Not long ago, the world’s two superpowers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America, were locked in perpetual combat. The Bear and the Eagle both had their fingers poised over the red button, and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the entire world knew what mutually assured destruction would look like. Most of the Cold War’s battles were fought by proxy, of course, but sometimes, the battlefield happened to be something as innocuous as a basketball court.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the USSR beat out the United States’ Dream Team for the gold medal in basketball. It was a huge upset. The Russians had beaten the U.S. at their own game. But for one former Soviet state, the story was very different.
The new documentary by filmmaker Marius A. Markevičius, The Other Dream Team, tells the sometimes strange tale of a handful Lithuanian basketball players who helped re-establish a national identity through a game traditionally seen as an American sport. Lithuania is the largest of the Baltic States, situated in Northern Europe, and it was fought over and occupied by two of the most heinous tyrants of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Stalin eventually won out, but Lithuania always strove to retain its national dignity, even when that dignity was compromised by the ever-present threat of Siberian exile.
When the USSR took home the gold for basketball in 1988, Lithuania was proudest of all — not for the occupying Communist flag they played under, but because four of the five starters on the team were Lithuanians. Although it had to be whispered behind closed doors, the win was a matter of great pride for a country that had been swallowed up by the Soviets.
Many might be surprised to know that basketball is the number-one sport in Lithuania and has been since the 1930s. The archival footage of Lithuania winning European championships in the ’30s and ’40s may be a strange sight to American eyes, but for decades, basketball has been — and continues to be — the national sport.
Shortly after their win in Seoul, a titanic shift began in the geopolitical world. The Berlin Wall fell, and with it came a rip in the Iron Curtain. In 1990, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence. Tensions ran high, and Russia sent in troops as a show of force, but ultimately, Lithuania prevailed. Two years later, for the first time in a generation, Lithuania entered the Olympics under their own flag.
The Other Dream Team covers this territory through archival footage, photos, and interviews with the Lithuanian, American, and Russian players, among many others. The film pieces together a timeline of events that, at times, seems too odd to be true, like when the Grateful Dead called and offered to sponsor the Lithuanian team in the 1992 Olympics. Some may even remember the team entering the stadium in the tie-dyed T-shirts provided by the rock band, which had the Lithuanian national colors splashed across them.
This documentary appeals on many levels other than simply to sports enthusiasts. It’s a story of personal and national triumph. The ultimate twist comes when Lithuania faces down Russia in the 1992 Olympic finals, and it couldn’t be more fitting. The Other Dream Team is far more than just a sports movie, but it should definitely make fans of Lithuanian basketball, no matter who you are or what your tastes.