By Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, October 11, 2012, 4:39 p.m. PDT
The Other Dream Team
Documentary. Starring Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton and Mitch Richmond. Directed by Marius A. Markevicius. (Not rated. 91 minutes.)
From a cinematic point of view, the story of the bronze medal won by the 1992 Lithuanian men's basketball team was already pretty close to perfect. Athletes free from Soviet rule join forces with the Grateful Dead to fund an Olympics run - ending with a showdown against the goliath Russians.
It would have been enough for "The Other Dream Team" to simply pay tribute to the tie-dyed underdogs, but the filmmakers strived for more. Adding detailed historical context, the quirky feel-good story becomes a tragedy and a lesson. And that makes the victories resonate even more.
Director Marius A. Markevicius sets a crowd-pleasing tone - is it possible not to smile when the Dead tune "Truckin' " is played as the Berlin Wall falls? After that quick intro, we go back to 1940, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Families were torn apart, but sporting excellence was an early refuge. "Basketball allowed us to have some dignity," one older subject explains, describing a regulation court that the Lithuanians built in Siberia.
Next we get mini-profiles of Lithuania's basketball prodigies, including future NBA players Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. They're a likable bunch, growing up poor but finding pleasure as traveling basketball players, packing their luggage with blue jeans and electronics to make a few dollars when they get home.
"The Other Dream Team" shows the risk Marciulionis took when he made a play for the NBA, signing with the Warriors in Oakland a year before Lithuania gained its independence in 1990. And the film makes sense of Marciulionis and assistant coach Donnie Nelson's strange alliance with the Dead - a band that for all of its hippie stereotypes, always loved sports and democracy.
Archive footage adds levity to the film. It's worth the price of admission to hear Marciulionis, with his gloriously square tucked-in Grateful Dead concert T-shirt, talk about his first experience smelling marijuana smoke.
Markevicius isn't an especially slick or stylish director, but he's thorough and paces the documentary with skill. Interviews include sports stars (Bill Walton and Mitch Richmond are MVPs), Lithuanian politicians who lived the nightmare and some well-known sportswriters and broadcasters to provide context.
It's a tribute to Markevicius' efforts that the movie would have worked without the sports heroics. "The Other Dream Team" never settles for nostalgia, and the film adjusts the prism from which basketball fans will absorb this feel-good moment in Olympics history. As a result, viewers who remember the 1992 bronze medal game get to experience it all over again.
By the third act, the Lithuanians stand out in sharp contrast to the U.S. Dream Team of 1992, widely regarded as the most talented basketball team in history. When the Lithuanian players committed to a life of basketball, before the fall of the Soviet Union, none of them expected to become wealthy. Their subsequent successes left no doubt that they did it for love of their country, and love of the game.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: