Another Kind of Triumph
Basketball, like most sports, has social functions beyond entertainment and pure athletic endeavour. It can be a rallying point for shared pride and collective aspirations, the triumphs and defeats of local teams reflecting and conditioning the way a community (or even a nation) views itself. It can also be a conduit tout of a tough background, a conduit to a college education and, if players are good enough, a lucrative professional career in the NBA or the European league.
The Other Dream Team explores the potential meanings of basketball to individuals, to fans, to a nation, and to the larger political sweep of the contemporary global culture. The title of Marius A. Markevicius’ excellent documentary refers to the national basketball team of Lithuania. The country, newly independent and competing under its distinctive green, yellow, and red flag for the first time at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, made a surprise run to the bronze medal in the basketball tournament. The team consisted of players who had represented the (freshly defunct) Soviet Union in Seoul four years before, where they shocked America’s collection of future NBAers and went on the win gold. This US defeat precipitated a campaign to allow professionals into the Olympic basketball competition, leading to the creation of the much hyped US “Dream Team” that put on a show of superior skill on its way to the top of the podium.
The Other Dream Team constructs the Lithuanians’ different sort of triumph as the joyful culmination of efforts by a gutsy little nation to forge its own place in a suddenly changed world. As Jordan, Magic, and Bird dance past their opponents to gold, Lithuania grinds out a win over the Unified Team, the ragged athletic remnants of the toppled Soviet state that once oppressed them. It’s a victory that at once mirrors the social and political revolt of Lithuania against Soviet power in 1991 and symbolically completes it.
Although The Other Dream Team closes with this high point on the Olympic stage, most of the film is concerned with the culture and history of Lithuanian basketball before 1992, which is a tale of deprivations, restrictions, and struggles. Two modern legends of the Lithuanian game dominate the proceedings as they dominated the court in their prime, bullish guard Sarunas Marciulionis and smooth, athletic big man Arvydas Sabonis.
Interviewed on the premises of their respective basketball schools in their common hometown of Kaunas, each commands the camera’s attention. The earnest Marciulionis, who made a politically risky free agent move to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors as the Soviet Union was in its death throes, offers weighty reminiscences of the systemic poverty that his sporting talents allowed him to escape. When he stands on the childhood court made of tiles that he and his fellow hoop dreamers carried and laid themselves, we see a new perspective on sports as social mobility.
The Other Dream Team features humor as well as sagas of hardship. Familiar to American sports fans from a stint with the Portland Trail Blazers in the late ‘90s, the 7’3” Sabonis was known more for playful passing plays than for thunderous dunks, and the personality that comes through in the film matches this on-court penchant. He shares some of the more amusing anecdotes of the team’s heyday, including an intimation of foreign smuggling operations on the part of one of his clever teammates.
The most striking and unexpected twist of film’s narrative, however, is also its thematic fulcrum. Possessed of the ability and the desire to reach the Olympics but not the money to make the trip, the Lithuanian team received funding from legendary jam-rockers the Grateful Dead, along with a gaudy but certainly memorable tie-dyed off-court ensemble from the band’s designer. This documentary comprehends very well that the team represented a fresh conception of the liberation theology of the game. The journey of Lithuania on and off the court was not a classic story of escape from difficult circumstances. Instead, they pursued a more challenging freedom, to remake those circumstances into something less difficult, something more human. There at the crossroads of rock and roll, political upheaval, and quick-passing basketball, freedom stands, sure of recognition. The Other Dream Team slows down just enough to offer it a friendly wave.