Twenty years after the world saw the U.S. men’s basketball team annihilate the competition at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the documentary The Other Dream Team arrives in theaters. Wait, you mean there was more than one dream team? Yes, and it wasn’t the American squads that came after the original incarnation. No, this “other dream team” actually competed in the same Olympics as “the” dream team, hailing from Lithuania. What’s astonishing is that the year 1992 represented the first year since 1939 where the Lithuanians competed as a sovereign nation. Russia would invade and take control of the country in 1940.
Those that remember this moment in basketball history may not be able to recall the political firestorm that led to Lithuania’s independence. What they will remember, though, is the tie-dye.
When Lithuanian became free in 1990, Russia retaliated a year later with an insurgence that left many of their countrymen dead or wounded; afterwards, the nation was so broke it couldn’t fund a national basketball team for the 1992 summer games. Thankfully they had an ally, and no it wasn’t someone with the United Nations. Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead band mates came to the rescue. The group, die-hard basketball fans, provided the Lithuanians with adequate funding to make the basketball team a reality. They also supplied them with enough red, green and yellow tie-dye t-shirts, colors that signified the flag the Lithuanians pledge their allegiance towards.
Director Marius A. Markevicius could have easily paid tribute to these tie-dyed underdogs and leave it at that. But he goes beyond the sport of basketball adding the historical context of how this dream team came to be. So it’s not only a feel-good underdog sports story, it is a lesson of independence and what it means to be free.
With a crowd-pleasing tone to start, incorporating clips from films like Rocky IV and WarGames, and using the Dead’s tune “Truckin’” as the Berlin Wall falls, we go back to 1940, with Russia’s occupation of Lithuania. The sport of basketball is what gave them some liberty. Kaunas, the second-most populist city in Lithuania, would become an Eastern Bloc basketball Mecca. The 1988 men’s Soviet team included four Lithuanians, the most of any Communist-controlled country, all whom hailed from Kaunas.
Two of those basketball prodigies would include future NBA players Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. While the Portland Trailblazers originally drafted Sabonis in 1986, he wouldn’t make his debut as a rookie until 1991 – when he was 31 years old. Both are featured heavily as talking heads guiding us through Lithuania’s upheaval to eventual sovereignty. Hearing them talk about growing up poor and their methods of making a few extra dollars when they traveled out of country to play opposing teams was eye opening. American viewers should have a newfound respect of the commercial goods they usually take for granted, as well as not having to deal with food rations.
The story of Marciulionis and the risk he took when he made the jump to the NBA is also very significant. Prior to signing with the Golden State Warriors, coincidentally a year before Lithuania gained its independence, Marciulionis was almost part of an international incident, as Ted Turner was lobbying with the Soviet government for him to play for the Atlanta Hawks. Marciulionis’ success in the NBA would see team executives look beyond colleges and universities, and outside the United States for draft prospects. This would include San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobli (Argentina), and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) of the Dallas Mavericks.
When the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team took to the court this team of millionaire professional ballers outmuscled and outmatched the best amateur players the world had to offer. But the team’s thirty- and forty-point blowouts were tiresome. Thankfully, another story was written: the Lithuanian squad facing off against the country occupying its homeland dating from World War II.
The ending of the story is as close to perfection as one could expect. The Lithuanians play their hearts out in the bronze medal game against the Unified Team (aka “Das Ruskies”). It was David vs. Goliath: The Sequel. In 1980, the U.S. men’s hockey team had their moment of glory against the Russians now it was Lithuania’s turn.
The Other Dream Team makes good use of archive footage but there is a preponderance of talking heads. It gets somewhat monotonous at times with the material, but Markevicius has an impressive list of subjects, from Basketball Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Chris Mullin to Lithuanian politicians who lived through the Soviet years. The best anecdote may be from then-Warriors GM Donnie Nelson and Marciulionis as they recall the night they met the Grateful Dead and the herbal aroma that wafted throughout the arena. Marciulionis was curious how the team would be able to play the following night in the same arena with that aroma everywhere.
The Other Dream Team could have easily been a nostalgia doc (okay, so the Lithuanian team is sporting fanny packs – it was 1992 after all, give them a break!), but Markevicius is more interested in chronicling this significant moment in Lithuania’s history. On the court these men never thought they would get wealthy putting a ball in a hoop. They played for love of their country and the game itself.
America’s team may have been a dream, but these men were heroes of the hardwood.
Director: Marius A. Markevicius
Writer: Markevicius and Jon Weinbach
Featuring: Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton, Chris Mullin and Donnie Nelson