The Other Dream Team is about basketball, but it’s more than just a basketball movie.
At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the U.S.A. men’s basketball team lost a game for only the second time in history up to that point.
They were defeated by the Soviet Union team, who then went on to win the gold. Four of the five starters on that team were from Lithuania, one of the three Baltic states that were occupied and taken over by the Soviet Union in 1940.
The Other Dream Team is about these players. It tells the story of how basketball intertwined with the desire of the people of Lithuania to become free from the USSR. It also tells the story of a modern day Lithuanian basketball player in 2011 who wants to be drafted by an NBA team so he can achieve his dream of playing professional basketball in the U.S.
Two of the names of that four man group of starters from the gold medal winning team are familiar to NBA fans of the 1990s. Šarūnas Marčiulionis joined the Golden State Warriors in 1989 and Arvydas Sabonis became a Portland Trailblazer in 1995. Sabonis is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and is considered one of the all-time great passing centers to ever play the game.
The film shows the history of how Lithuania was first occupied, and includes some film references to the U.S. perception and portrayal of the USSR in the past that include scenes from War Games, Rocky IV and even the Rocky and Bullwinkle character Boris Badenov. It also shows us the four players from that gold medal team today and their humble origins, as well as delving into what life was like for them under the Soviet “system” when they were playing for the Soviet National Team.
Lithuania gained its independence from the USSR during Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule and actually declared independence in March of 1990. After that, the players wanted to represent their new nation in the upcoming 1992 Summer Games at Barcelona, but Lithuania was broke. There was no money to travel to the Games (which is required). In fact, they didn’t even have the money to attend the Games as mere spectators.
Marčiulionis and the man who became the assistant coach of the Lithuania team, Donnie Nelson, were trying to raise money for the team and a reporter in San Francisco wrote an article about their efforts. That article was read by members of The Grateful Dead, and as it happened, Golden State had a game coming up in Detroit at the arena where the Dead were scheduled to play. Marčiulionis and Nelson went to the concert, went backstage and met with the Dead and soon the money was there. The Dead also sent the team a big box of tie-dyed t-shirts with a great logo involving both the Dead and the Lithuanian team.
The Lithuanians qualified for the Olympics and made it to the semi-finals where they lost to the team that is more widely known as “The Dream Team,” the U.S.A. squad with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and nine other NBA players who ran away with the gold medal that year. But their loss to the U.S.A. team in the semi-final game set up a confrontation in the game for the bronze medal that was one for the ages. They would play the “Unified” team, the name for the team representing the new Commonwealth of Independent States, also known as the former Soviet Union. This was their chance to make a statement about Lithuanian independence and freedom.
This is an excellent documentary film. It contains commentary from not just the players and coaches involved in the process, but also members of the Grateful Dead and others who were involved. They interviewed basketball legends such as Bill Walton and sportscasters such as Jim Lampley, who were in Barcelona at the Games.
The Other Dream Team is a stirring, uplifting look at just how popular basketball is outside the U.S.A. and how Beijing’s Tiananmen Square wasn’t the only place people stood up to oppression.