I often feel like I have to apologize or make excuses for the degree to which I care about sports, even — or maybe especially — now that caring about sports is kind of my job. The Cosell caveat ("Sports is the toy department of human life") hangs over everything, eternally reminding us all — those who play, those who cover, those who enjoy as diversion — that when we're doing whatever it is we do, we're not laying brick or digging ditches. And that's true; more than that, it's fair. But every once in a while, between the contract disputes and sound bites and endless jokes, you hear people like Juozas Butrimas speak and, hopefully, you listen.
Butrimas played basketball as part of a club team in the town of Panevezys, Lithuania, in the 1940s. In 1940, Soviet soldiers came to tiny, basketball-mad, independent Lithuania as an invading and occupying force; in June 1941, the deportations of "dissidents" to Soviet prison camps began. Butrimas' club was accused (falsely, he notes) of participating in rebellious, anti-Soviet activities. Multiple members were sent to Siberia, where they were forced to work in coalmines. Stripped of freedom, agency, opportunity and home, how did they keep going?
"In Siberia, we built a regulation basketball court. Basketball allowed us to have dignity, to retain our sense of humanity. … How did I survive? Basketball. It gave me a lot … They didn't bury me there."
Butrimas, now in his 80s, tells us this in an interview included in "The Other Dream Team," a documentary directed and co-written by Marius A. Markevicius — a California-born filmmaker of Lithuanian descent — that details the journey of the Lithuanian men's national basketball team that won bronze at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. (That's not a spoiler, per se; for one thing, it is historical fact, and for another, we showed you a clip of the Lithuanian team on the medal stand on Tuesday.)
He tells us this because it is most certainly part of that team's journey, despite taking place more than half a century before the Barcelona Games, and he tells us this because it is true, and more than that, because it is fair. It is OK to think that these games, in their way, can and do matter — full stop — because they can and do.
They can and do provide something to cling to, the kind of ecstatic bursts of unbridled joy that help sustain life in the midst of unbearable hardship. That joy — that brilliant, beautiful beacon of hope — is at the heart of Markevicius' film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday before spreading wider in the weeks ahead. (To find out if/when it's coming to a city and theater near you, check out the film's site.)
It draws a distinction between Markevicius' project and that undertaken by Michael Tolajian in 2010's "Once Brothers." That brilliant film, which told a similarly styled story about the division of the Yugoslavian national team into Serbian and Croatian units and the dissolution of a longtime friendship between stars Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac, was defined in large part by Divac's quest for a sense of peace at never having fully healed the fissure between him and his late friend. This film, mercifully, still counts all its principals among the living and, maybe as a result, focuses more on the celebration of their friendship than the search for (perhaps impossible) solace.
The irrepressible centerpiece of this film's joy is, as longtime hoops fans might expect, legendary Lithuanian big man and late-career Portland Trail Blazers pivot Arvydas Sabonis, a mammoth of a man blessed with a rafters-rattling laugh who smiles nearly every time he's on camera in "The Other Dream Team" and seems to enjoy life with a large-gulps tenacity that reminds you to do the same. But it's also there, at times and in measures, in the commentary of Lithuanian national teammates Sarunas Marciulionis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis, and in virtually everyone with whom they came into contact. Songs of joy are catchy; that's why they spread, and why we sing them.
Its presence throughout the film stands in stark contrast to the film's opening sequence, which covers the gold-medal game at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, between the United States and the Soviet Union. The favored U.S. team — which featured a slew of future NBA stalwarts, including eventual Hall of Famer David Robinson, and was coached by legendary Georgetown boss John Thompson — lost to the U.S.S.R., triggering the inclusion of NBA players in the Olympics, the creation of the Dream Team and the escalation of basketball-as-global-game that's still reverberating today.
The Soviet squad that felled the Americans is depicted as "menacing" — an unswerving force that prepared more diligently than any other team in the world, staffed by players who had been "trained since they could walk" and were the harbingers of "ultimate war" in line with the pop-cultural projections portrayed in stuff like "Dr. Strangelove," "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and hyperdramatized newsreel footage.
But that's not who those guys were; as we see time and again throughout the film, the former Soviet players (including Ukranian star Alexander Volkov, who is not exactly an live wire in his scenes, but shows a very important bit of humanity at a very important juncture) are full-fledged emotional beings, and not just the cold, featureless, oppositional "others" it was easier then to believe they were. In reality, the Soviets won not because they were unfeeling basketbots, but because they were really, really good ... led by a gifted starting five that included Sabonis, Chomcius, Kurtinaitis and Marciulionis, four guys from the same hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania, who bristled at being identified (as they often were) as "Russians."
"Imagine having to compete for another country," says NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton in the documentary. "In the prime of their life, when they have everything going for them, and knowing full well that since 1940, the Russians had occupied and oppressed and just destroyed every bit of hope that their entire country, their homeland, had ever even thought about."
The quest for acknowledgement, national identity and self-determination runs through "The Other Dream Team," adding an interesting level of emotional depth to a standard sports-movie trope; while plenty of films are about players and teams working to earn respect for their talents, after the Soviet Union broke apart, these Lithuanian players were fighting for recognition of their country's very existence and place in the world.
The stakes — especially in matchups between Lithuanian professional team Zalgiris and famed Russian squad CSKA Moscow, and in the '92 bronze-medal game between the Lithuanians and the Unified Team (helpfully identified as the "FORMER USSR" when the nameplate changes and is dyed red in the Olympic bracket shown in the film) are personal for the players, national for their fans and international for the politicians involved ... there's a lot going on here.
There is blood, there is sweat and there are tears, as is often the way of sports things. There is revelatory footage of Marciulionis and Sabonis bulling their way through everybody as young players coming up in Lithuania — though not as much as I'd have liked, because I am greedy and always, always, always want more of, say, this — and there is infinitely more revelatory footage of Lithuanian citizens demonstrating in search of freedom from the yoke of Soviet rule, being threatened, beaten and shot at, and still refusing to kneel. When we shared a clip from "The Other Dream Team," commenter Karolis Jachimavicius described the film as "more a political movie about slavery and liberation as told by basketballers" than a "basketball movie," and to me, this is the portion that drives that point home. (There is also the Grateful Dead/tie-dye stuff, which you probably know already, or will probably read about a lot. It is great and cool and inspirational, especially if you like the Grateful Dead, and it is all a bit much, especially if you do not like the Grateful Dead.)
Beyond that, there is a steady symbol of victory in the film's intermittent B-story — the rise of a young Lithuanian center named Jonas Valanciunas, who was born the year of the Barcelona Games, raised in what his mother calls "a different spirit, the independence spirit," and granted by dint of the sacrifices and achievements of his forebears a chance to seek his fortune in the NBA. (I am very hopeful he will do a lot of this and even more of this.) Valanciunas' game will likely be bound by certain logical strictures — the role definition carved out for him by Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, the skill-set he has honed at this point in his (still very early) development, the rules and responsibilities of the NBA game — but he is free to play his game, to the degree his ability dictates, wherever he chooses. Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis, the rest of the '92 Lithuanian team ... these guys, in a very real way, made that possible.
Just as Butrimas finding the strength to continue on a handmade court in Siberia is part of the '92 team's story, so is Valanciunas having the chance to break new ground, open new doors and introduce a new generation to Lithuania's unyielding affection for this game. It's a love story with a long timeline, and stories like that can, and do, matter. Even if they involve a bouncing ball. Maybe especially if they do.