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Living a 'Dream': Sundance film on 1992 Lithuanian basketball team is not your average sports movie

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 6:41 p.m. MST

"The Other Dream Team." Credit: Romualdas Pozerskis

Lou Capozzola, Lithuanian Central State Archive

PARK CITY — Yes, "The Other Dream Team" is a 2012 Sundance Film Festival documentary about the Lithuania men's basketball team that competed at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

But that quick-hit description doesn't nearly mete the film its just due. While sports do play a significant role in "Other Dream Team," the production is more than just your typical "sports movie" fare.

Indeed, "Other Dream Team" is a soaring tribute to the triumph of the human spirit — the significance of which will be discernible even to moviegoers with no background knowledge of basketball.

"I'm blown away by how much people come to me after the screenings and tell me how much (the film) touched them," director Marius Markevicius said. "A woman came up to me after the premiere and said, 'I have four kids, and there's so much negativity out there that they see everyday. I want them to see this movie. I want there to be more films like this out there, as opposed to just negative things about the state of America and how things are with our economy.'"

Story with Soviet roots

The Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in 1944. Then, as now, Lithuania was a small Baltic country with its own language, a strong national identity and an intense affinity for basketball. Lithuania, the last sovereign nation to be absorbed by the Soviet Union, never viewed the occupying Soviets as its comrades.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics, the men's basketball team from the Soviet Union (population: 286 million) trounced the U.S. in the semifinals en route to a gold medal. Four of that Soviet team's five starting players hailed from Lithuania (population: 3 million).

In 1991, Lithuania became the first republic to break away from a crumbling Soviet Union. At that point, the four Lithuanians who had starred for the Soviet Union at the '88 Olympics — Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius — committed to do everything possible to qualify for, and compete at, the upcoming 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona as Team Lithuania.

There was, though, one significant speed bump on Lithuania's road to Barcelona: in 1991 no one had the necessary funds to cover the team's travel costs and operating expenses.

Fantastic four

Fans of professional basketball will know about Sabonis and Marciulionis, who played a combined 15 years in the NBA. "Other Dream Team" captures the transformation of the two players from enormously talented teens into a 7-foot-3 sweet-passing center and relentless 6-foot-5 scorer, respectively.

But equally compelling are the stories of their teammates Kurtinaitis and Chomicius. For example, the film's best laughs come from a story thread about Chomicius, wherein the other three all recall his preternatural ability to return from the Soviet national team's road trips with his luggage stuffed full of Western contraband such as jeans and electronics that would fetch high resale prices. Today, both Kurtinaitis and Chomicius are head coaches of pro basketball teams in Russia.

Grateful to the Dead

By 1991, Marciulionis was playing in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. To begin raising money for the brand new Lithuanian men's national basketball team, he started making personal appearances at private homes around the Bay Area for a couple hundred bucks a pop. But fate intervened when a local newspaper penned an article about Marciulionis' fundraising efforts — and several members of iconic musical group the Grateful Dead read the story.

The Grateful Dead greatly admired the courage the Lithuanian people showed in standing firm for freedom in the face of communist intimidation. Hence, after Marciulionis met the Dead backstage following a concert in Detroit, the musicians handed him a substantial check that allowed the Lithuanian men's basketball squad to enter a qualifying tournament for the 1992 Olympics.

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