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'Other Dream Team' shows a different side of Olympic basketball

August 12, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • A shot of the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team in 'The Other Dream Team'
A shot of the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team in 'The Other… (Sundance Film Festival )

As the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team takes the court for the gold medal game against Spain, the attention is inevitably on whether the LeBron James- and Kobe Bryant-led squad is the best Olympic team ever assembled.

But a potentially more historic hoops game was played at the Olympics 20 years ago in Barcelona, Spain, where the newly born independent country of Lithuania won a contest that may not have matched any American achievements on the court but resonated a lot more deeply off it.

That historic event is explored in "The Other Dream Team," Marius Markevicius' compelling documentary about the Lithuanian men's basketball squad and its politically charged run to the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics (the same Games, incidentally, that saw the debut of the so-called U.S. dream team of Magic, Larry and Michael).

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It's an improbable story. In Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, Lithuania had four of the five starters in on the gold-medal team of the Soviet Union, a country the Lithuanians saw as their oppressor and played for only under duress. When the Iron Curtain fell, the players, led by Golden State Warrior Sarunas Marciulionis  and eventual-NBAer Arvydas Sabonis, organized into their own national team.

Lacking necessary funds and facing pressure to join Russia's unified squad, the group wasn't even sure they'd be able to play at the 1992 Olympics. They wound up not only playing but took things even further, avenging half a century of oppressive Soviet rule by defeating Russia in the bronze-medal game. 

"I believe a lot of sports documentaries exaggerate the impact of a given game, but in this case it's about as authentic as it gets," Markevicius, whose movie premiered to strong reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and opens theatrically Sept. 28, said in an interview this weekend. "It was like the U.S.' 1980 'Miracle on Ice,' only if the game was in 1777 and George Washington was on the sidelines."

The filmmaker, an L.A.-born and –raised 36-year-old of Lithuanian descent who previously produced the well-regarded romantic drama "Like Crazy, tells his story with a refreshing dose of political context. Basketball long had a nationalist component in Lithuania. During the Cold War, you couldn't wave a Lithuanian flag or speak the language, but the country's No. 1 sport of basketball was allowed, and served as a kind of covert symbol of the nation’s ambitions.

The basketball history of this small Baltic country (current population: 3.2 million) dates back to the 1930s when a Lithuanian American named Frank Lubin, who was born and lived in Los Angeles, returned to his ancestral country to play for the national team, guiding them to two EuroBasket championships.

The game took further root during the Cold War, providing a pastime and an outlet for national identity during Soviet rule. (In that regard, the "other dream team" is a double entendre, referring not just to a group that offered an alternative to Bird and Magic but also furnished a different dream, one of freedom and democracy.)

To watch the documentary is to be reminded of a time that, though only 20 years ago, seems much further away, a time when the Cold War still hung in the air and national rivalries were often fraught affairs.

"What's the big blood feud of this Olympics, maybe Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte?" Markevicius said. "I don’t know, it’s probably a good sign that we don’t have rivalries on the same level today. But there was something very genuine about the kind of rivalries we had back then."

Telling details pepper Markevicius' account. The Lithuanians on the 1988 team, for instance, were so poor (they were paid about the same as factory workers) that the only way they made any money was sneaking away at foreign tournaments to buy bottles of aspirin and pairs of blue jeans they would then sell on the black market back home.

And when independence finally did come, they were able to field a team only because of some unlikely guardian angels. With their financial struggles mounting in the run-up to the Games, they landed the support of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, who saw them as representatives of a new era of political freedom.

The Dead sent them a check as well as custom-designed tie-dye T-shirts straight out of San Francisco, which the team would come to wear on the Olympic podium; even the president of the new country threw one on in the post-game locker room celebration.

Markevicius spent three years tracking down players and persuading them to speak, something they wouldn't do in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when suspicion about Russian aggression lingered. Interviews with American sports figures such as Bill Walton and Jim Lampley also pop up, putting the team in a sports and Olympic context.

Primarily, though, the director is interested in exploring how the game motivated a people still reeling psychologically and economically.

"It's not really about the bronze medal," Markevicius said. "It's about everything that it took to get the team there, and everything Lithuania felt and was able to achieve once they did. In that sense, it's about any country, any fledgling democracy with hopes and ambitions."

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