On August 24, 2008, the Beijing Olympics ended with fireworks, a closing ceremony as lavish as the one that opened it 16 days before and the Olympic torch being handed to the next hosts, London. London mayor Boris Johnson was there to take the mantle from his Beijing counterpart, Guo Jinlong. China’s coming out party to the world was officially over. The real climax to the Games was several hours earlier in the Wukesong Indoor Stadium where the “Redeem Team” had indeed gained redemption, thanks to much bigger household names than even the 30 heads of state that would be in attendance at the “Bird’s Nest” that night. The US men’s basketball team were so named as a play on words for the original Michael Jordan-led “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and because of the disappointment in Athens in 2004 and the FIBA World Championships two years later. If you could see the twinkling in Beijing’s night sky at the closing ceremony because of the anti-pollution measures put in place for the Games, there was no doubt who the real stars were: the NBA elite, including Kobe Bryant and a 23-year-old LeBron James, who were mobbed everywhere they went by Chinese fans and fellow Olympians. They romped to Olympic gold, beating Spain 118-107 in the final and making up for the poor showing four years earlier – one which featured four of the same players in Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony and James. Wade would be the team’s top scorer in Beijing, while James, who warmed the bench in Athens as a 19-year-old, called the shots. Time described him as “the voice of the team” in a pre-Games profile. “It’s the gold, or it’s failure,” he told them ahead of the Games and he was as good as his word. Their achievement was parallel to the original Dream Team in 1992, the first time the NBA agreed to send professionals to an Olympics, and arguably even more high profile as China watched on. The Redeem Team played the hosts in their opening game, taking on a team led by Yao Ming, China’s flag carrier at the opening ceremony and the 2002 NBA Draft’s No 1 pick. This was a key moment in the NBA’s success in China, with hundreds of millions said to have tuned in to watch James, Wade and Bryant, as much as the Houston Rockets centre – their jerseys all outsold Yao’s on the official China store that year. The NBA’s success ran unstymied until October 2019 when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters, putting the 40-year relationship between the league and China under strain. James has been criticised for his own response to that, which is still being brought up as the NBA’s relationship with China becomes ever more politicised. Interestingly, he was criticised for his attitude towards China before the Beijing Games. In 2007, Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Ira Newble called on the team to sign an open letter to the Chinese government asking how it could host an Olympics while it “remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction in Sudan”, where the Darfur crisis was ongoing. Only James and the Li-Ning sponsored Damon Jones refused, the first NBA player to sign with a Chinese shoe company. James, who had two China-only signature shoes by then, took the flak – “the Chinese buy sneakers too,” as Time put it. China buys sneakers, too – why NBA and players cannot escape politics The non-signing got even more attention as it took place as the NBA Finals between the Cavs and the San Antonio Spurs tipped off. By 2008, James was more comfortable speaking up on Darfur to ESPN, while Bryant had recorded a PSA on the issue. Some 12 years on both players remain hugely popular in China, with Bryant, who would have been 42 on Sunday, widely mourned on his death in January. Wade signed a lifetime deal with Li Ning, while Dwight Howard remains a regular visitor to the country. Former Rocket Howard, now James’ teammate at the Lakers, refused to be drawn on the Morey issue when asked earlier this year. Ahead of the Lakers' first matchup with the Rockets, Dwight Howard did not want to talk about the last time these two franchises interacted, when Houston executive Daryl Morey's tweet set off an international firestorm while the Lakers were in China: pic.twitter.com/K8cdwFnlCY — Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) January 17, 2020 Politics aside, the 2008 team’s on-court legacy is clear. They were awarded the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, the first time a team had been given the award, for returning the US men’s team back to their throne. It might be basketball’s biggest moment in history but even they admit they were not its greatest team. Both James and Bryant thought it was the 2012 London Olympics squad – and said as much in the lead-up to London. The members of the 1992 Dream Team, who were inducted to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2010, laughed off such claims. Jordan actually laughed when he spoke to Associated Press at the time, while Larry Bird joked that the 2012 team should win. “They probably could,” Bird said. “I haven't played in 20 years and we’re all old now.” Larry Bird on whether current Olympic team could beat Dream Team: "They probably could. I haven't played in 20 years and we're all old now." — Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) July 12, 2012 Joking apart, the 2008 team might not be the 2012 team in the eyes of its own players, or able to beat the 1992 Dream Team, but they might have been the most important in allowing the NBA to dream of China. The NBA-China relationship is something that many would like to see redeemed right now.