It’s fair to say that my two biggest passions in life (at least when it comes to pop culture, hobbies, etc.) are movies and sports. I’m a big fan of music, books, and eating large amounts of fatty foods, too, but they don’t quite compare to the level of affection I hold for movies and sports, particularly basketball. The combinations of those two passions often feels like someone in the world is secretly reading my hypothetical diary at night and creating programming just for me. Such is the case with The Other Dream Team, a powerful and insightful documentary that I imagine will stick with me for quite some time.
For many basketball fans, the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain are considered special, maybe even sacred, as the team assembled to represent the US Men’s Olympic basketball team was unquestionably the greatest collection of talent in the history of the sport. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and eight other legendary players (plus Christian Laettner!) came together to form the Dream Team, annihilating every opponent that stood in the way of earning the gold medal and spreading the gospel of basketball to the world along the way. But while the Dream Team captivated a worldwide audience, there was a much more dramatic and significant story unfolding in the background. A group of players representing the small country of Lithuania which had only recently regained its independence in the fall of the USSR worked their way into the third place game and faced off with the Unified Team, the remnants of the squad they had been forced to compete with during the Communist reign. Weaving together the happenings on the basketball court with the rebirth of a small nation, The Other Dream Team expertly displays the importance of sport and the ways it can be used to inspire.
Going into this film, I had a basic understanding of what took place on the basketball court throughout this story. Like many other men my age, as a kid I was fascinated by the Dream Team. We’d never seen anything like that team and we never will again; they were literally that good. The Lithuanian team, though, always stuck out to me partly because they appeared to actually be good at basketball (whereas some of our other opponents looked like a bunch of middle school girls) and partly because their top two players, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, were tremendous talents. In this summer’s Olympics, virtually every team that qualifies to play will have at least one or two NBA-caliber players but in ’92, that wasn’t the case. Sabonis and Marciulionis, along with Croatia’s Drazen Petrovic, were undoubtedly the best players in the tournament who weren’t on the Dream Team.
I did not know, however, the tumultuous background from which these players came from. At the time of the Olympic Games, Lithuania had only been an independent nation for two short years, two years which were trying to say the least. Amazingly enough, it’s tough to get a new country off the ground when you’ve spent 46 years under Communist reign (shocking, I know). The Other Dream Team heartbreakingly digs into the deeper elements of this fight for independence and paints a dark (and truthful) picture of what it was like to live through this period, both before and after Lithuania received its freedom from the Soviets. There are some truly devastating visuals and descriptions at play here and the film pulls no punches in ensuring that the audience understands not only what the players were going through but what every citizen of the country was going through. As such, the Lithuanian basketball team is simply the medium in which the filmmakers work to bring their story together.
By showing us the awful conditions which the players (and by proxy, their countrymen) lived through while under Soviet control and the immense struggle that was the fight for independence, director Marius A. Markevicius sets us up for a dramatic and deeply satisfying third act. Defeating the Russians to win the bronze medal was nothing compared to the hope their triumph gave a young nation and this is illustrated exquisitely through a mix of tear-inducing behind-the-scenes footage and touching interviews with both players and spectators. This is one of the more genuine sports documentaries I can remember and one that seems to really understand the significance of the subject matter it concerns itself with. It is a touching, at times quite funny, and beautiful example of the power of sport that will absolutely hit home for sports fans and non-fans alike.