The Other Dream Team: Freedom, Basketball and the Grateful Dead

Paul Knepper@@paulieknepContributor IIIOctober 22, 2012

8 Aug 1992: Team Lithuania celebrates after winning the bronze at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Mike Powell/Getty Images

The Other Dream Team is a heart-warming tale about a Lithuanian basketball team that captured the hopes and dreams of a nation.

Through interviews with coaches, players and politicians, Lithuanian-American director Marius Markevicius interwove the story of a country struggling for freedom with the fate of four star basketball players.

The movie begins by tracing the prominent role of basketball in Lithuanian society. Inhabitants of the small Baltic nation first fell in love with the game when Lithuania hosted and won the FIBA European Championship in 1939.

Following World War II, Lithuania was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, and several dissidents and intellectuals were shipped off to Siberia where they maintained a sense of normalcy by playing basketball on rudimentary courts.

Decades later, the Soviet Union men's basketball team won the gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. They defeated an American team led by future NBA stars David Robinson, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond 82-76 in the semifinals.

The film focuses on the little-known fact that four of the five starters on that Soviet team were Lithuanian. Their country did not receive recognition for their accomplishments. Instead, the four stood at attention on the medal stand as the hammer and sickle of their oppressors was raised to the ceiling.

Embarrassed by the defeat at the hands of the Soviets, the United States Olympic Committee decided to allow professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, laying the groundwork for the international phenomenon known as "the Dream Team."Β 

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest of the Dream Teamers won gold in Barcelona in 1992, but the story of the four Lithuanian basketball players and their countrymen is even more compelling.

Two of the four ballplayers, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis are familiar to American basketball fans from their subsequent careers in the NBA.

They, along with their teammates Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis, talked about their childhoods in Lithuania. Marciulionis brought viewers to the court that he and his friends built in the poor neighborhood where he grew up.

Interspersed with images of bread lines, the four teammates spoke about their travels to Europe and the United States for international tournaments. They were trailed at all times by Soviet intelligence agents, while being exposure to freedoms beyond their reach.

Sabonis, who was considered the greatest player in Europe throughout the 1980s, said he was unfazed by the news that the Portland Trail Blazers had selected him in the first round of the 1986 draft. He believed the Soviets would never let him leave.

The film reflects on the winds of change that swept through the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and that same year, Marciulionis decided to make a break for the NBA.

Sarunas received permission to play in the United States from members of the Soviet government. But in one of the tensest points of the film, a friend of his recalled that Marciulionis knew the government was just as likely to ship him off to Siberia as to actually allow him to leave the country.

Though heavy at times, the movie contains many lighthearted moments as well. Interviews with effusive basketball legend Bill Walton breathed life into the film. The Hall of Famer referred to Sabonis as "a 7'3'' Larry Bird."

The players joked about how they used purchase all types of retail items from jeans to appliances in Europe and the U.S. to re-sell for a profit back home. Chomicius' three teammates still laugh at how much he was able stuff into his suitcase.

Sensing the instability of the Soviet Union, Lithuania declared its independence in 1990. Markevicius included stirring footage of the ensuing Soviet crackdown, which included tanks rolling into the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Despite many deaths and scores of injuries, the Lithuanians refused to back down and the Soviets relented. Lithuania was free.

Sabonis and his Lithuanian teammates finally had the opportunity to represent their country in the Olympics, but the fledgling democracy did not have the money to send its basketball team to Barcelona. So the players pledged to raise the money on their own.

That is where the film took an unexpected turn.

Marciulionis, who was playing for the Warriors, worked with Golden State's assistant coach Donnie Nelson to raise funds in the U.S. A newspaper wrote a story about their cause and soon after Nelson received a call from a representative of the legendary rock band The Grateful Dead.

Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh stated that not only were they huge proponents of freedom; they were also basketball fans and wanted to help. Jerry Garcia and the boys invited Marciulionis and Nelson to a Dead concert where Marciulionis detected "a strange smell" in the air.

After the show, Sarunas and Nelson went backstage and met the band, whereupon the Dead cut them a check and had special tie-dyed Lithuanian basketball t-shirts and shorts designed for the team. The Lithuanians were off to Barcelona.

They advanced to the semifinals behind the strength of their four gold-medalists before being dismantled by the United States' Dream Team.

Then, in a made-for-Hollywood ending, they faced the Unified Teamβ€”the de facto Soviet Unionβ€”in the bronze medal game. The Lithuanians had lost to the Soviets earlier in the tournament, but this game was for a medal and the hopes of a nation rested on their shoulders.

It was a hard-fought and close throughout. Blood gushed from Chomicius' brow after he took an elbow to the forehead late in the game. The Lithuanian president, Vytautas Landsbergis, was in attendance and sent him a message. "Don't worry," Landsbergis said. "You're spilling blood for Lithuania."

Lithuania came away victorious. The film followed the final buzzer with images of ecstatic Lithuanians spilling onto the streets of Vilnius, as their basketball team proudly belted out the national anthem in the locker room.

Traditionally, basketball teams wear their warm-ups on the podium for the medal ceremony, but Marciulionis had something else in mind. The Grateful Dead had supported them when nobody else would. The Lithuanians took to the medal stand as free men in their tie-dyed shirts and shorts.