Back in 1992, the basketball world was focused on USA Basketball, and its soon to be annihilation of every international team in its path by its newly assembled “Dream Team.”
Well, most of it.
Lithuania had assembled a dream team of its own, simply because they’d finally had a Lithuanian basketball team. For decades, those from Lithuania had to play for the Soviet national team. In 1992, after a bloody occupation, and then declaration of independence, the Lithuanians rallied behind their basketball team. Their bronze medal run in the Olympics became an announcement to the world that Lithuania was free.
“The Other Dream Team” is a wonderful documentary that shows the power of sports can have in culture. At a time where schools increasingly consider chopping or limiting athletics from curriculums, this film shows how one sport brought a country together at its darkest time.
I had the privilege of viewing an advance screening in New York with the film’s director, and several Lithuanian dignitaries. What struck me even before watching the movie was how glowingly they spoke of the team and basketball. They called it a source of national dignity and a second religion. Basketball gave them a sense of national pride as they struggled to win their freedom.
As the movie progresses, you hear the hardships of Soviet occupation, and how basketball saved so many souls. Soviet forces would deport Lithuanians to Siberia, but those who were sent away built their own basketball courts to keep their sanity and dignity.
As young men, those who would ultimately become Lithuania’s heroes (like Sarunas Marciulionis, who ultimately escaped the Soviet grip to join the Golden State Warriors) had to build their own court, brick by brick, and practice on their own to avoid questions and harassment by Soviets.
As members of the Soviet team, Lithuanians had to steal and smuggle items like electronics back from their road trips just to make money to feed their families. Eventually, they were able to form their own team, and it just so happened to coincide with USA Basketball’s decision to send future Hall of Famers to the Olympics.
But the spotlight wasn’t completely on the Americans. There was the upstart Lithuanian team… who went everywhere in their tie-died outfits.
The ’92 Lithuanian team won fans around the world for its hard-nosed play, its underdog story and its unusual connection with the Grateful Dead. Inspired by the Lithuanian’s message of freedom, the Dead provided financial assistance to the team and helped create their distinctive, tie-dye warm ups, which included a creative design from artist Greg Speirs.
In Barcelona, Lithuania advanced to the medal round, where the team faced Russia – Lithuania’s oppressor since 1940 – for the bronze. Lithuania emerged victorious, and then rose to the medal stand wearing their colorful gear emblazoned with the memorable dunking skeleton logo. By beating Russia, David had beaten Goliath – and the Lithuanian team had raised the game of basketball into an unforgettable expression of political and cultural identity.
This is an inspiring story that I’d recommend to every basketball fan. Even non-basketball fans will appreciate how these guys overcame so much to succeed. If you’d like to see it, it’s playing in Boston this Friday, October 12, at the Kendall Square Cinema. There are four shows on Friday. You can get your tickets here. If you go to the 6:50 showing, you can go to a special after party celebrating the team and the film.
If you’re not in Boston, here are theaters in other cities which are showing it.