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