In Marius Markevièius’ debut documentary, “The Other Dream Team,” mostly set during the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall leading up to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the Baltic state of Lithuania breaks free from Soviet rule with the help of basketball and the Grateful Dead.
You read that right. Following several decades of devastating oppression in which Lithuanian athletes were forced to compete for the USSR, the countries’ top basketball players were able to compete under their own flag in the 1992 summer games, aided by some financial assistance from the famous psychedelic San Francisco band.
As the film’s title suggests, the Lithuanian basketball team was the underdog antithesis of the all-star 1992 American Olympic team that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Magic Johnson. The Lithuanians didn’t win against the Americans, but they did defeat the Russian Unified team for the bronze medal.
Valdas Adankus, president of Lithuania from 1998 to 2009, puts it like this: “This was not only a pride, it was an open war. We are not going to accept, no way, no time, ever, the occupation of Lithuania. We are fighting the enemy, not in the field with bombs, machine guns, or planes, but fighting them on a basketball court.”
Through vivid testimony (most subtitled) from star Lithuanian players Valdemaras Chomièius, Arvydas Sabonis, Šarûnas Marèiulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis, alongside sports commentators such as Jim Lampley, David Remnick, Chris Mullin and Bill Walton, we learn how the stage was set for the team and the now independent, country’s victory.
The story of recent NBA draftee Jonas Valanciunas, who was born in 1992, is woven through the film to show us how far they’ve come from the days when Lithuanian players could travel to the U.S. only with a KGB escort and players would fear imprisonment if they accepted a draft from an American team, something the extremely talented Sabonis worried about in 1986 when selected by the Portland Trail Blazers.
In 1991, having been granted freedom from communism after nearly half a century, Lithuania is bankrupt, unable to afford to send their beloved basketball team to the Olympics.
That’s where the Grateful Dead comes in. Members of the longtime rock band (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh), who were all basketball fans, read an article about the Lithuanians’ plight written by the San Francisco Chronicle’s George Shirk. They decided to kick in funding through their charitable nonprofit organization, the Rex Foundation, and provided the team with tie-dyed uniforms with their distinctive skeleton logo.
You don’t have to be a basketball fan or a Deadhead to appreciate seeing the Lithuanian team walking onto the court in Barcelona dressed in tie-dye shirts and shorts to pay tribute to the band that helped them get there. They became known as “Team Tie-Dye,” and the slogan “Better Dead Than Red,” accompanied them everywhere.
Drummer Mickey Hart, the only member of the Dead interviewed for the documentary, notes, “They could’ve been laughed at, you know; if they weren’t as good as they were, they would’ve looked like fools wearing tie-dye, but we had a championship gold team flying their colors.”
Despite some unnecessary pop culture cutaways in the buildup to make its Cold War case, writer/director Markevièius’ first feature-length film assembles a blend of arresting anecdotes, archival footage and photos, sprinkled with new location shots of Kaunas, Lithuania, to tell its uplifting story.