With NHL players and NFL referees currently locked out, for people who aren’t sports fans to begin with, it’s hard to sympathize with players making hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, in billion dollar industries. For the most part, in our day-to-day lives, sports doesn’t mingle with politics or history, except every four years when nations come together to compete on the global stage. And while the Olympics do indeed anchor the key moments of Marius A. Markevicius‘ winning documentary “The Other Dream Team,” the film wisely constructs a decades-spanning and wholly riveting narrative that chronicles how one basketball team became the hope of an entire country.
Before one can begin to talk about just what basketball means to the people of Lithuania, you have to understand their history, which is essentially one of endurance and pain. Occupied by the Soviet Union during WWII right through to the fall of its communist regime in the late ’80s, Lithuanians saw family members sent to Siberia during the war (some never to return), while their very identity was methodically wiped out. And that came down to sports too, with athletes from Soviet controlled territories forced to compete under the red flag if they wanted to compete at all. But for those still looking for something to hold close to their hearts and heritage, it was hard to ignore that four of the five starters on the gold medal winning team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics were Lithuanian: Valdemaras Chomičius, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis.
Markevicius gets them all on camera, along with coaches, political figures, broadcasters and more, and with their insight weaves a fascinating look at these players lives before 1988, the harsh realities of living under the Iron Curtain, the simple freedoms of the American lifestyle and how for many of them, the mere idea of playing professionally was but a fleeting dream. But their talent was hard to ignore. Following their 1988 showing, NBA teams came calling, and that whole process found the Soviet Union in a strange position. On the one hand, they claimed credit for putting together such incredible talent, but on the other, allowing the players to leave to play for the United States, their ideological and political rivals, was just unheard of, no matter how much it would, to a certain degree, validate them. For Marčiulionis and Sabonis, their potential NBA contracts were state affairs, and an approval (or disapproval) would have ramifications far beyond the court.
What the documentary does remarkably well is show just how dramatically everything changed from 1988 to the next Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. NBA contracts were signed, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union as people knew it was over, and Lithuania found itself with its freedom once again. And an opportunity to claim itself as a strong people in front of the world was too good to resist. Pretty soon the unlikely support of The Grateful Dead — who are apparently big basketball fans — allowed Marčiulionis and Sabonis to round up their former teammates and head to Spain. And while these games were the first to feature NBA players at the Olympics — dubbed The Dream Team due to their obscenely stacked lineup — another more interesting story was happening away from that spectacle. Lithuania was not only on a course to play against the United States, but also the now loosely assembled remaining Soviet states. A victory over their oppressors would be redemption for years of painful memories, and it all plays out between the paint.
What makes “The Other Dream Team” such a success and differentiates it from the rest of your standard sports doc stories, is a very palpable sense of place and time. The film contains a bounty of archival footage ranging from scenes of WWII Siberia to vintage interleague play in Lithuania (where one would unearth that, we have no idea). Simply, Markevicius paints as complete a picture of the history of the country as you would want, and when one player is said to have cried the first time he went into a Safeway in America and realized there we no rations on the vegetables, you come as close to understanding the conditions he and all citizens had lived under, as you could have without experiencing it yourself. And the candid participation and depth of interviews provide a considerably detailed and personal reflection of life under Communist rule and how four guys were a shining light during that time.
Not everything works in the movie. A subplot about a current Lithuanian player aiming for the NBA draft feels tacked on for some half-hearted “passing the torch” elements, and the history lesson stuff can become overly dense (particularly as its sometimes presented out of chronological order). But we’ll always be in favor of a documentary that gives too much rather than not enough, and when it’s all in service of a story that deserves to be told, and shines a spotlight on a forgotten piece of sports history, it’s hard to argue the lengths Markevicius has gone to cover his bases. Moving, rousing, funny and at times even haunting, “The Other Dream Team” is ample evidence that sports can indeed sometimes change the world. [B+]