Monday, November 5, 2012

The Other Dream Team [2012]

MPAA (NR)  Dave Hoekstra/Chicago Sun Times (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Dave Hoestra's review

The Other Dream Team (directed and cowritten by Marius A. Markevicius along with Jon Weinbach) is a documentary that tells the story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team.  While certainly all the United States and much of the rest of the basketball following world was focused on the truly _epic_ "Dream Team" that the U.S. sent to Barcelona Olympics that year (it was the first U.S. Olympic Basketball Team made up of professional athletes, and to this day it was probably the best basketball team to ever play in the Games), there was this "other story" taking place.  And the stories were actually interrelated. ;-)

The stories of the _two_ dream teams were interrelated because of what happened at the previous Olympic Games (in Seoul, South Korea).  In Seoul, the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team still made up of college all-stars rather than professional athletes was defeated in the gold medal game by the Soviet Olympic team.  U.S. disgust at being forced by antiquated Olympic rules to field "college all stars" rather than truly its best athletes to play arguably "America's Game" led to the fielding of the legendary 1992 "Dream Team" made-up of truly the best American basketball players of the age.

But that was really only 1/2 the story.  The other half took place on "the other side."  Who were the stars of the 1988 Soviet Olympic team?  It turned out that 4 out of 5 of the starters of that Soviet squad were LITHUANIANS.  (Lithuania, which along with the other "Baltic states" of Latvia and Estonia had enjoyed a brief period of independence in the 1920s-30s, had been occupied and absorbed back into the Russian dominated Soviet Union by Stalin in 1940).

In 1988 few would have honestly imagined that the world would so remarkably change by 1992.  Yet, in 1989 the Berlin Wall will have come down and one by one the Soviet Union's satellite countries in Central Europe would assert true independence.  But what of the Baltic states which had been absorbed into the Soviet Union (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) itself?  Lithuania became the first of the Soviet Republics to assert _its_ independence.  And the journey was rocky.  Lithuania did not become truly free (and receive formal international recognition of being truly free) until the aborted coup against Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1991 which resulted in the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union soon afterward.

This documentary therefore presents the story of the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team and its country helping to explain how this small country became a basketball powerhouse in its part of the world, and how the team helped solidify its country's new found independence in that heady time approaching the 1992 Games.

It turns out that Lithuania already had formidable basketball tradition prior to the Soviet Occupation:  In the 1930s, Lithuania had hosted (once) the European Basketball Championships and won the European Championships _several times_.  In such a heady, winning atmosphere, basketball had captured the imagination of the Lithuanian people and basketball courts appeared in playgrounds across the country.  The country's love of the game continued during Soviet Occupation and Lithuanians remained good at the game.  Games between Kaunas' (Lithuania's second city) Žalgiris team and Moscow's "Central Red Army" team (basically the Soviet Union's "New York Yankees," or since we're talking basketball here, its "Los Angeles Lakers" ...) became epic.  And Kaunas' Žalgiris often cleaned the "Central Red Army's" clocks.  Lithuanian prominence, even dominance, in Soviet basketball became the reason why the Soviet national team came to be dominated by Lithuanian basketball players from, you guessed it ... Kaunas.

In the late 1980s, another interesting development started to take place: The NBA led by, of all teams, the Portland _TRAIL BLAZERS_, began to toy with the idea of "drafting" Soviet (meaning largely Lithuanian) basketball players to play in the NBA.  In 1986, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Arvydas Sabonis, who became the star of the 1988 Soviet Olympic team.  He was not allowed to play for Portland until 1989.  In 1987, another Lithuanian player, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, was drafted by the NBA's Oakland, CA based Golden State Warriors and became the first Soviet (er Lithuanian) player to play in the NBA.

Šarūnas Marčiulionis years with the Golden State Warriors became important to the story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Basketball team because during his time playing for the Bay Area team, he came to know the legendary Bay Area rock band, "The Grateful Dead," several of who's members, including the legendary Jerry Garcia, turn out to have been avid basketball fans (and also unconventional "kooks" :-) who always liked an underdog ;-).  In the chaos of Lithuania's new found independence, it was the Grateful Dead's "opening of its check book" that financed Lithuania's Basketball team's participation in the 1992 Olympics.  And returning the favor, Lithuania's Basketball Team, which won the Bronze medal that year (after beating the Former Soviet Union's "Unified Team" in the bronze medal game), showed up to the medal ceremony dressed in the Grateful Dead provided "Lithuanian Colored Tie-Dye" t-shirts ;-).  Indeed, for a country that had been effectively "dead" for 40 years, the symbolism and humor was remarkably appropriate ;-).

Anyway, I found this film to be a joy to watch and probably would entertain both world basketball fans and history geeks ;-), for it is a celebration of both freedom and universal human aspiration to be recognized for who one is.  So good job folks, good job!\

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