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Documentary traces roots of bond between hoops, Lithuania

POSTED: Sep 25, 2012 11:10 AM ET
UPDATED: Sep 25, 2012 1:07 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Members of the bronze medal-winning 1992 Lithuanian pose for a photo during a recent reunion in Vilnius.

The tone is set early in "The Other Dream Team," the 89-minute documentary by Marius Markevicius and Jon Weinbach, the way still pictures and grainy films are a piercing reminder of the brutality of the Stalin regime.

Arvydas Sabonis talks of playing for the Soviet Union, the same republic that shipped his mother to Siberia for nine years and his grandparents for 12, for, he was told, having too much land.

'The Other Dream Team' will debut in select U.S. cities starting on Sept. 28.

An unrelated survivor of the cold hell recalls, "In Siberia, we built a regulation basketball court. Basketball allowed us to have dignity, to retain our sense of humanity.... How did I survive? Basketball."

There is no need to bridge hoops with the real world in Lithuania because it is the real world. Basketball helped a small country retain a desperately needed sense of nationalism while kidnapped behind the Iron Curtain.

It gave its citizens dignity and humanity in being deported from their homeland and sent to unimaginable conditions in a place so distant that, even today, many Siberian cities cannot be reached by road.

And, it helped carry the flag of infant independence in 1992.

That moment, the '92 Barcelona Olympics with Lithuania sporting the Grateful Dead tie-dyes, is a focus of the project three years in the making. Their bronze medal finish was so uplifting to a tiny land that it could be the Other Dream Team from the same Games as the Real Dream Team of Team USA. But the film is much more than that. It has to be. The importance of basketball in Lithuania is much more than that.

The country is just 3 million people, which would easily place in the bottom half of state and province populations in the United States and Canada, yet has a flowing pipeline to the NBA. Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all had lengthy NBA careers. Linas Kleiza, Darius Songaila and Sarunas Jasikevicius have been in and out of the NBA of late. And now, there are incoming rookies, with Jonas Valanciunas (via the 2011 Draft ) heading to the Raptors and Donatas Motiejunas to the Rockets (also via the 2011 Draft). Four of the biggest stars of the 1988 Soviet Olympic team that beat John Thompson's U.S. club were from Lithuania (which definitely did not go unnoticed by the pride-filled small nation no matter how much it was a USSR operation). There has been a particular focus since the summer of 2011.

Lithuania is one of the very few countries, maybe the only country, where basketball is clearly the No. 1 sport. Marciulionis recounted in the documentary how he and a friend carried tiles and made a basket and backboard to build a court outside the apartment building where he lived. Valanciunas told the story of how he and his father created a place to shoot baskets outside the family home -- and how his dad made sure the rim was smaller than regulation to make sure young Jonas developed a particularly precise aim.

What was unveiled last Thursday in Lithuania, as part of the 20-year reunion of the heroes, and will be released Friday in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to follow, is an ambitious project of great research that succeeds because Southern Californians Weinbach and Markevicius focus on the humanity of what sports can mean.

In covering decades of intense political moments without being a policy briefing and layers of basketball without being overly ESPN-like, "The Other Dream Team" is an admirable work of depth that artfully combines archival research with current interviews full of emotion with many of the integral political and hoops figures from the NBA and Europe. Sabonis is noteworthy in both aspects, the recent conversation revealing a joyful man few in Portland would recognize and the black-and-white clips showing a mountainous player with the skill to be the No. 1 pick in most any draft of the past 10 or 15 years. Unfortunately, health problems as a Trail Blazer cost NBA fans the chance to see the real Sabas.

"We knew it was going to be a lot more than basketball, more than a traditional sports movie," said Markevicius, a first-generation American of Lithuanian descent who, like Weinbach, grew up on Los Angeles' West Side.

"But we didn't want to alienate people into thinking that they were going to watch a special on communism or a PBS history lesson. There was always a fine balance. What's the title going to be? How are we going to market it? And in editing, trying to compress a lot of information and a lot of historical facts and some stuff that I was worried would bore people. We just tried to keep it moving quickly and do the educational part, but, really, tell it more through the eyes of the athletes and their personal journey. That was my goal."

Mission accomplished. The filmmakers have delivered a product that should appeal to the basketball world, not only Lithuanians.

"I was a little concerned," Markevicius said. "Are people going to care? Are Americans and Westerners going to care about this little country that most people haven't heard of unless you know it from basketball or you're really into geography? When I first started pitching the story to Americans, people really lit up.

"It's a classic underdog story. It's a narrative of freedom and kicking the oppressor. A lot of those themes make it universal. It really doesn't matter if you know about Lithuania. And you don't have to be a basketball fan. Our goal is to make the film really personal, about the journey of guys from behind the Iron Curtain to freedom. I think there's a lot of universal themes people can relate to even if they aren't basketball fans and don't know about Lithuania."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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