In the summer of 1992, a pair of teams from freedom-loving nations took the Olympics by storm. At the end of the Games, both stood proudly on the medal stand as their flags rose to the rafters. 20 years later, two documentaries were made about their exploits.
One, The Dream Team, is about the legendary American squad. The NBA-produced special is a horse syringe for hoops junkies, who also can get their fix from Jack McCallum's new book and Lang Whitaker's expansive oral history in July's GQ.
The other documentary—The Other Dream Team, directed by Marius A. Markevicius and produced by Jon Weinbach—focuses on the Lithuanian team that lost to the United States by 51 points. Its players may have been mere mortals next to Jordan and Magic and Bird, but they make for much more interesting documentary subjects. The original Dream Team was the basketball equivalent of the Avengers, a collection of superhumans forging a temporary alliance with an obvious outcome. The Lithuanians were more like the Bad News Bears.
So: The Other Dream Team, which premiered at Sundance and will hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 14, actually contains some drama. Everything about the Lithuanians in '92 seemed ready-made for the big screen. The squad had a sponsorship from the Grateful Dead, and some excellent accompanying dunking-skeleton iconography. Artist Greg Speirs' design was basically a hallucinogenic version of the original Mighty Ducks crest.
And there was a blood-feud component. The film's stars are the four Lithuanian anchors of the '92 team: future NBA mainstays Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, and Euroleague veterans Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius. That foursome also made up the core of the Soviet Union's '88 team, which beat a U.S. squad loaded with college stars en route to a gold. (If that defeat never happens, the Dream Team never happens.) Despite the four Lithuanians' accomplishments, their Soviet overlords still treated them like shit. When the Trail Blazers drafted Sabonis in 1986, he wasn't allowed to come to the States. A few years later, Marciulionis got out. But as Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2002, not before this happened:
In 1989, as part of perestroika, the Soviets dropped the bar on letting their athletes play in the U.S. Donnie Nelson, working for his father with the Golden State Warriors, flew to Moscow to sign Marciulionis. No one was sure if it was real or propaganda, but at a news conference arranged by the sympathetic chess master, Garry Kasparov, Marciulionis and hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov announced they'd go.
"There were three guys sitting in the front row in military garb," Nelson said. "The first guy stands up, I hear the translation through my earpiece. He says, ‘What are you guys doing? You'll be locked up!'
"The second guy stands up, says the same thing, ‘You're selfish athletes, you're not true Communists.'
"I'm starting to sweat. I was wondering if we were going to be carted away.... Now the thing is over and we're walking out. But the athletes are lagging behind. They're afraid to go out on the street. They're afraid they might be made an example of.
"Before we started, [Kasparov] said, ‘By the end of the day, you'll either be the wealthiest people in Russia or you'll be on your way to Siberia.'"
Marciulionis, mercifully, wound up in the Bay Area. But the path to sovereignty wasn't smooth back home. In The Other Dream Team, there's some terrifying footage from early 1991 of Soviet tanks storming a Lithuanian television tower. Thirteen civilians died during what's now called the January Events.
And the Lithuanians didn't enjoy much sympathy from Americans, either. When the Soviets played a series of exhibitions against NBA teams in 1987, John Thompson, who coached the Americans in '88, was livid. "The NBA has been very helpful to our opponents," he said during an interview on Today. "Presently they are training the Soviet team."
Growing up as a first-generation Lithuanian-American in California, the now 35-year-old Markevicius liked to point out to friends that the Lithuanian stars weren't Ivan Drago clones. In his movie, he does a good job blowing up that stereotype. The players—who are interviewed here in their native language—were far from Soviet drones. During trips abroad, they went on stealth missions to buy clothes, shoes, and electronics that they could smuggle back home to sell. (Among the Lithuanians, Chomicius was the savviest entrepreneur.) In the States, they snuck out of hotels via the trunks of their Lithuanian-American friends' cars to avoid the chain-smoking KGB agent assigned to mind the team. If the idea of the seven-foot-three Sabonis attempting to fold himself into the back of a Geo pains you, fear not. "Come on," he says in the film, "it was a Cadillac!"
The documentary is worth watching if for no other reason than to be mesmerized by old footage of the occasionally mulleted center, who in his younger days moved jaw-droppingly well for a man his size. Weinbach pored over black-and-white Soviet newsreels and a Spanish basketball obsessive's box of Betamax cassettes to mine for Sabonis gold. The snippets unearthed in the film make it clear: Before foot and ankle pain rendered him as stationary as an oak tree, Sabonis was one of the best centers in the world. He could fluidly run the floor, shoot jumpers, block shots, and pass better than any big man on the planet. What's amazing is that Sabonis developed his trademark flair in a vacuum. In Cold War-era Lithuania, you couldn't just go to the mall and buy a Magic Johnson tape. "He wasn't watching NBA TV," Weinbach says.
That Sabonis wasn't an NBA rookie until 1995, when he was 30, is criminal. Still, despite injuries and what Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick deemed "Stolichnaya elbow," he managed to cobble together a Hall of Fame career. He also helped his country finish third at the Olympics in both 1992 and 1996. Sure, they got crushed by the Dream Team along the way in '92, but in their last game, the bronze-medal matchup, they defeated the Russians. (At that point, they were known as the innocuous-sounding Unified Team.)
The ensuing celebration was predictably cathartic. Apparently, Sabonis didn't even make it to the medal stand. (As McCallum put it later, the big man was "later found spreading his own version of Glasnost in the dorm of the Russian women's Olympic team.") But most of his teammates made it to the ceremony, which provided its own cinematic contrast. On one podium, the Americans, led by Nike company man Michael Jordan, made a calculated effort to obscure the Reebok logos on their warm-up suits. On another podium, the Lithuanians beamed, and looked comfortable in their dunking skeleton T-shirts and tie-dyed shorts. It was clear who was having more fun. "They looked like the biggest goofballs ever," Markevicius says. "What they were representing was pure joy."
Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.