The Other Dream Team (Lionsgate, NR)

otherdreamteamSometimes a sporting event carries meaning far outside the confines of the sport itself.

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Everyone knows about the Dream Team: Michael and Magic and Larry and the rest of the NBA stars who restored America’s basketball honor at the 1992 Olympics. Fewer may realize that an even better storyline was taking place simultaneously, and in the same sport, as the basketball team representing the newly independent country of Lithuania won the bronze medal over, most appropriately, the so-called Unified Team consisting of some of the former Soviet Republics.

The Other Dream Team, a smart new documentary directed by Marius Markevicius, celebrates that victory, as well as the long history of basketball excellence in Lithuania, while setting both in historical context. It’s worth noting that the Soviet basketball team that beat the Americans in the 1988 Olympics (a game that demonstrated, more than anything, that John Thompson understood nothing about the international game) had four Lithuanian starters, a rather remarkable achievement for a land of only about three million people.

The Other Dream Team is about two-thirds history lesson and one-third uplifting sports drama. The former is necessary because you can’t expect that an American audience will have much knowledge of European history, and it establishes the context that explains why the 1992 victory was particularly sweet. Both stories are tales of the underdog ultimately triumphing against the biggest of the Big Bads, the Soviet Union in the first case, and the remnants of the Soviet Union in the second (Russia alone is still the largest country in the world in terms of geography, and ninth largest in terms of population).

In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania, deported many Lithuanians to Siberia, and imposed Communist rule. Lithuania had been a powerhouse of European basketball in the 1930s, winning several championships for their country, but now Lithuanian athletes had to compete for the Soviet Union, or not at all. Culturally, as well, they were expected to identify and act as Russians, not Lithuanians.

The Soviet Union was beginning to crumble by the late 1980s, and in 1990, Lithuania became the first former Soviet Republic to declare independence. The Soviet Union was not ready to let go, and in January 1991, the Soviet military seized the television broadcasting power in Vilnius, injuring hundreds of citizens in the process. The Soviet Union again attempted to regain power in August, but failed, and Lithuania independence was recognized by the United Nations in September 1991.

The newly independent country was rich in basketball talent, but short on cash. In one of those turns of history that you just can’t make up, the Grateful Dead (yes, the band with Jerry Garcia) and other sponsors paid for the Lithuanian basketball team to compete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The Dead sponsorship also explains the tie-dyed t-shirts and shorts that became forever identified with the 1992 Lithuanian team—they even wore their tie-dyes on the medal stand.

The Other Dream Team is a straightforward documentary, using interviews and archival footage to tell a story that should be heard and remembered, because it reminds you that sometimes a sporting event carries meaning far outside the confines of the sport itself. | Sarah Boslaugh

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