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Movie Review: The Other Dream Team Documentary Highlights Lithuania's Basketball Team

Posted: 10/07/2012 12:47 pm

The Dream Team was the nickname for the 1992 United States men's Olympic basketball team that comprised of NBA players including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and other greats.

American journalists called them the greatest sports team ever assembled and they easily defeated all their opponents for the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Despite the spotlight on them, another basketball story during those '92 Olympics was unfolding that held much more historical and political importance. This story involved a different type of Dream Team, a team from Lithuania. This small country of only 3 million people had just recently regained independence from the former USSR and was playing for the first time as an independent country.

This Lithuanian team, funded by America's The Grateful Dead rock band, wound up competing -- and defeating -- its oppressors on the Unified team for the third place bronze, restoring much pride to a nation that was slowly in the process of finding itself again.

It this other Dream Team that is the focus of Lithuanian-American filmmaker Marius Markevicius's documentary, The Other Dream Team. Markevicius was only 12 years old when he, along with the rest of the U.S. watched on television as the Soviet team defeated the Americans at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. While the U.S. was upset at the loss, Markevicius was proud that four of the starting five on Team U.S.S.R. were from his family's country of origin, Lithuania. The fact that Americans looped the entire team -- which comprised of other Soviet occupied countries including Ukraine and Estonia -- all under the category of 'evil communists' was something he never forgot.

Years later, it is these Lithuanian players, including Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis who are spotlighted in Markevicius' documentary, which also traces Lithuania's history, the beginnings of the country's rabid love of basketball during the 1930s, and how things changed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1940, killing many and sending others to Siberia.

Through interviews, the viewer learns what life was like being a "basketball star" behind the Iron Curtain. While American players basked in money and endorsements, players in the Soviet Union only made $100 a month. Lithuania's Marciulionis, USSR's top champion, was forced to read speeches written for him by communists that were filled with lies and mistruths. When he balked, they'd threaten to go after his family.

Using news footage, photos and colorful stories from the players themselves, viewers are told of how the players visits to America were heavily chaperoned by Soviet officials. The ball players had to come up with creative ways to evade their communist babysitters and sneak out of their rooms and hit the town. (The interviewed players unanimously agree that player Valdemaras Chomicius was the best smuggler on the team, being able to somehow import many American goods back to the USSR.)

After many failed attempts by the NBA to draft USSR players, history was made in 1989 when Marciulionis became the first "Soviet" to sign with the NBA when he joined the Golden State Warriors. But his arrival to the states meant correcting many people's assumptions -- including the media's -- that he was Lithuanian, not Russian.

In 1990 when Lithuania regained its independence, it was Marciulionis who decided to put together the country's first basketball team after 50 years of Soviet occupation. Unfortunately the country was bankrupt and funding was an issue.

As luck -- or fate -- would have it, the rock band Grateful Dead were big fans of basketball. They read in their local Bay Area paper about the Lithuanian player on the Warriors team who was trying to put together a basketball team in his newly freed country and they stepped in to help financially.

"We're all about freedom and celebration," Bob Weir says in the film about why the band decided to help. Additional sponsors came in the form of New York sports artist Greg Speirs, who designed the players' tie-dyed shirts using yellow, green and red colors from the Lithuanian flag.

So as Americans were cheering for their Dream Team at the '92 Olympics, many others were cheering for the Other Dream Team, whose final game saw the Lithuanians defeat their former suppressor for the bronze just two years after regaining their independence. It is this David vs. Goliath story that makes The Other Dream so exciting to watch.

It's clear first-time director Markevicius infused a lot of love and passion in to the documentary. Markevicius, 36, grew up in Los Angeles speaking Lithuanian at home, attending Lithuanian school on Saturdays while being a fan of basketball and the Lakers. He went to film school at UCLA and was a producer on such films as the Sundance Grand Jury Prize "Like Crazy" and the Peter Weir-directed drama "The Way Back."

He combined his love of basketball, his ethnicity and his filmmaking skills on The Other Dream Team. The result is a story that's at once personal to him, but universal in terms of its message of hope and perseverance.

 

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