For USA basketball fans, the Dream Team referred to simply the best squad you could dream of–at least, that was certainly true of the 1992 edition, despite its inclusion of Christian Laettner over the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Isiah Thomas. But while the States cruised to gold in Barcelona, it was the bronze-medal-winning Lithuanian outfit that was truly a dream team, for they fulfilled the hopes and dreams of a nation, not just those who dreamed of seeing Magic and Bird in the same uni.
In the feature-length documentary The Other Dream Team, director Marius Markevicius showed just how closely intertwined the nascent Lithuanian nation was with basketball, its national sport. And at an Olympic tournament with an overwhelmingly clear favourite, the Lithuanians provided a true underdog story you could root for. (They certainly had the Deadheads’ support–check out those tie-dye t-shirts!) Forget the Miracle on Ice, this was a true Miracle on Hardwood for the former Soviet nation.
Y’see, in the pre-Soviet days, Lithuania was somewhat of a roundball powerhouse, winning two of the first three EuroBasket titles in the late 1930′s. The sport stayed strong during the occupation, serving as a morale-booster for Siberian exiles, and Lithuania eventually produced a generation of players in who’d lead local club team BC Žalgiris to back-to-back-to-back championship wins over the Russian Red Army team right around the time Pat Reilly was coining the term “three-peat.” You’ve probably heard of some of these guys, like Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, who paved the path for Lithuanians to the NBA.
But first, they had to play for the enemy. In fact, on the 1988 Soviet Union team that beat the Americans for Olympic gold, four of the starting five were Lithuanian. So when an independent Lithuania runs into the Unified Team (ie. ex-Soviet Union), in the ’92 bronze-medal match, one can only imagine the significance, not to mention the outcome. Actually, it was a pretty close game, although as Soviet teammate turned opponent Sasha Volkov admits on tape, history was on Lithuania’s side.
Director Markevicius not only conducts extensive interviews with all the key players on that squad, but also key Lithuanian political figures of the era, providing a true historical perspective not only of Lithuanian basketball but of the Lithuanian nation, leaving no dobut that all its star players would bond together to form its first national team. (None of this Nash can’t play for Canada crap!) As for the tie-dye, well, it just so happens that Marciulionis’, then a Golden State Warrior, Bay Area fundraising campaign caught the attention of the Grateful Dead themselves, who kicked in some cash along with the unofficial team unis. No, they did NOT wear those on the court–but they sure did on the podium!
The fact of the matter is that ’92 is to Lithuania what ’72 was to Canada–had our country, and not just its ice rinks, been invaded by the Soviets. Coincidentally, it was also the birth year of Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, the highest Lithuanian pick in NBA history when he was taken fifth overall a couple years back. The film also follows Jonas throughout his pre-draft workouts, culminating with a footnote on the future of Lithuanian basketball–not to mention the Toronto team. And speaking of footnotes, it just so happens that Lithuania won silver at Eurobasket just two months ago. With Sabonis and Marciulionis both running hoops schools in their home country, it seems that the future of Lithuanian basketball is in great shape…
If only the same could be said for the Raptors.
Note: The Other Dream Team was the premiere screening of this year’s European Union Film Festival, which runs until the 27th at The Royal and features one film from each EU nation. All screenings are free–but if you kick in 10 bucks ahead of time, you don’t hafta wait in line. Full festival schedule here.