Where would Lithuanian basketball be if not for the contribution of a first-generation Lithuanian-American from Los Angeles—a Lietuvos Angeleno? In 1939, Frank Lubin, a former UCLA star and a gold medalist for Team USA in 1936, was recruited by his parents' homeland to play in the European Championships under the alias Pranas Lubinas. The 6'7" center led the home team Lithuanians to the title in Kaunas, rocketing basketball to national-pastime status. When Lithuania lost its standing as a nation during the Soviet occupations that started in 1940, Russian-league victories by Kaunas's Zalgiris club over CSKA Moscow were the chief way, center Arvydas Sabonis says, "to bite the red bear in the ass." Freshly independent Lithuania's surprising bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics reintroduced the nation to the world.
Twenty years later Lithuania's Olympic breakthrough remains a gripping tale, and director Marius Markevicius (another Lietuvos Angeleno) has given it a canonical reintroduction in The Other Dream Team, a feature-length documentary. Americans celebrated their Dream Team's 20th anniversary with much reminiscing, including a must-see documentary on NBA TV, but the Lithuanians' cinematic tribute is even more compelling. It's no flaw that Markevicius waits until the final third of his film to address the Barcelona Games: Lithuania's victory over the Team Formerly Known As U.S.S.R. in the bronze medal game resonates only if you know what preceded it.
Sabonis, who went on to play seven seasons in the NBA, tells how his mother spent nine years in Soviet-ordered Siberian exile as a child. Guard Sarunas Marciulionis—who along with countrymen Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius, played for the U.S.S.R.'s gold medal team in 1988—says he was forced, by way of threats against his family, to give a Soviet propaganda speech. The footage of Russian tanks rolling away from Vilnius in 1991, after a bloody suppression of the independence movement, adds emotional depth to the goofy sight of the Lithuanian team crashing the '92 Olympics in tie-dyed warmups, while their unlikely benefactors, the Grateful Dead, sang lines from "Franklin's Tower": Roll away, roll away the dew.
The Lithuanians weren't Deadheads—the archival footage of Marciulionis, who was then playing for the Warriors in the NBA, looking lost at a '92 Dead show is priceless—but the colors were symbolic of their newfound freedom. When he wanted to go out in foreign cities, Sabonis used to sneak out of Soviet team hotels, past the KGB, in the trunk of a Cadillac; in Barcelona, he could roam Las Ramblas unmonitored.
Michael and Magic staged an exhibition of star power at the '92 Games. The Other Dream Team used basketball as an expression of independence. Their medal, as Chomicius recounts, meant everything: "We didn't have to explain [who we were] anymore. Finally they said, 'Lithuania.'"