Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Can You Name the Capital of Lithuania?

All I know about Lithuania is that it is a "Baltic state" & a formerly part of the USSR.  Hard pressed to identify Lithuania on a map or identify a Lithuanian, I took in The Other Dream Team at the Landmark Embarcadero.

The Other Dream Team; directed by Marius Markevicius; documentary (2011) - Official Website

The Other Dream Team tells the story of the 1992 Lithuanian men's basketball Olympic team.  1992 was the Olympics held in Barcelona and the big story of the games was the US men's basketball team (aka The Dream Team) featuring Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, et al.  While the Dream Team cakewalked to a gold medal, there was considerable drama surrounding the Lithuanian team.

Rewinding to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the USSR defeated the USA in the gold medal game.  This set off panic that the US had lost its dominance in basketball.  The rally cry became let the best play.  The US had not allowed NBA players to compete in the Olympics because they did not feel they were "amateurs."  However the Soviets paid their national team members a salary/stipend so to compete on level ground, the US decided to send its pros to Barcelona and recapture the gold.  One little noticed fact about the 1988 gold medalists was that the four of the starting five were from Lithuania.  Even more amazing is that the four Lithuanians were from the same small city (Kaunas).  Two of the four would go on to play in the NBA - Golden State Warrior swingman Šarūnas Marčiulionis (from the Run TMC era) and center Arvydas Sabonis who would join the Portland Trailblazers at the relatively late age of 31 years old.  Rounding out the Lithuanian Fab Four were Valdemaras Chomičius and Rimas Kurtinaitis, both of whom had professional careers in Europe.

I can't really say I knew that much about Lithuania or their basketball team but I do recall the tie-dye shirts and merchandise they wore which resulted from financial support from the band The Grateful Dead. As it turns out, basketball has been Lithuania's national sport since the 1930s when Lithuanian-American Frank Lubin (aka "the Godfather of Lithuanian Basketball) led the national team to several European title.  After the Soviets subsumed Lithuania, their players competed on the Soviet national team.  What is frequently forgotten is that the people in the Soviet republics felt like second class citizens (with Russians being first class).  As one of the players noted during an interview, the 1988 Soviet team had more non-Russians than Russians.  It's clear that the Soviet Union was an amalgamation of nationalities and not a unified nation.

By 1992, the USSR was dissolved and Lithuania wanted to reclaim a spot on the international stage.  Led by Marčiulionis, who was playing in the NBA at the time, the Lithuanians begged for financial support as they hoped to qualify for the Olympics.  This played out amidst the backdrop of several former Soviet Republics declaring the independence and being recognized by the international community.  Indeed, the silver medal in 1992 went to Croatia, a Balkan state which was formerly part of Yugoslavia, itself a Soviet satellite.

This history and more is described in The Other Dream Team.  As much educational as entertainment, the film spends considerable time giving the backstory leading up to the Bronze Medal game which pitted Lithuania against the Unified Team or Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which is what the former Soviet Union was calling itself at the time.  Given the oppression, discrimination and bloodshed between the two nation, you would have expected the match to be more physical.  If it was, that aspect was played down in the interviews.  The lone Russian interviewed (Aleksandr Volkov) even stated that it was better that Lithuania won the game.  A tight 82-78 win for Lithuania, the game is almost a postscript to the movie.

Uplifting if not a little fragmented, The Other Dream Team is a crowd pleaser.  I thought it was slightly lacking in substance for such a weighty topic.  There were moments where the interviewees could not speak of their youth or tragedies which had befallen their families.  Chris Mullin related how, initially, Marčiulionis would cry upon entering a Safeway because there was so much fresh produce.  That pain seemed to be glossed over at times.  The tone of the film would have been completely different if too much time was devoted to such topics.  In some ways, it's unfair to criticize the filmmaker for the film he didn't make. Still I would have liked to have heard more about what the Lithuanians endured.

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