The tale of Lithuania’s 1992 Olympic basketball team is not just an inspirational sports saga. To accurately tell the tale, as Mark Markevicius’ doc The Other Dream Team does, requires jumping back all the way to WWII, when the Soviet Union invaded and annexed the relatively puny Baltic state. Boredom and a need to temper encroaching insanity drove them to become b-ball-mad. Natives whimsically erected their own regulation courts, thus ensuring that the next generation would become, to the surprise of the rest of the world, basketball mega-athletes.
Markevicius, a producer (of Drake Doremus’ Douchebag and Like Crazy) turned nonfiction director, evenly splits between easy emotion and dark comedy. It’s the latter that really sticks. Eventually, the USSR’s basketball teams become largely Lithuanian; four-fifths of the starting lineup for the 1988 Seoul team—which schooled the American team that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley—was from the captive country. Hoopers Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis would wind up in the States, the former to the NBA Hall of Fame, but the USSR was not so quick to let them go. The KGB initially thwarted their transatlantic trips, keeping them “home” and subjecting them to curious motivational tactics, like a trip to Lenin’s tomb.
Inevitably, The Other Dream Team has its share of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel fish-out-of-water yuks, with the Lithuanian exports marveling over the lack of bread lines, how people have money and how easily one can obtain a car (when they’re highly paid athletes, that is). What a country! It’s here, and elsewhere, that The Other Dream Team becomes less a simple paean to the triumph of the human spirit and more an admission of life’s complexity and messiness—how imprisoning and oppressing a people can lead them to an unusual and deeply satisfying form of revenge, meted out in the most unexpected way. It’s one thing when the newly independent Lithuanian 1992 Olympic team beats their former Soviet overlords; it’s another for it to be a tight, and therefore great, game.