By Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Sun-Times, 10/11, 1:50 p.m. CDT
It takes heart to play basketball. Baseball requires finesse, and football is much about muscle. Few things in team sports match the giving soul of a basketball player.
So, imagine you have worked hard enough to become a member of an Olympic-level basketball team. Sweat pours freely between assists and rebounds. But you are not allowed to represent your real country. This is the starting point of the deeply heartfelt documentary “The Other Dream Team.” .
At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviet Union beat the United States in the basketball competition and went on to win the gold medal. Four of the five starting players on the ’88 Soviet basketball team were from Lithuania, playing for a nation that annexed their homeland in 1940.
Directed by Marius Markevicius, “The Other Dream Team” seamlessly connects Lithunania’s struggle for independence with modern-day Lithuanian hoopsters and the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead. Through its charitable arm, the Rex Foundation, the Dead provided financial assistance for the Lithuanian ’92 Olympic team.
That team, which included Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Arturas Karnisovas, went on to win the bronze medal. Marciulionis and Sabonis eventually starred in the NBA, and last year Sabonis was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Lithuanian ’92 team even wore Dead-inspired tie-dyed warm-ups with dunking skeletons, which inspired Sabonis to quip, “Wow, this is really a free Lithuania!”
Besides Marciulionis and Sabonis, “The Other Dream Team” features commentary from NBA commissioner David Stern, former Chicagoan and president of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus, Dead drummer Mickey Hart and NBA Hall of Famer-Deadhead Bill Walton, who was a mentor for the 7-foot-3 Sabonis (the tallest member of the Basketball Hall of Fame).
The 1992 team’s legacy became a symbol for a new world, which Markevicius parallels with the emerging journey of Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas, who was selected by the Toronto Raptors with the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Valanciunas, who played last year in Lithuania, coincidentally was born in 1992.
Markevicius takes a measured approach in outlining the history of Lithuania’s struggles, which in turn amplifies the players’ stories. In 1939, Lithuania won the European Championship. The Soviets invaded in 1940, and by 1941, Lithuanians were being deported to Siberia. (Nazi Germany also invaded but retreated by 1944.) Sabonis recalls how his mother was sent to Siberia when he was 9 years old for having “too much land.”
“The Other Dream Team” reveals historic footage of basketball courts being built in Siberia for Lithunians to maintain dignity. Markevicius’ eye for detail illuminates empathy, such as the drop in of drawings by children deported to Siberia. Sabonis puzzlingly recalls how the ’88 Soviet coach took the team to Lenin’s Tomb as a motivational tool.
Now 41 and director of scouting for Houston Rockets, Karnisovas was a key player in leading Lithuania to Olympic bronze medals in ’92 and ’96. “Basketball is our second religion in Lithuania,” Karnisovas said in a phone interview. “My father played basketball. I used to hang around him in the locker room and at games.”
Lithuania has a distinct style of play compared to other countries.
It is democratic.
“We share the ball from a young age,” Karnisovas said. “We work on fundamentals with kids for the first three years. We just work on passing, dribbling and shooting. Then they start playing games around 10 years old. ”
Walton saw the Soviet team upset the United States in the ’88 Olympics, an event that gave birth to the 1992 “Dream Team” of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and others. In an August 2011 interview for the Grantland site, Walton said of Sabonis and the Lithuanians, “They played with more imagination, more creativity. They were more assertive on offense, there was better ball movement, there was better skill.”
However, by 1992, Lithuania was independent yet bankrupt.
The Grateful Dead connection was sparked when Donnie Nelson, then an assistant for the Golden State Warriors (and now general manager for the Dallas Mavericks), took then Warriors guard Marciulionis to see a Dead concert in Detroit. In the documentary, Marciulionis recalls “the interesting smell in the arena.”
“We wore those tie-dyes every day,” Karnisovas said with a laugh. “I was even wearing tank tops and shorts at the medal ceremony. It was like saying thank you to those guys every day. We learned about their music. The Dead had an unconventional sound, and we listened because of that.
“It was all a dream, especially for me being a sophomore in college [under P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall]. It’s amazing to look at the documentary, see the history of Lithuania, the passion for basketball, the occupation for 50 years.”
It is a dream fulfilled.