The big story of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona—or least the main attraction in the city—was America’s “Dream Team,” a collection of professional basketball players touted, not without cause, as the greatest team ever assembled for any sport. But it wasn’t exactly a underdog story: The U.S. amateurs had lost the Soviet Union in the previous Games, and the “Dream Team” was a bid to restore supremacy to American basketball by allowing future Hall Of Famers like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird to give international squads the shellacking of a lifetime. Meanwhile, the bronze-medal winners enjoyed the biggest triumph, at least in terms of tugging the heartstrings. As told in Marius Markevicius’ serviceable documentary The Other Dream Team, the Lithuanian basketball team was playing for the highest stakes, bringing glory to a roundball-crazed country reasserting its independence after decades in the wilderness.
Getting interviews with all the major players, as well as commentary from historical experts like The New Yorker’s David Remnick and sports talkers like Jim Lampley and Bill Walton, The Other Dream Team patiently sets the context for Lithuania’s triumph. Nestled between Germany and the former Soviet Union, the country was victimized by its neighbors’ conflict and annexed to the latter after World War II. Though its athletes competed for the USSR, they identified themselves as Lithuanians, which made the Soviets’ gold-winning performance in Seoul in ’88 a bittersweet triumph; four of the five starters were Lithuanian, and they were winning under an oppressor’s banner. Once the Berlin Wall fell and Lithuania could send out its own basketball team, the underfunded squad got a financial assist from an unlikely source: The Grateful Dead.
Markevicius tells this incredible yarn through the significantly less exciting format of an ESPN-style doc, which gets the job done with minimal flourish. Still, he employs former Lithuanian greats like Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis to serve as guides to the country’s past and present, and the basketball culture that’s thrived there under the best and worst of times. An attempt to demonstrate that continuum by following recent NBA draftee Jonas Valanciunas across the pond takes too much time for too little reward, but Markevicius’ careful scene-setting effectively prepares the stage for the Olympics themselves. The U.S. “Dream Team” possibly changed the international game, but they didn’t play for higher stakes.