The Other Dream Team

Free throw — Lithuania vs. the U.S.S.R. at the Olympics

Oct 31, 2012 at 12:00 am
Secret weapon: Tie-dyed outfits.
Secret weapon: Tie-dyed outfits.

The Other Dream Team | B-

There's a thin line between necessary context and too much information. Though first-time director Marius Markevicius' sports documentary The Other Dream Team is vividly inspirational, his unwieldy mix of history lesson, basketball drama and personal portrait tries to tell too many stories at once and struggles to find the right pace. It's a shame really, because at its core, this rousing real-life tale has all the makings of a sports classic.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. won the Olympic gold medal in basketball with a starting squad comprised mostly of Lithuanians. What made this ironic was that, for 50 years, the Soviets brutally dominated Lithuania, forcing the players to compete for their oppressors even as their families were forced to live in poverty and starvation. Three years later, the tiny Baltic country broke free of Soviet control and, in a gutsy grab for national identity, fielded a basketball team for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. 

Unfortunately, while Lithuania was flush with talent, they were short on cash. Enter the Grateful Dead (you can't make this stuff up), who decided to sponsor the team, going so far as to supply them with tie-dyed T-shirts and shorts. The outcome? Well, history will remind us that 1992 was the year the U.S. sent the real "Dream Team," a roster that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other luminaries. But that's not the game that counted. Instead, it was Lithuania's showdown against Russia that's burned into the country's memory and provides this tale of triumph over adversity with its greatest passion.

Markevicius lines up a terrific roster of talking heads, gathering together members of the 1992 team (who are remarkably engaging), NBA legend Bill Walton, the Dead's Mickey Hart and journalists such as David Remnick, while providing some great archival footage of the games. Markevicius cuts things together with a nervy, energized rhythm that builds tension and excitement during important court moments but sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. 

Where The Other Dream Team really gets bogged down, however, is in its flag-waving nationalism (Markevicius is, unsurprisingly, Lithuanian), heavy-handed recounting of Soviet atrocities (only some of which are necessary for context), numerous interviews with Lithuanian politicians, and unnecessary "evil empire" potshots at Russia (the Rocky IV footage is particularly egregious).

Even less successful is a subplot involving a Lithuanian player's attempt to get drafted by a 2011 NBA team. Though Markevicius' intent is clear — to show how far his people have come since the dark days of Soviet subjugation — the story is mostly a distraction from the unlikely and uplifting story of Lithuania's spiritual and professional victory in Barcelona. 

Despite these stumbles, The Other Dream Team still delivers a quirky and entertaining Cinderella sports story while providing some important (and tragic) historical perspectives on why a team destined to fall before the best basketball team in history achieved a level of success all the gold-plated contracts in the world could never match.