Moving documentary explores link between basketball and Lithuanian pride
It is difficult to explain or to put into context the significance of a single sporting moment on a nascent nation, how it could grip the country and shape its future and define much of what it has become.
Marius Markevicius, the American-born Lithuanian who is the director and co-producer of the widely acclaimed documentary The Other Dream Team, thinks long and hard before coming up with an apt analogy for the bronze-medal men’s basketball game at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
He knows what it means to his friends, family and countrymen, he understands how Lithuania’s overtime victory over Russia is viewed by his compatriots. He struggles a bit to put in some kind of North American context.
“This story is like Miracle on Ice,” he finally says, recalling the stunning victory for the United States over Russia at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
“If,” he adds, “it was in 1776 and George Washington was in the stands and then all of America became obsessed with hockey.
“In this case, it’s genuine, the impact.”
The film, not released in theatres in Canada but available on DVD through its website, traces the rise of the country, and the sport, from the days of occupation by the former Soviet Union until that dramatic bronze-medal game.
Three of the central characters — Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Valdemaras Chomicius — were starters on the Soviet Union team that won the 1988 Seoul Olympics gold medal, and to hear the story of the rise of Lithuania is touching and dramatic.
Theirs were stories of constant shadowing by KGB agents while they travelled the world, of turning into black marketers in such things as aspirin, cameras and clothes they could bring back to Lithuania and of having to smile contentedly at being “Russian” when they weren’t.
“My goal was to reach America and Canada,” said Markevicius. “Growing up as a Lithuanian in America, all my life was explaining my name and how weird it is and where you’re from, and it’s this little country that people hadn’t heard of, and if they have heard of Lithuania, a lot of times it’s because of basketball. But most people still — especially in the United States, we’re geographically inept — they don’t know anything about it, so I really wanted to tell this story to Americans, teach the western world about this story.”
It is a story that Raptors rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas knows well. He was born the year Lithuania won the bronze medal and has lived the history ever since. He has seen first-hand the impact men like Sabonis and Marciulionis have had in his homeland.
“They’re heroes,” said the director. “It’s hard to describe. Arvydas Sabonis and Marciulionis are the two most famous . . . I like to say it’s almost like Michael Jordan if we didn’t have any other sports in the United States. It’s hard to even describe it.
Or in Brazil, it’s Pele if they didn’t have surfing and Carnival. In Lithuania, as a small country, they don’t have a lot and they have this and it’s so important to them. So yes, they’re heroes.”
It’s a fact not lost on the 20-year-old Raptors centre, who represents the newest age of Lithuanian basketball.
“Everybody should know what happened in Lithuania at that time,” Valanciunas said. “Maybe this film is going to help to fight for independence in all other countries.
“I have pride every time to play for Lithuania; I feel that Lithuania is something inside my heart.”
And he got the chance thanks in large part to the men who helped a country emerge.
The final act of the 90-minute film deals with Valanciunas’s draft night in 2011. His mother, Danute, understands where her son is in the history of her country, how he got there and how the journey truly began with that Olympic game.
“Some twists in history are really big and Lithuania got caught up in those twists,” she said to close the documentary. “For basketball players and for every young person, the walls have opened to choose your own path. They were born and raised in a different spirit, the independence spirit. They are the children of independence. That’s the truth.”