Lithuanian Basketball Fighting Multiple Battles
The phrase “Dream Team” is something of an untouchable when it comes to sports. It belongs to one team, and any comparison pales in its shadow or provides heated debate. Take for instance this year’s USA basketball team at the London Olympics, where mild back and forth ensued over 2012 versus 1992; who would have been better? But in Lithuania, during the Barcelona Olympics there was another Dream Team, one filled with talent, yes, but which also carried the pride of a nation that was silenced under Soviet rule for over fifty years.
What was forgotten by many in America in the wake of Magic and Jordan is artistically told in Marius Markevicius’s “The Other Dream Team,” a documentary exposing the realities of members from the Lithuanian basketball team that struggled to get their own country onto the front of their uniform. It chronicles four members of the team, intermittently swapping personal interviews with historic archival footage, both from political movements and grainy NBA tapes.
These players, don’t kill yourself with pronunciations, are Jonas Valanciunas, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas Marciulonis, and maybe most recognizable, Arvydas Sabonis, formerly of the Portland Trailblazers. In a unique combination of heaviness and levity, they recount their similar lives surviving under fascist rule. Their country, like the other Baltic States, became a chess piece of Second World domination.Trapped by an Iron Curtain, Lithuania became subordinate to the USSR’s “red” spread.
Plagued by military infiltration and a socialist regime, the players recount their childhood of waiting in bread lines while other relatives served in Serbian internment camps. Like one of my favorite childhood books “Baseball Saved Us,” basketball did the same for the Lithuanians. Makeshift hoops and balls alleviated boredom and pain, and Marciulonis recounts building courts in his home alley with hand-placed stones and organic rims.
They all grew to become premier players, the early height of their accomplishment coming with gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in which the USSR defeated a calm-before-the storm USA basketball team. The irony was that it was these four Lithuanians who filled four of the five starting roster spots. The director, in a Q and A afterward, admitted he got angry responses in his high school hallway after he rejoiced over the win. For him, this wasn’t a Soviet, Communist victory, it was a Lithuanian one. Sharing fame with a Russian stigma, the Lithuanian players looked to break free and emerge into the NBA, and most importantly, the United States.
It’s here where Markevicius injects some elemental humor into the fray of oppression and poverty stories. Coming to America for these guys was a culture shock like no other. The four thought walking into a grocery store and buying whichever product they desired was a gift from God. It was also a chance to help their families back home. They would purchase the latest technologies, hop on the plane, and resell them for three times as much back home. Jonas Valanciunis was the best scalper they joked.
But we all love a comeback story or some form of redemption that never plays out better than in sports, especially when it’s a true story. We saw it earlier this year in Undefeated and on a more personal level in Knuckleball!, and here again we witness poetic justice on the hardwood four years later in Barcelona, where Lithuania, along with several other countries, waved its own flag proudly as they marched around the Olympic Stadium. However, after gaining independence, Lithuania became an economic burden. Enter The Grateful Dead.
The rock band, inspired by the team’s stories, financially backed the Lithuania national team, making them promise to wear their tailor-made tie-dye outfits. The American Dream Team handled them with ease in the semifinals, but the game that mattered most was for the bronze, a matchup between Lithuania and the former USSR. This didn’t have “Miracle on Ice” dimensions, but pride was on the line, this time in hands better than untested college kids.
Lithuania’s eventual medal victory, as Sabonis states, was like winning an NBA championship five times over. The 1988 team earned gold, but this bronze had their soul. For Lithuania, it was a cathartic dismissal of a totalitarian past.
Also within this narrative is a back-story of a young Lithuanian looking to make the 2011 NBA Draft. It is unnecessary, but attempts to provide a small dose of the basketball future bred from this inspirational Dream Team. The film in this case is another point of pride, a rekindling of Lithuanian history in which basketball can transcend politics and war and revitalize a nation, and maybe even tie-dye.
Starting today in New York at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in Manhattan and expanding next week