Sports and politics are hardly rare bedfellows—all you have to think of are the Olympics, which in fact feature prominently in this documentary—but the relationship takes on special resonance when the actual birth—or rebirth—of a nation is involved. That’s what makes “The Other Dream Team” an exceptional inspirational sports movie, precisely because the stakes were so high.
Marius Markevicius’ film is in part about the Lithuanian love of basketball, which it traces back to the 1930s and follows up to the present. But it connects that near-obsession to the Baltic country’s post-World War II absorption into the Soviet Union, which was most definitely a shotgun marriage. Reminiscences of the life that Lithuanians endured under Soviet domination, with the deprivations it involved, are part of the interview segments of the picture, and illustrated by archival footage.
But one group of young Lithuanian men earned special privileges, to some extent—those who excelled on the court. In fact, the Soviet basketball team that defeated the USA at the 1988 Seoul Olympics featured four starters from Lithuania. Yet on travels abroad they were carefully minded by KGB agents, and when an NBA team selected Lithuanian player Arvydas Sabonis in a draft, the USSR refused him permission to accept the offer.
Cut to 1989, when the Lithuanian separatist movement Sajudis chose Vytautas Landsbergis as its leader and became the elected government the following year. The Soviets responded to Landsbergis’ 1990 declaration of independence with force, but eventually backed down in the face of popular opposition—one of the first stages in the disintegration of the USSR. The Lithuanian players abroad—including Sarunas Marciulionis, who’d been drafted by the Golden State Warriors and allowed to leave for California—were determined to form a team to represent their newly-liberated homeland at the upcoming 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It was an uphill slog until the Grateful Dead—basketball fans all—got involved and became sponsors for the team, whose colorful off-court attire reflected the band. At the games the Lithuanians were, of course, faced with the possibility that they would have to take on America’s so-called Dream Team. The outcome is a matter of record, but it would be revealed here in case anybody out there doesn’t remember it.
Markevicius, his co-writer Weinbach and their editor Dan Marks bounce easily between sports and politics, juggling newly-shot footage by Jesse Feldman with archival material. The interviews—with Sabonis, Marciulionis, and other players from the 1992 team, as well as Landsbergis, NBA greats like Bill Walton, Golden State official Don Nelson, the Dead’s Mickey Hart, journalists like David Remnick and many others—are well chosen and enlightening. And as a contemporary contrast to the old days, the film intersperses segments showing Jonas Valanciunas, a current Lithuanian star and NBA prospect, going to an international camp in Italy and attending the draft that will determine his future. (His mother is also interviewed.)
“The Other Dream Team” is the rare documentary that should appeal both to sports fans and history junkies. If you want a good introduction to post-war Lithuanian history, it provides that with a sports twist. And if you love basketball, it will give you a solid history lesson to go along with one of the sport’s most inspiring recent episodes. It’s a win-win.