Lithuania shoots and scores in “The Other Dream Team,” an uplifting docu from longtime producer and first-time director Marius Markevicius about the nation’s unique love affair with basketball. Smartly engineered to engage sports fans and non-fans, the pic’s account of Lithuania’s 1992 Olympics bronze medal-winning team, presented as a symbol of post-Cold War freedom, will light up fests on a prosperous road trip, with the bonus of plenty of cable playoffs.
Much like the Dominican Republic in its obsession with baseball, Lithuania has long embraced basketball, whose popularity stems in part from cultural exchanges dating back to the 1930s. A tiny country wedged between Russia to the east and Germany to the west, the Baltic nation became a tragic doormat for these world powers.
Pic’s opening section traces an aspect of Lithuania’s subservience to the Soviet Union, but also notes its national ace in the hole: In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the U.S.S.R. squad that upset the U.S. Dream Team (starring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley), featured four Lithuanians among the five Soviet starters. Almost all of them, including future NBA Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, were from the same hoops-mad city, Kaunas. That one burg supplied so many players not only to the Soviets but eventually to the NBA is one of the more remarkable little-known facts of modern basketball.
Keeping an eye on the present as well as the past (which is expertly brought forth with a plentiful supply of fascinating archival footage, from as early as the ’30s), Markevicius tracks NBA draft hopeful Jonas Valanciunas, a prospect who must prove himself to pro scouts). This storyline, though, proves something of an afterthought to more important events, which begin with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Lithuania.
A sequence devoted to the case of star Sarunas Marciulionis proves indicative of where Lithuania’s basketball fortunes were headed (up) and where the Soviet Union’s were going (down). The players were always tightly handled by KGB agents accompanying the Soviet national team on its foreign travels, with Sabonis and Marciulionis offering some vivid anecdotes. But when the California Bay Area-based Golden State Warriors, under Don Nelson, wanted to draft Marciulionis, it nearly became an international incident, since no Soviet player had ever been signed by the NBA. It also marked one of the first cracks in the decaying Soviet wall.
As the New Yorker’s David Remnick notes, Vytautas Landsbergis, the first duly elected Lithuanian president in 1990, “had balls of brass” as he presided soon after his election over an extraordinarily dangerous standoff with Soviet troops; they finally exited the revived nation after the most intense episode between the dying U.S.S.R. and any of its occupied satellite states during the end of the Cold War. The basketball fallout was that much of the 1988 team remained intact, providing Lithuania with something substantial to root for going into the ’92 Olympics.
The Warriors connection with Lithuania via Marciulionis provides the film with its final, highly entertaining run, as the Grateful Dead (all big hoops fans) come onboard to help Lithuania’s Olympics cause, promoting Dead-style tie-dye uniforms in the national colors, as the Lithuanian squad prepares to face the Russian Federation team.
Los Angeles native Markevicius shows a keen ability to collect knowledgeable U.S. sports voices (including Chris Mullin, Jim Lampley, Bill Walton and Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff), as well as a personal connection to his parents’ homeland that makes him an ideal cinematic ambassador. Plentiful talking-heads filming is standard, but the interviews are spirited. Some location lensing in Kaunas keeps the film from feeling too much like a TV docu.