“The Other Dream Team”
This doc on Lithuania's ragtag 1992 Olympic basketball team, supported by unlikely allies the Grateful Dead, is a powerful allegory for their struggles with the USSR.
I don’t think most of us pay too much attention to what happened in the world in the time between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s. The Soviet Union, one of the largest, most powerful nations on earth, collapsed and fell to pieces under the weight of building a military-industrial complex that could compete with the United States. When it disbanded, becomming many smaller countries, and when the Berlin Wall came down, the world changed absolutely.
Most of those smaller countries had been occupied since World War II, both by a large armed force with tanks and soldiers, and by an ideology of totalitarian government that suppressed any sense of freedom and of joy. Lithuania was one of the smaller ones and one of the first to press back against the oppressor and defiantly seek its independence. And it did it through basketball.
Well, that is a little facile, but as you watch the new documentary The Other Dream Team you begin to realize that the spirit of basketball – the competition, strength, simplicity, determination, harmony and grace of that particular sport – and the world stage supplied by the Olympics in 1988 and 1992 go a long way toward creating a perfect analogy for what the captured nations of the Soviet Union felt as they struggled and achieved their freedom over that short period.
At the 1988 Olympics, the basketball team of the Soviet Union shocked and surprised everybody by beating the American team to take the gold medal. The American team was not yet stocked with professional round ball players, the best of the NBA, but it did have the best up-and-coming and college players. The starting five for the Soviet Union was comprised of four Lithuanians and one Russian. The little country that could took it as a personal victory. They had been celebrating good basketball since the late 1930’s when a Lithuanian-American named Frank Lubin came home to play and they dominated the European Championships.
By 1992 Lithuania was an independent nation, broke but free, and they wanted to go to the Olympics to play basketball. They started searching for funding. Naturally, they came to the United States, where one of their own, Sarunas Marciulionus, was already playing for the Golden State Warriors. Golden State was a great team to watch in those days, and, apparently, the Grateful Dead were among their fans. Hearing the Lithuanians’ story, the Dead wrote a song, tie-dyed a whole bunch of t-shirts and fundraised the money to get the team to the Olympics, earning the Deadhead loyalty of the team and much of Lithuania for life.
They were a good team. In the quarter finals they played the American Dream Team, the best of the best: Magic, Bird, Malone, Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Barkley. America won this time, but the real game for the Lithuanians was the Bronze medal game against the Russians – the country that had held their people hostage for so many years in so many ways. It was a good game. A great game if you were a Lithuanian, or understood where they had been and how far they had come. They won. At the buzzer. It was that kind of basketball game. It was one of those heroic moments that was even more so because it really happened. The Other Dream Team tells the whole story.
The Other Dream Team opens at the Downer Theatre on Friday, Oct. 26. Visit the theater’s website for more information.