LITTLE ROCK Marius Markevicius’ The Other Dream Team is a deeply interesting, if conventionally structured and unflashy, documentary that’s about more than the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team that won an Olympic bronze medal. It’s really about the reassertion of national identity after generations of foreign oppression and the role of sport in nation building.
Lithuania was already a basketball-mad country, when, in the 1930s, it found itself caught between the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and in the wake of World War II, it was unsurprisingly annexed by the USSR, which deported many of its citizens to Siberia(where they built makeshift courts and put up hoops to indulge their passion).
Lithuanian athletes were required to compete under Soviet colors and four of the starting five players - Rimas Kurtinaitis, Valdemaras Chomicius, Sarunas Marciulionis and the great Arvy-das Sabonis - on the Soviet team that won the gold at the 1988 Olympics (beating an American team that included Mitch Richmond, Dan Majerle and David Robinson) were Lithuanians. Markevicius uses extensive interviews with these four - who, as it happens, are all personable characters with charisma enough to transcend any language barrier.
And four years later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and Lithuania regained its independence, these four players formed the core of the first team to compete under the Lithuanian flag since 1939.
Though the style of the film is as programmatic and conventional as any ESPN 30 for 30 documentary (that’s not exactly a bad thing), Markevicius patiently sets the stage for an uplifting third act involving the Grateful Dead and tie-dyed practice jerseys. Context is provided by the likes of New Yorker Editor David Remnick (who was the Washington Post Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1992), renowned Deadhead Bill Walton, sports talker Jim Lampley and others.
And while there’s a serious subtext underpinning the film - 14 people died when Soviet troops tried to seize the Vilnius TV tower after Lithuania declared its independence in 1991 - the overall tone of the film is inspiring, with light moments. (All of the Lithuanians admit that during the ’80s they augmented their paltry - about $100 a month - salaries as members of the Soviet team by smuggling in foreign goods for resale to their countrymen after international trips. And they all say Chomicius was much better at it than the rest of them. And he says they all did “what life dictated.”)
Marciulionis and Sabonis went on to have respectable careers in the NBA - though politics kept Sabonis, who in his prime was probably one of the greatest ever to play the game (Walton describes him as a “7-foot-3 Larry Bird”), out of the league until he was a 31-year-old with banged-up knees. He still played seven seasons.
The film is diluted somewhat by a superfluous story about Jonas Valanciunas, a Lithuanian born in 1992 and drafted by the NBA’s Toronto Raptors in 2011 (and who is expected to start for the team this year) and some music cues that are perhaps a little too saccharine and on the nose. (It’s better when it sticks to the Grateful Dead.)
Still, this is the sort of story that would be hard to screw up. And to Markevicius’ credit, he doesn’t.
The Other Dream Team 87
Not rated, nothing offensive
91 minutes In English and Lithuanian with English subtitles.
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 11/02/2012
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