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In the sporting lexicon, the “Dream Team” is most commonly associated with the American juggernaut that dominated the basketball competition at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – the first to allow the participation of active NBA players.  Marius Markevicius’ enthralling documentary The Other Dream Team, however, presents the compelling case that the squad representing the small, basketball-mad nation of Lithuania at those same Olympics was equally deserving of the moniker.  The Lithuanians’ surprising bronze medal performance came just two years after their country declared its independence from the Soviet Union.  With the Soviets’ violent attempts to re-assert their control over the Baltic republic a painfully recent memory, it was not just an inspiring victory – it was a cathartic one as well, a crucial rallying point for a reborn nation struggling to exorcise the bad feelings cultivated by decades of cultural and political oppression.

Markevicius smartly uses the West’s vague memories of the scrappy tye-dye clad underdogs from Barcelona as a jumping-off point for a fascinating primer on Lithuania’s recent past and the unique role of basketball in the country’s modern history.  A European roundball powerhouse prior to World War II, Lithuania’s sporting traditions suffered as dramatically as its social and political fortunes in the years following Soviet annexation.  Though the state repressed the ethnic identities of its international athletes, the game never ceased to function as a point of national pride – the film pointedly notes that four of the five starters on the USSR’s gold medal-winning hoops team at the 1988 Seoul Games were native Lithuanians.  Those players, including future NBA players Sarunas Marciulionus and Arvydas Sabonis, comprised a golden generation of Lithuanian basketball talent that stoked the home fires as demands for self-determination grew louder toward the late 1980s.  Their oral histories of life behind the Iron Curtain – where even star athletes were compelled to make ends meet by smuggling in electronics and blue jeans acquired on out-of-country trips – form a penetrating reminder of the freedoms that many others take for granted.
The Other Dream Team manages to pack a lot of emotions into a brisk 90 minutes.  Plenty of sports documentaries attempt to ascribe a greater social significance to their subjects by claiming that their glories temporarily overshadowed turbulent times, but in this case it feels wholly appropriate.  Many of the interviewees fight back tears when describing the deportation of their relatives as Soviet totalitarianism took root in their homeland.  Markevicius also devotes as much time to political context as he does to basketball, most effectively during the description of a January 1991 clash between the Red Army and Lithuanian protesters that killed over a dozen civilians and left hundreds more wounded.
Dream Team is joyful, sad, and ultimately life-affirming, a thoughtfully-constructed documentary that, while reinforcing certain myths about the East-West divide, also works to correct old cultural misunderstandings: the negative reactions of Portland Trail Blazers fans to the drafting of the “Russian” Sabonis in the mid-1980s are simultaneously hilarious and disheartening.  It’s hard to remain unaffected while soaking in the imagery of Lithuania’s first Olympic tournament as an independent country.  Breaking away from a system that viewed diversity and individuality as things to be oppressed or exploited, the sight of the players gallivanting around the Olympic Village in garish warm-ups emblazoned with the Grateful Dead skeleton logo (in another unlikely twist, the Dead’s financial assistance was crucial in getting the Lithuanian team to Spain) symbolizes a pure and exhilarating sense of freedom.  On the court, the Lithuanians may have been just another conquest for the America’s so-called “Dream Team.”  But off the court, as Markevicius winningly reveals, their dream was already coming true.

Special Features
– Feature commentary by filmmaker Marius Markevicius and producer/co-writer Jon Weinbach
– Q&A with Markevicius and Weinbach

“The Other Dream Team” is available on DVD and iTunes starting Tuesday, January 15.  Available to watch now via Amazon Instant.

Follow Eric Ambler (@AmblerAmblog) on Twitter and stay tuned to Screen Invasion on Twitter (@ScreenInvasion) and Facebook

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog ( His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.