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

Additionally, the Grateful Dead subsequently mailed the Lithuanian basketball players several boxes of shirts and shorts emblazoned with a skeleton (the Dead's de facto mascot) dunking a basketball beneath the word "Lithuania." All of the apparel was tie-dyed in red, yellow and green — the colors of the new Lithuanian flag.

Tie-dyed and teary eyed

The documentary's climax comes at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Led by Sabonis and Marciulionis, the Lithuanians play their way into the semifinals. There, though, they lose to the "Dream Team" — a U.S. squad populated with the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that is widely considered to be the best basketball team ever assembled.

In the bronze medal game, the Lithuanians are pitted against the Unified Team, i.e. all of the former U.S.S.R. except Lithuania. With Lithuania's president urging them on in the locker room and from a courtside seat, the players feel it is their duty to beat the Soviet vestige in order to validate a new nation.

A back-and-forth barnburner ends in an 82-78 victory for Lithuania. In the documentary's interviews recalling that game, Kurtinaitis and Chomicius become so emotional that they break down and start crying. Seeing these two stoic, successful, middle-aged men shed tears of joy 20 years after-the-fact vividly illustrates just how much it meant to Lithuania when its own "dream team" vanquished nearly five decades of Communist occupation with a big win on the hardwood.

"At one point we actually had an inside joke that we were 4-for-4 in making (interview subjects) cry," producer Jon Weinbach said.

"But it was really gratifying confirmation that we had a really powerful story that elicited really profound emotion from people.

"That sounds kind of cheesy, but it was just true — it was something that obviously had real impact on the people who were involved, and even on the people who were watching from afar. It was really humbling."

In a one-of-a-kind moment that borders on the surreal, the jubilant Lithuanians accept their bronze medals clad entirely in the tie-dyed garb from the Grateful Dead — a very visible salute to the band that helped them get to the Olympics.

The act effectively pierces the pervasive corporate-sponsor vibe hanging over a medal ceremony where several American players drape towels over their warm-ups to cover up logos on their jackets because they endorse a different company's shoes.

Dynamic duo

"Other Dream Team" is directed by Markevicius, and written and produced by Markevicius and Weinbach. Without either one of them, this film never could've happened.

As far back as 1988, a film project of this ilk lived as an idea in the imagination of Markevicius, a 35-year-old Lithuanian-American who grew up in Southern California as a devout fan of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Being 12 years old during the 1988 Olympics, I remember seeing the four Lithuanians on the (Soviet Union squad's) starting five winning the gold," Markevicius said. "But people here (in America) were angry about it and saying, 'The bad guys beat us.'

"And I remember thinking, 'They're not the bad guys. People just don't understand what the Soviet Union is or the atrocities that they had committed or the fact that (Lithuanians) want no part of that system.' It's been in my head ever since, to let it be known what the truth of the whole situation is."

Markevicius had already produced several independent films before "Other Dream Team," including a Grand Jury Prize winner at last year's Sundance Film Festival, "Like Crazy." But he had no directorial credits to his name and no expertise in documentary filmmaking.

Enter Weinbach, the former Wall Street Journal reporter and another devoted Lakers fan. When mutual friends introduced the two (at a child's birthday party, of all places), Weinbach was in the process of producing the Ice Cube-directed "Straight Outta L.A." for ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary series.

Weinbach immediately embraced Markevicius' vision for a documentary about "the other Dream Team," and the project quickly gained momentum it never relinquished.

"It's really a universal story about the pursuit of freedom," Weinbach said. "In four years from 1988 to 1992, these four guys went from being faces of the evil Soviet sports machine to being icons for freedom. It's a story of how sports can be a tool or catalyst for something much larger than the game.

"If we've done our job right — even if you don't like basketball, know nothing about Lithuania, know nothing about the Grateful Dead — you will walk out of this film and feel you've been taken on an emotional ride."

email: jaskar@desnews.com

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