Dreaming of Freedom
The captivating story and impact of the The Other Dream Team.
by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
During the 1992 Olympics, all eyes were on the US Dream Team, a squad that earned its nickname for having an assemblage of the greatest basketball players on the planet. With focus so rapt on history unfolding right before our eyes, many missed a moment even more important than basketball.
The tie-dye troop from Lithuania having recently achieved independence from the Soviet Union was facing off against their former oppressors in the Bronze medal match. The team’s dreams thus embodied not only the individuals on the court, but more importantly that of a nation. Fortunately, Marius Markevicius, a first generation Lithuanian-American, documented the events of 20 years ago and years before that, giving not only insight to the significance of basketball to the country of Lithuania, but the important role it played culturally and politically in The Other Dream Team.
Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Valdermaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis were the core of the Lithuanians and by no coincidence, were four of the five starters for the Soviet Union team that defeated the United States and went onto win the Gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Markevicius says, “They won a Gold medal for this other system, but then everything got turned on its head and they were able to play for their own country. The Bronze being even more important than the Gold that they won was pretty profound.”
Markevicius directed, produced and co-wrote, a compelling film. With interviews from players, academics, Lithuanian heads of state, Bill Walton, Chris Mullin, David Stern and unexpectedly the Grateful Dead among others, it’s rounded out with terrific archival footage. He feels the film can’t be summed up in a singular moment, “It’s not about the Bronze medal victory, it’s about the journey.”
Lithuania is the only country in the world that recognizes basketball as its national sport. They won the European Championship in 1939 and longstanding basketball club Zalgiris—established in 1944, one of the oldest clubs in the Euroleague—has a storied history that represents more than just the game.
“Basketball was always tied to Lithuanian’s sense of pride and independence movement,” Markevicius says. “During the worst of times it was one of the only things that they can be proud of and that they could root for openly.”
Under Soviet rule in Lithuania, people were afforded few liberties. “You would get sent to Siberia if you waved a Lithuanian flag, it was illegal, but you could wave a Zalgiris flag. So they would go to play the Red Army in Moscow and when they eventually started to beat them, that was really the beginning of the seeds of rebellion and this idea that we can be our own country.”
While the movie has a perfect balance of basketball and social commentary, Markevicius went where the narratives took him. “I just went out and interviewed people and they gave me these unbelievable personal stories and anecdotes and they seemed to have a lot more depth than just what was happening on the basketball court.”
Exemplified by a 7-3 Sabonis recounting sneaking out of a hotel garage, as a member of the Soviet team in the trunk a of car, eluding the watchful eye of KGB agents. Or the players burgeoning import hustle, selling goods purchased abroad to a communist economy as a means to support their families, categorically agreeing that Chomicius can pack a suitcase like no other. Yet possibly the most interesting part of this team’s odyssey may be their connection to the Grateful Dead.
Shortly after Lithuania’s independence, the economically strapped country had to send its teams to the Olympics, but budgets were tight. As basketball fans who became impressed by the passion and freedom of the Lithuanian people, the band cut the Lithuanian national team “a big check” and sent a box of tie-dye t-shirts and shorts in Lithuanian colors.
Markevicius, “wanted the film to transcend the sports demographic,” yet was true to the game, with tons of unearthed mullet-and-bad-mustache basketball footage, (mined from a Sabonis fan in Spain), game film from both Olympics, as well as tape from Marciulionis’ days in the NBA.
“At the time, it was difficult to watch, they didn’t have the coverage like they have today,” Markevicius says. “It was finally fun to rediscover the game watching and looking through the highlights.”
The Other Dream Team is bookended with Lithuanian rising star Jonas Valanciunas, the 2011 NBA Draft prospect. He’s the first person you see after the title credits, but according to Markevicius, wasn’t even on their radar when they began shooting.
“It was definitely serendipity, when we started three years ago, we didn’t even know who he was. About a year into it, he was 17 and getting recognition for being the MVP of the FIBA Europe Under-18 Championship and then the Draft talk started.”
His sudden rise culminates with the film’s closing scene where he was selected fifth overall in the Draft by the Toronto Raptors, illustrating how the 1992 Olympic team paved the way for the next wave of players.
“That ‘92 Bronze certainly was to this day, the most important moment in Lithuanian sports history,” Markevicius says. “A lot of people still never heard of Lithuania and probably couldn’t point it out on a map, but if you can, there’s a good chance it might be because you’ve heard of their basketball players or their performance in the Olympics.”
The Other Dream Team will be in theaters on September 28.