The Dream Team you know about. That was the 1992 US Olympic basketball squad, featuring the likes of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, which won gold at the Barcelona Games. The other dream team was the Lithuanian Olympic basketball squad, featuring the likes of Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, which won bronze there. Oh, and it wore tie-dyed shirts on the medal stand, courtesy of the Grateful Dead.
Clearly, there’s a story here. The documentary “The Other Dream Team” tells it in a smart, lively, if somewhat hectic fashion. There’s a bit too much on the Cold War. A subplot about a young Lithuanian star who hopes to be drafted by a National Basketball Association team doesn’t really add anything. Otherwise, “The Other Dream Team” is the most heart-warming hoop movie this side of “Hoosiers.”
The documentary begins at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where the Soviet Union took basketball gold. Four of the five starters were Lithuanian. Not only that, they came from the same city. Kaunas has a population about the same as St. Louis. Talk about a hoop hotbed. But that status had described Lithuania generally for half a century. It had won the 1939 European championship, no small feat for a nation of 3 million.
A year later, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. So the country’s top players had to join the Soviet national team. Sabonis, the most mirthful 7-foot-4-inch person you’re likely to find, recounts how the team’s coach once took his players to Lenin’s Tomb for inspiration. That story is almost as funny as the one about the team touring the States. Sabonis would evade KGB handlers by sneaking away in the trunk of a car for an evening on the town. One of the filmmakers expresses disbelief at his ability to fit into such a small space. “Come on, it was a Cadillac!” explains Sabonis, who has a bit of Tommy Heinsohn’s square-faced gusto.
Lithuania finally gained its independence at the beginning of 1991. What better way to display itself to the world than through basketball? Yet the country had no money and was recovering from a brief, bloody Soviet attempt to put down the independence movement. By then, Marciulionis was playing for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. A Bay Area newspaper carried a story about his efforts to raise money to send a Lithuanian squad to Barcelona. Members of the Dead saw the story. The band wrote a substantial check and sent over a crate of tie-dyed T-shirts. Sabonis describes his reaction to seeing the shirts, which showed a skeleton dunking a basketball. “Wow, this really is a free Lithuania.”
The Lithuanian team made it to the quarterfinals, where it met the Americans. “Nobody had any fantasies about beating them,” Sabonis explains. “The idea was to make a good showing, make it respectable, and that’s it, thank you. And that everyone would get some playing time, and get a photo!”
In the bronze-medal game, as if by fate, the Lithuanians met the team from the former Soviet Union. One of the players was gashed on the forehead. The Lithuanian president came down from the stands to ask how he was doing. OK, the player said, except that he couldn’t see. “Don’t worry about it,” the president replied. “You are spilling blood for Lithuania.”
You know who won. “The medal in Seoul was gold,” says Sabonis, “but this bronze is our soul.” If the final 20 minutes of “The Other Dream Team” doesn’t leave you a bit wet-eyed, you don’t care about sports, geopolitics, or the Dead. The credit sequence includes a glimpse of Sabonis’s induction last year into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield. “The Other Dream Team” makes you want to see all his teammates in there with him.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.