Americans are surely passionate about sports, but we think of athletics, for the most part, as fun and games. In Europe, however, especially in international competitions, sports carry the weight of world events and regularly elevate or deflate the hopes of an entire nation. But even in that context, the story told in the captivating The Other Dream Team is totally out of the ordinary.
A stranger-than-fiction look at how sports and politics have intersected to highly dramatic effect in the history of modern Lithuania, The Other Dream Team's tale was a classic saga waiting to be told, but it took a Lithuanian American director, Marius Markevicius, to know enough to bring it to the screen.
If you know anything about Lithuania, you know this story couldn't involve any sport but basketball, a game that has captivated this small country of 3 million since 1939, when Lithuania hosted and won the European championships.
After World War II, when the country was annexed by the Soviet Union, basketball remained so popular that exiled Lithuanian dissidents regularly played it during their Siberian exiles. Even today, what the game did for the country remains so significant that The Other Dream Team's interviewees include two of the nation's former presidents.
One of the byproducts of that annexation was that Lithuanian athletes were forced to play for the Soviet Union in international competitions. This compulsory alliance reached its climax at the 1988 Seoul Olympics basketball semifinals, when, in a stunning upset, the United States team lost, 82-76, to the Soviets.
Though not many Americans knew it at the time, four of the five U.S.S.R. starters were Lithuanians infuriated at having to forgo their nationality. The team's two stars, guard Sarunas Marciulionis and center Arvydas Sabonis ("a 7-foot-3 version of Larry Bird," says Bill Walton), had played together since they were teenagers growing up in the city of Kaunas.
The Other Dream Team focuses on these two players, and in fact goes back with Marciulionis to Kaunas to see the battered backboard he helped construct.
Once freedom came in 1991, the country remained quite poor. But with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics coming up, Marciulionis and Sabonis were determined to put together a team that could play together under the Lithuanian flag.
How this all worked out makes The Other Dream Team a sports film to remember.
The Other Dream Team *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Marius A. Markevicius. With Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. Distributed by Film Arcade.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 min.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse