The 1992 Barcelona Olympics introduced the world to Michael Jordan and The Dream Team, arguably basketball's greatest ever assembled team. They were unbeatable, unflappable and to the world's eye, absolute magic. But there was another basketball team in Spain that summer playing for more than just a medal.
Lithuania, just two years removed from declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, was also using basketball as a tool. The difference though, was that basketball helped mobilize the small nation and gave it hope during a time when there was little.
Marius Markevicius chronicles the 1992 Lithuanian hoops team in his new film "The Other Dream Team," which debuted at Sundance and will be released in theaters September 28. In 1992, he was merely a 16-year-old kid living in Los Angeles, but he felt he understood the cultural significance of what was taking place.
"Basketball allowed the nation to forget atrocities that happened to their families," Markevicius told The Huffington Post. "In 1988, I realized the myth of propaganda as far as the athletes and Soviet Union. The athletes wanted no part of it. They wanted to play for their own country but at the time, could not do so."
While the Lithuanian team ultimately captured the bronze medal in Barcelona, perhaps its proudest accomplishment was that it actually came at the hands of the Russians. The bronze medal represented for the nation the end of nearly 50 years of suppression under a Communist reign. For the players, it was another step away from the days in which they were forced to hide from corrupt KGB agents. Even during trips, players would sneak out of their hotels to go shopping and shake off the agents assigned to watch them abroad.
"America saw the USSR as one Big Red Machine," Markevicius says. "But the Lithuanians had a sense of pride. The Soviets tried to squash that cultural aspect such as religion, language and even flags. Basketball always provided inspiration."
Led by a highly successful duo of future NBA players, Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanians were ultimately embraced by fans for remarkable teamwork, scrappy play and of course, The Grateful Dead.
When the 1992 Olympics came around, it wasn't Nike or Reebok fitting the Lithuanian warmups, but rather, the Dead. The band loved the Lithuanians' fight for freedom and donated money to create an almost shocking display of tie-dye warm ups, designed by artist Greg Speirs. The shirts -- which contained a dunking skeleton -- signified the rebellious, fun-loving and prideful nature that the basketball team represented.
Twenty years later, Lithuania remains a small and independent Baltic country consisting of over 3.5 million people. Basketball fittingly remains at its core, with the memory of and respect for the 1992 team instilled in Lithuanians. In reality, most of the time, sports are just a game. But for Lithuania in 1992, it meant far more. Basketball unified a nation when it needed it the most, helping provide inspiration and most importantly, a sense of everlasting freedom.
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