Basketball fans shouldn't need to be reminded of the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona and the Dream Team of American superstars (Bird, Magic, Jordan, Barkley, et al.) who kicked, jammed, walloped and thrashed every opponent. What is not as well remembered, however, is the country that fell to the U.S. in the semifinals, 127–76. That country, Lithuania, is the one that's remembered in The Other Dream Team.
We revisit a European continent that underwent rapid changes beginning in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Director Marius Markevicius and his editors have shaped their story in the style of a conventional television documentary (including the frequently exceptional films produced for ESPN's ongoing 30 by 30 series), but they're fortunate to have located some striking archival footage from behind the Iron Curtain. They remind us that the formation of America's 1992 avengers was a result of a last gasp of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1988, when the latter defeated the United States for the gold. That U.S. team had some good players, like David Robinson and Danny Manning, but it would be our last all-amateur Olympic team.
What was little understood in the aftermath of the 1988 defeat was that the top Soviet players were not Russian, but Lithuanian: Four of the five starters, in fact, were from the tiny Baltic nation of 3 million, including Arvydas Sabonis, a Larry Bird-like 7-foot-3 center, and Sarunas Marciulionis, an inspiring, flashy and skillful shooting guard. These two and several of their teammates recount the tension and frustration that mounted through the 1980s as they chafed at the limits the Soviet Union placed on their ambitions. It's also clear that resentment and hatred of the Moscow regime was widespread—Sabonis tells us that his grandparents were among the many Lithuanians deported to Siberia, simply "because they had too much land." Later, New Yorker editor David Remnick, among other experts, narrates the extraordinarily swift collapse of the Soviet Union, and the frightening reality of sudden independence.
Marciulionis was the first to bolt for the NBA, where he would have a productive eight-year career. He also spearheaded the formation of a dream team that would represent the newly independent Lithuania at the Barcelona Games. An assist or two followed from American coaches and, of all people, the Grateful Dead, and a truly inspiring dream came into view.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dreams and freedom."