Tie-dye shined brightest in ’92
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, October 5, 2012
“The Other Dream Team” is about Lithuanian basketball. The title may be less than creative and the bare-bones plot synopsis hardly feels compelling, yet the documentary offers a fascinating and heartfelt examination of history through the microcosm of one sport.
When the Soviet Union won the men’s basketball gold medal during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the Soviets didn’t exactly publicize that four of the starting five players were Lithuanian. Four years later the world had changed dramatically. By the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Lithuania had its own team, and after losing to the unstoppable American “Dream Team” led by Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, the Lithuanians ended up battling for the bronze against the Unified Team, an Olympic squad composed of 12 former Soviet republics. Marius Markevicius’s enthralling documentary focuses mainly on what happened in those intervening years, while also providing some context with events before and since.
Much of the film focuses on the Lithuanian players from those two teams, including Arvydas Sabonis, who was drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in 1986 -- although the government refused his request to emigrate -- and Sarunas Marciulionis, who was allowed to play for the Golden State Warriors starting in 1989. Dream Teamer Chris Mullen (Marciulionis’s Warriors teammate), basketball great Bill Walton and Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff attest to the talents of the roster of interviewees who may be more or less unknown to American film audiences.
These Lithuanian superstars often found themselves in no-win situations, politically. They were coerced into serving as Soviet mouthpieces and chaperoned by likely KGB members during international tournaments, so Americans automatically saw them as part of the Soviet machine. Footage of interviews after Sabonis’s selection in the NBA draft show Americans lamenting Portland’s choice to import communists. And when Marciulionis arrived in the States, he had to continually correct journalists who labeled him Russian.
Markevicius helpfully gives a lesson in the 20th-century history of Lithuania. The nation was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, after which many citizens were sent to Siberia. One survivor reminisces about building a regulation basketball court as a way to pass the years of his far-north exile. The film also covers the terrifying ramifications of Lithuania’s bid for independence in 1991, after which Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius. Six hundred civilians were wounded and 14 were killed.
As dark as the story can be, the film has something of a lighthearted spirit. The players, who overcame so much, remember the good times amid the bread lines and automotive dearth. After they attained independence, things weren’t necessarily easier. The cash-strapped nation almost couldn’t afford to send its basketball team to the 1992 Olympics, but in a stranger-than-fiction twist, the Grateful Dead read about the team’s travails and sponsored them. The players arrived in Barcelona in tie-dyed warm-up outfits.
The film’s minor flaw is a story line about current Lithuanian NBA player Jonas Valanciunas, which is woven throughout the movie. Markevicius clearly wants to demonstrate the lasting legacy of the trailblazing players of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the occasional interludes come off as only tangentially related and a little distracting.
But the accomplishments of the players from that 1992 team are grand enough on their own. It didn’t really matter whether the team took home a medal during the Barcelona Games; the players already had won a big victory during the Opening Ceremonies, when they did nothing but amble along behind a banner that read Lithuania.
Contains archival images of death and violence. In Lithuanian and English with English subtitles.