Thursday, October 25, 2012

‘Dream Team’ scores big on inspiration

“The Other Dream Team” (2012). Featured Interviews: Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Jonas Valanciunas, Vytautas Landsbergis, Jim Lampley, Alexander Wolff, David Remnick, Bill Walton, David Stern, Chris Mullin, Donnie Nelson, Mickey Hart, Greg Speirs. Director: Marius A. Markevicius. Writers: Jon Weinbach and Marius A. Markevicius.

Movies with sports themes are often some of the corniest, most predictable and yet also most inspiring films that find their way into release. Their outcomes seldom come as any surprise, but we watch them all the way through, if for no other reason than the ample good feelings they fill us with. Those that recognize the efforts of underdogs, like “Hoosiers” (1986), “Cool Runnings” (1993), “Breaking Away” (1979) and “Secretariat” (2010), easily get our attention. But those that celebrate unlikely champions competing under extraordinary extenuating circumstances, such as “Glory Road” (2006), “The Express” (2008), “A League of Their Own” (1992), “Miracle” (2004) and “The Blind Side” (2009), captivate us. Such is the case with the recently released documentary, “The Other Dream Team.”

The world was a rapidly changing place in 1992. The Cold War had recently ended, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and the U.S.S.R. was in the process of breaking up. Several once-occupied nations, such as the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, had declared their independence and emerged from Soviet domination. Indeed, the global geopolitical stage was shifting in ways no one would have thought conceivable just a few years before.

The implications of these changes were seen in many aspects of life. One of the most visible areas was in the world of sports. This became most apparent at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where a number of new nations competed for the first time or after protracted absences. Among the new entrants were the aforementioned Baltic states, countries that, although small in size, were formidable as competitors. This was particularly true for Lithuania in the sport of basketball.

Lithuanians have long loved basketball, and the tiny nation had been a powerhouse in the sport in European tournaments as far back as the 1930s. However, when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and vanished as a sovereign state, so did much of the world’s awareness of the country, its culture and its traditions, including in the world of sport. What’s more, because of this loss of independence, Lithuanian athletes were prohibited from competing internationally under their own flag; they now had to do so under the Soviet banner.

Lithuanians contributed significantly to Soviet sports accomplishments in the five decades that they competed for the U.S.S.R. This was perhaps most obvious in the basketball tournament at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when the Soviets beat the heavily favored U.S. team on their way to winning the Gold Medal, and they did so by fielding a team on which four of the five starters were Lithuanians. However, despite such success, Lithuanian competitors resented having to represent themselves as “Soviets” rather than as “Lithuanians.” They grew especially irate when erroneously referred to as “Russians,” particularly since only two members of the 1988 medal-winning team actually fit that cultural label.

When Lithuania gained its autonomy, its athletes were anxious to compete under their own flag at the Barcelona Olympics. They wanted to show the world what they could do. They were also anxious to settle scores with representatives of their former occupiers on a leveled playing field. But getting to the Olympics took money, something the bankrupt fledgling state seriously lacked. Raising funds to pursue this goal thus became a priority.

After achieving only meager results in its initial fundraising efforts, the team got a big boost from a very unlikely source, the American rock band, the Grateful Dead. The band members were big fans of both basketball and underdogs, so when they heard about the team’s struggles, they wrote a huge check to support its efforts. They also supplied the players with tie-dyed tee shirts featuring the band’s infamous skeleton logo and printed in the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Grateful for the Dead’s support, the team enthusiastically embraced the band’s assistance, ubiquitously sporting their donated gear both before and during the Olympics.

As colorful as the Lithuanians’ odyssey had been, however, the overarching story of the Barcelona tournament was the U.S. team. The 1992 Olympics marked the first time that professional players were allowed to compete, and so the Americans assembled a team featuring such NBA all-stars as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and David Robinson, a lineup that became better known as “the Dream Team.” It was a team that lived up to every bit of its billing, too, handily defeating all of its opponents (including the Lithuanians in a semifinal game) on its way to nabbing the Gold Medal.

But the Lithuanians were not to be denied their moment of glory. Despite their loss to the Americans (which honestly came as no surprise), the Lithuanians, as one of the tournament’s final four teams, qualified to compete in the Bronze Medal game against the Unified Team, a squad made up of players from the remaining Soviet republics at the time. The Lithuanians would thus get an opportunity to redeem themselves against representatives of their nation’s former occupiers, an event whose ramifications clearly went beyond just sports.

The story of the Lithuanian basketball team was one of more than just its proficiency on the court. It was a tale of personal and national pride, the significance of which becomes apparent in the film’s back story about life in Lithuania under 50 years of Soviet domination. The picture presents detailed documentation of everyday life, as well as the rigidly regimented routines imposed on Lithuanian members of the Soviet national team, during that period. It’s easy to see how such pervasive oppression took its toll – and how anxious Lithuanians, from all walks of life, were to pursue the dream of freedom when the opportunity finally presented itself.

Viewers are thus treated to a moving tale of courage, character, justice and inspiration, as well as the inherent power of beliefs. We witness the resolve of a team – and a nation – that knows what each is truly capable of manifesting for itself, a hallmark of conscious creation expertise. The film also documents the lasting legacy of such valor on contemporary Lithuanians, as told through the experience of Jonas Valanciunas, an aspiring basketball phenomenon and NBA prospect born in 1992 who grew up with the legend of his national team’s Olympic success.

“The Other Dream Team” is an engaging documentary from start to finish, conveying its material with heartfelt emotion and uplifting vision in both its political and sports-related narratives. It successfully avoids the temptation of getting too technical, presenting clear, concise explanations without resorting to superficiality or empty platitudes. It incorporates a wealth of archival footage and a wide variety of recent interviews, including team members Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis, as well as sports journalists Jim Lampley and Alexander Wolff, basketball analyst Bill Walton, Dream Team member Chris Mullin, NBA commissioner David Stern, former Lithuanian head of state Vytautas Landsbergis, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and tee shirt designer Greg Speirs.

On the surface, a documentary about a basketball team from a little-known European nation might not sound like an especially noteworthy topic for a feature-length movie, but “The Other Dream Team” defies such thinking. It shows us how one need not be famous to be a superstar, that greatness is something we’re each capable of achieving – as long as we believe we can.

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