By Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
September 27, 2012, 5:05 p.m.
Americans are surely passionate about sports, but we think of athletics, for the most part, as fun and games. In Europe, however, especially in international competitions, sports carry the weight of world events and regularly elevate or deflate the hopes of an entire nation. But even in that context, the story told in the captivating “The Other Dream Team” is totally out of the ordinary.
A stranger-than-fiction look at how sports and politics have intersected to highly dramatic effect in the history of modern Lithuania, “The Other Dream Team’s” tale was a classic saga waiting to be told, but it took a Lithuanian American director, Marius Markevicius, to know enough to bring it to the screen.
If you know anything about Lithuania, you know this story couldn’t involve any sport but basketball, a game that has captivated this small country of 3 million since 1939, when Lithuania hosted and won the European championships.
After World War II, when the country was annexed by the Soviet Union, basketball remained so popular that exiled Lithuanian dissidents regularly played it during their Siberian exiles. Even today, what the game did for the country remains so significant that “The Other Dream Team’s” interviewees include two of the nation’s former presidents.
One of the byproducts of that annexation was that Lithuanian athletes were forced to play for the Soviet Union in international competitions. This compulsory alliance reached its climax at the 1988 Seoul Olympics basketball semifinals, when, in a stunning upset, the United States team lost, 82-76, to the Soviets.
Though not many Americans knew it at the time, four of the five USSR starters were Lithuanians infuriated at having to forgo their nationality. The team’s two stars, spectacular guard Sarunas Marciulionis and legendary center Arvydas Sabonis (“a 7-foot-3 version of Larry Bird,” says Bill Walton) had played together since they were teenagers growing up in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas.
“The Other Dream Team” focuses on these two players, and in fact goes back with Marciulionis to Kaunas to see the battered backboard he helped construct and the outdoor court whose tile floor he and his friends helped lay.
When they got older, these two formed the nucleus of Lithuania’s top professional team, Zalgiris Kaunas. When Zalgiris defeated CSKA, the Red Army team, in the Soviet professional championships in the mid-1980s, it was the first spark in what eventually became Lithuania’s drive for independence. It also led to Sabonis’ being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986, though the Soviet power elite refused to let him sign.
Although all of this is serious stuff, “The Other Dream Team” definitely has its humorous moments, especially when the Lithuanians and their teammates recount what it was like being exposed to the largess of the capitalist West as traveling Soviet athletes. Buying American goods and reselling them back home for a tidy profit soon became the way to go: “We did,” one of the players says, “what life dictated.”
Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, movement to the West became easier, and in that year Marciulionis, with the help of coach Donnie Nelson, signed with the Golden State Warriors and ended up playing seven seasons in the NBA.
As involving as “The Other Dream Team” has been up to this point (including some time spent with current Lithuanian NBA prospect Jonas Valanciunas and his articulate mother, Danute), it really kicks into gear with its detailing of the maneuvering that enabled Lithuania to free itself from the Soviet Union and how basketball figured in what transpired.
Once freedom came in 1991, the country remained quite poor. But with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics coming up, Marciulionis and Sabonis were determined to put together a team that could play together under the Lithuanian flag, a team that could demonstrate to the world what their country had achieved.
In a tale almost too outlandish to believe, a chance encounter with the Grateful Dead, who turned out to be major basketball fans, led to a sizable check and, more colorfully, a group of tie-dyed practice jerseys with the band’s classic skull motif designed for the team.
With this gear in tow, the Lithuanians went to Barcelona, where they played key games with both the original Michael Jordan Dream Team and the squad representing what was left of their old Soviet nemesis after the collapse of the USSR. How this all worked out makes “The Other Dream Team” a sports film to remember.