Say “dream team” and most Americans will think of the 1992 American Olympic basketball team – the first to include active NBA players. But there was another dream team – from Lithuania – on the court that year, and director Marius Markevicius tells their story in The Other Dream Team.
That team was tangible and triumphal evidence of the Lithuanian people’s dream come true: the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet state.
The Lithuanian love affair with basketball began in 1939, when they hosted the European Championships. The game became a national passion and remained so even after the Russians forcibly annexed the country in 1944 – and later forcibly drafted several Lithuanian players for the 1988 Russian Olympic team.
Arvydas Sabonis (described by Bill Walton as “a 7’3” Larry Bird”) is a principal narrator in this film. Sabonis had a personal reason for wanting the Russians out of his country: in 1986, he was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, but was not allowed to leave the country.
The 1988 Russian Olympic team – including four Lithuanians in the starting five – beat the USA for Olympic gold. They were Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius, all from the city of Kaunas, and all shown and interviewed here.
Sabonis discusses team life as a Russian player, including being paraded past Lenin’s tomb for “motivation” and being followed everywhere when on tour by two “minders” (one surely from the KGB). There is footage of Marciulionis reading a speech “full of lies” which he was forced to do on pain of not going to the Olympics and of trouble for his wife, who was graduating from the university at the time.
Contrast this with 1991, after Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet state, when the Russians tried to salvage their Lithuanian satellite with tanks and artillery. But Vytautas Landsbergis, who “was possessed of great balls of brass and he played them musically and well,” called for the people to assemble en masse. They did, and the Russians withdrew.
“I am not standing in a mob,” said a bystander. “I am standing in a nation.”
That paved the way for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when the Lithuanian team (with financial backing from the Grateful Dead) marched proudly into the stadium sporting wildly tie-dyed t-shirts in Lithuania’s colors.
That Lithuanian team did not beat the USA, but they won something more important: they defeated the Russian Unified team for the bronze. Archival footage alternates with contemporary shots and with the story of Jonas Valanciunas, a current Lithuanian NBA prospect.
Basketball is, after all, just a game – except when it becomes the symbol of a nation’s independence. The Other Dream Team is both an exceptional and exceptionally inspiring film.