Krzyzewski and his towering persecution complex are well-suited to the kind of young players who masochistically self-identify as the Redeem Team.

More importantly, Krzyzewski telegraphs to the American audience a deep seriousness about Playing Basketball the Right Way (though LeBron’s presence alone should be all anyone needed), not to mention a former West Point cadet’s more muscular sense of patriotism. “Coach K and I were having dinner last summer and talking about ways to connect this team with America,” Colangelo told the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith. “We talked about engaging ourselves [with the military]: Can this become their team? America’s team? It seemed like a natural.”

And it’s worked. Both men, with help from Nike and the players themselves, have managed to sell the spurious idea that Team USA is a Boy Scout troop in basketball shorts: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. They sold this Redeem Team stuff so hard that a man in St. Cloud, Fla., named Tony Fletcher got it into his head to trademark the phrase, apparently a few hours before the thought occurred to USA Basketball. “I kept hearing Redeem Team all the time,” Fletcher told me. He is now looking to partner with an apparel company.