The last time a basketball documentary lit up the Sundance Film Festival, it was the immaculate Hoop Dreams in 1994. But last week in Utah, there was another hardwood doc eliciting cheers and tears at the annual showcase for independent cinema. The Other Dream Team is the story of the 1992 Olympic basketball team from Lithuania, a tiny Baltic country that only re-established its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union two years prior. The Barcelona Summer Games are remembered for the invincible American roster of NBA stars that won gold, led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. But it was the third-place Lithuanians, sponsored by the Grateful Dead and sporting tie-dye warmups on the medal stand, that won everyone else’s heart.
Though they lacked adequate funding, the Lithuanian team was not without talent – in fact, four of its starters formed the core of the 1988 Soviet squad that defeated the Americans for gold in Seoul. But they were proudly Lithuanian first, a distinction lost on Western sports fans. “When they won in ‘88, I saw in the newspaper ‘Soviets Defeat United States,’ and they had this awful picture,’ remembers first-time director Marius Markevicius, whose parents emigrated to America during World War II. “Beards and mustaches – like that stereotype of communist Russian evil empire. I was telling my friends, ‘Look, these guys are Lithuanians. They’re the good guys.’ Very few people understood what the Soviet Union was comprised of.”
They may have looked like the stoic athletic robots epitomized by 1980’s Hollywood villains like Ivan Drago, but the Lithuanian players had complicated loyalties to the empire whose jerseys they wore on the court. Fifty years of Soviet domination had failed to extinguish the Lithuanian spirit, and basketball stars – like guard Sarunas Marciulionis and 7’4” giant Arvydas Sabonis – became symbols of the burgeoning Lithuanian independence movement that gained momentum after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the bronze medal game in Barcelona, Lithuania faced their former Soviet teammates, now playing under the flagless entity known as the Unified Team. The climactic confrontation had elements of Hoosiers combined with Invictus, a real-life underdog story that helped birth a nation’s international identity.
About three years ago, Markevicius, who co-produced the recent indie hit Like Crazy, reached out to Marciulionis, who played six seasons in the NBA, with the idea of a documentary. His film background interested Marciulionis, as did the fact that the 35-year-old filmmaker was ostensibly an outsider. “He said he’d been approached many times by people in Lithuania [to make a documentary],” says Markevicius. “But the media there is pretty sensationalist and the players had been burned there a lot by talking so they were very skeptical. I think it took an outsider to understand the perspective a little more.”
That’s not to say that being 100 percent Lithuanian himself didn’t help his cause. In fact, Markevicious initially conducted some of the interviews with the players in English, a language many of them speak extremely well. But once their on-camera conversations deepened, he sensed some reluctance. “Going in depth on all these philosophical and political issues, we could see a little hesitancy so we just made an executive call: Let them speak in their native language,” says Markevicius. “Immediately, you could see them relax in the chair, telling stories and anecdotes and emotions – I think we got a lot deeper into the issues.”
“At a certain point, I think we were four-for-four on making our interview subjects cry,” said producer Jon Weinbach, after a packed screening of the film at Sundance. “Which was very humbling and also very gratifying in that we knew we had a very special story that these guys were getting so emotional.”
The emotion was on display at the world premiere in Park City. Marciulionis and next-generation star Jonas Valanciunas – who had to sit in the back row so they wouldn’t block anyone’s view – were moved by the retelling of their story. A week later at another screening, it was the American audience shedding tears as the little country with a population half the size of Indiana grooved to the tunes of the Grateful Dead and brought home an Olympic medal. “I’ve actually been surprised by the American response,” says Markevicius. “A mom came up to me the other day and said. ‘All my kids see is negative stuff in the news about how America is now with the down economy and war.’ She’s like, ‘We need more stories like this.’ So that’s been very inspiring and shows it can play in theaters.”
Though the documentary wasn’t purchased during Sundance, it’s currently being screened for distributors interested in the existing documentary and as a basis for a potential feature film. After three years of work and a lifetime of passion, Markevicius is clearly intent on being a large part of that next step. “I don’t know if anyone else can quite capture it they way I can. I feel like I like I was born to tell this story,” he says. “I think the challenge will be to find [an actor] who will play Arvydas Sabonis at 7’4”. That’s what movie magic is all about.”