The Other Dream Team Reviews
As an avid sports fan, I find that sports is at its most entertaining when it is infused with some sort of political implication. And anyone who dares to suggest that sports and politics should never coexist is mind-numbingly misinformed. While we still see the cultural and political resonance in international sports today, American sports has been politically starving for quite some time. Consider soccer‚(TM)s international stage, specifically the ‚El Clasico‚? matches between Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. The sport becomes a political means of contestation between divided factions within the nation. Imagine how great the NFL would be if their games had a hint of cultural and political significance. Why don‚(TM)t we encourage and cheer for the defeat of the Arizona Cardinals, a state that encourages racist policies and treatment of immigrants? We do not because this is a testament to how successfully corporate America has shielded us from the everyday concerns of this country. Sport is cheered because it comforts us from real worries. Don‚(TM)t worry about Hurricane Sandy. The New York Knicks and the Miami Heat are playing!
The reason I bring this up is because in Marius Markevicius‚(TM)s new film ‚The Other Dream Team,‚? not only does it reveal how sports became a form of resistance but it is contrasted with the moment when sports was devaluing in American society. ‚The Other Dream‚? is a compelling and insightful documentary about the Lithuanian basketball team in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Before Lithuania was a sovereign nation, it was a tiny nation sandwiched between two oppressive countries, Germany and the Soviet Union. The film chronicles the extent to which the Soviet Union ruled this tiny population with an iron fist. At the center of the film are Sarunas Marculionis and Arvydas Sabonis, the two stars of the Lithuanian basketball team. The former was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and the latter played for the Portland Trailblazers. The film juxtaposes the extreme political conditions in which they lived under with the fact that they played for the USSR. In the ‚(TM)88 Olympics, four Lithuanian players made up the Soviet team and helped lead their oppressive rulers lift the gold. Despite their exceptional talent, the government hindered their progress as they made it difficult for them to play in the NBA.
After the end of the Cold War, Lithuania gained its independence. Then with the 1992 Olympics coming up, Lithuania saw a window of opportunity to present themselves in the world‚(TM)s stage. With the funding from the Grateful Dead and sporting totally awesome psychedelic tie-dye shirts, the Lithuanian basketball team played for more than just victory. They played for resistance. They played for identity and nationalism. Although they eventually lost to the Dream Team in the semi-finals, it was the third-place match against the Soviet Union that was pivotal for the nation.
Markevicius does a very good job at always focusing on the political aspects of the story. He strays away from the typical norms in sports films. What I love most about the film though is perhaps unintended by the director. While the film is ultimately about the Lithuanian basketball team and how the sport served as a weapon of resistance, it conversely reveals the deterioration of politics in American sports. Although the film hardly focuses on it, the contrast is there. The formulation of America‚(TM)s Dream Team may have some political significance. With the Cold War nearing its end, their need to reclaim the gold from the Soviet Union is very much in the back of their minds. Yet, the dominance of the USA team always remained at a superficial basketball level. They were not playing for nationalization. They played for fame at a global level. I believe this set the trend for basketball, once America‚(TM)s most politically laden sport, to become part of the economic globalization.
‚The Other Dream Team‚? is great in that it proves sport is inherently political, even when it is not.
The Other Dream Team explores the potential meanings of basketball to individuals, to fans, to a nation, and to the larger political sweep of the contemporary global culture. The title of Marius A. Markevicius' excellent documentary refers to the national basketball team of Lithuania. The country, newly independent and competing under its distinctive green, yellow, and red flag for the first time at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, made a surprise run to the bronze medal in the basketball tournament. The team consisted of players who had represented the (freshly defunct) Soviet Union in Seoul four years before, where they shocked America's collection of future NBAers and went on the win gold. This US defeat precipitated a campaign to allow professionals into the Olympic basketball competition, leading to the creation of the much hyped US "Dream Team" that put on a show of superior skill on its way to the top of the podium.
The Other Dream Team constructs the Lithuanians' different sort of triumph as the joyful culmination of efforts by a gutsy little nation to forge its own place in a suddenly changed world. As Jordan, Magic, and Bird dance past their opponents to gold, Lithuania grinds out a win over the Unified Team, the ragged athletic remnants of the toppled Soviet state that once oppressed them. It's a victory that at once mirrors the social and political revolt of Lithuania against Soviet power in 1991 and symbolically completes it.
Although The Other Dream Team closes with this high point on the Olympic stage, most of the film is concerned with the culture and history of Lithuanian basketball before 1992, which is a tale of deprivations, restrictions, and struggles. Two modern legends of the Lithuanian game dominate the proceedings as they dominated the court in their prime, bullish guard Sarunas Marciulionis and smooth, athletic big man Arvydas Sabonis.
Interviewed on the premises of their respective basketball schools in their common hometown of Kaunas, each commands the camera's attention. The earnest Marciulionis, who made a politically risky free agent move to the NBA's Golden State Warriors as the Soviet Union was in its death throes, offers weighty reminiscences of the systemic poverty that his sporting talents allowed him to escape. When he stands on the childhood court made of tiles that he and his fellow hoop dreamers carried and laid themselves, we see a new perspective on sports as social mobility.
The Other Dream Team features humor as well as sagas of hardship. Familiar to American sports fans from a stint with the Portland Trail Blazers in the late '90s, the 7'3" Sabonis was known more for playful passing plays than for thunderous dunks, and the personality that comes through in the film matches this on-court penchant. He shares some of the more amusing anecdotes of the team's heyday, including an intimation of foreign smuggling operations on the part of one of his clever teammates.
The most striking and unexpected twist of film's narrative, however, is also its thematic fulcrum. Possessed of the ability and the desire to reach the Olympics but not the money to make the trip, the Lithuanian team received funding from legendary jam-rockers the Grateful Dead, along with a gaudy but certainly memorable tie-dyed off-court ensemble from the band's designer. This documentary comprehends very well that the team represented a fresh conception of the liberation theology of the game. The journey of Lithuania on and off the court was not a classic story of escape from difficult circumstances. Instead, they pursued a more challenging freedom, to remake those circumstances into something less difficult, something more human. There at the crossroads of rock and roll, political upheaval, and quick-passing basketball, freedom stands, sure of recognition. The Other Dream Team slows down just enough to offer it a friendly wave.