The Other Dream Team
Anyone who was culturally aware at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s remembers the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympics. The American team of college players fell to third place in 1988, which led to calls for professionals to participate in 1992. The American representatives actually voted against the idea — probably with some idea how it would turn out — but when the door was opened they recruited a team of NBA all-stars that proceeded to wipe the floors with all opponents.
What this narrative leaves out is that there was a lot more going on in the world between 1988 and 1992. In particular, the collapse of the Soviet Union showed its first major cracks in 1990 and 1991 with the independence of the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Why does this matter? Well, the United States’ team’s only defeat in 1988 was to the Soviet Union’s team in the semifinals. And the Soviet Union’s team was led by a plurality of Lithuanian players: Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, and Valdemaras Chomičius, all of whom hailed from the city of Kaunas.
Unlike satellite states like Yugoslavia — which also performed strongly in 1988 — Lithuanian athletes were forced to compete under the flag of the USSR rather than one they recognized as their own. But in 1992, after their independence, they were free to enter on their own, under their own flag, separate from the ersatz “Equipe Unifiée” — “Unified Team” — fielded that year by the Commonwealth of Independent States. This team, fighting for their recognition on the world’s stage after half a century under the thumb of an occupying power, was The Other Dream Team.
It’s actually sort of surprising that basketball is such a big deal in Lithuania, at least for someone like me who doesn’t really follow basketball to any extent. The Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valančiūnas may be one of the most prominent Lithuanians drafted into the NBA, but he’s not the first — at least two of the 1992 team were there first. But, indeed, Lithuania won European championships back into the ’20s and ’30s, before they were annexed by the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the same pressures that make basketball popular in economically depressed American cities probably have a hand here. It doesn’t take much in the way of equipment, and the playing surface can itself be improvised. In fact, the four Kaunas players on the Soviet Union team laid stone tile themselves in a park, where they remain below a battered wooden backboard to this day.
Marius Markevičius does a fantastic job in bringing this story to the screen, and not just to basketball fans. Because this isn’t really a basketball story; it’s a story about one of the biggest geopolitical earthquakes of our time, with basketball as a lens. The core of the documentary is the story of Lithuania’s independence, and particularly of those terrible nights in January 1991 when the Russian army seized the TV tower in Vilnius and Vytautas Landsbergis stared Mikhail Gorbachev down. But if you didn’t pay attention to that story twenty years ago, maybe basketball is just the hook to draw you in this time.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.