by director Marius A. Markevicius
What do blue jeans, aspirin, VCRs and Michael Jackson vinyl records all have in common? These items were all contraband for Soviet athletes during their travels to the West in the 1980s. Instead of purchasing food with their meager per-diem, they would buy these items, stuff their suitcases and try to sell them on the black market back home. This was all in the hopes of earning a few extra dollars (or rubles) for their families, who had to subsist on Communist-era salaries (about $100/month). And all the while, they had to be sure KGB agents didn’t catch on to their illicit smuggling—or else a Sony Walkman or a pair of Levis could mean certain jail time.
These stories of how athletes lived behind the Iron Curtain were among many fascinating discoveries I made during the making of The Other Dream Team. What started out as a sports-themed film about the Lithuanian basketball team and the 1992 Olympics turned into much more. The Other Dream Team is not a sports film, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a very personal story about a special group of Lithuanian athletes—and a brave group of their politically-minded countrymen—who defied the odds. It’s a narrative about freedom, personal choice, charting your own path, being different and taking a chance. Our film is not simply about the Lithuanian basketball team’s accomplishments at the Barcelona Olympics. It is about their incredible journey and how they got there. And what a long, strange trip it was.
The U.S. Dream Team stole the show at the Barcelona Games in 1992. They were the best basketball team of all time. However, at the same Olympics, there was another team from the newly independent nation of Lithuania that was chasing a different kind of dream. There was this rag-tag group of guys with moustaches and beards and mullet hairdos. They were all wearing Grateful Dead tie-dye shirts and fanny packs (yes, fanny packs) when they rolled into the Olympic village. No, these weren’t roadies from some Eastern Euro punk band, this was the Lithuanian National basketball team. After 50 years of Soviet oppression and occupation, after years of struggling behind the Iron Curtain—and with the help of a very unique partnership with the Grateful Dead—they were finally there. It was finally their time.
I was recently asked if I thought sports-themed documentaries exaggerate the impact of certain victories or triumphs for dramatic effect. Was the bronze medal victory for Lithuania in Barcelona really that important for the country? I feel that this story is as genuine and authentic as it gets. The Lithuanian basketball team and their achievements at the Barcelona Olympics helped thrust the country back into the European and world community. It gave the people hope in a very difficult time as they were forging their fledgling democracy.
My best analogy to the Lithuanian team’s story and their legacy is this: Imagine the “Miracle on Ice” (1980 U.S. hockey victory over the USSR) if the year was 1777 and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were in the stands—wearing Grateful Dead tie-dye shirts, of course.