‘The Other Dream Team’ transcends sports
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Students from the Colangelo School of Sports Business truly got an education Friday, and sports was only a small part of it.
A packed-in audience at Howerton lecture hall, including basketball coaches Dan Majerle and Trent May, watched “The Other Dream Team,” a moving and exceptionally well done documentary about the rise of the Lithuanian basketball team after the fall of the Soviet Union. Afterward, students were so engaged they peppered one of the film’s stars, Sarunas Marciulionis, with questions.
Many of those same students had “Sarunas Who?” looks on their faces the week before when Dr. Brian Smith, director of the School of Sports Business, told them Marciulionis would be on the Grand Canyon University campus. After Friday’s presentation, they no doubt know much more about the first former Soviet player in the National Basketball Association and recent inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Of course, as they saw in the film, Marciulionis does not hesitate to proclaim that he is a Lithuanian who played on the Soviet team in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul only because he had no choice. Four of the five starters on that team were from the same Lithuanian town, Kaunas, and they took far more delight in representing their native country in its improbable rise in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, where they lost in the semifinals to the U.S. “Dream Team” but then defeated the Unified team, made up of 15 former Soviet republics, in the most emotional bronze-medal game ever. That was about the time many of the students at Friday’s presentation were born.
“It was good for them to hear it,” Smith said. “One of the things we try to do is keep everything current, but we also want to show respect for those who came before us.”
The documentary, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and narrowly missed making the list of finalists for an Academy Award, used extensive news footage and a long list of interviews to recount the events that led to Lithuania declaring its independence in 1990. One of the first segments shows Majerle playing for the United States against Marciulionis and the Soviet team in the 1988 gold-medal game, a preview of their battles a few years later when Majerle played for the Phoenix Suns and Marciulionis was on the Golden State Warriors.
Marciulionis on Majerle: “He was tough. He could shoot.”
Majerle on Marciulionis: “Sarunas was the strongest guy I ever played against. He was just a bull.”
Marciulionis had to be strong mentally, too. After he came to the United States to play for the Warriors in 1989, the events back home spun out of control as Soviet troops tried to quell the Lithuanian uprising.
“There was no Internet. All we had was the phone, the fax and CNN,” he said. “When the Russians took over the TV tower, only one person in the building had a satellite phone. I knew there was something going on, but I tried to keep my composure and concentrate on basketball. My motivation was that I was not just representing Lithuania — I also was representing European basketball.”
Concentrating on basketball meant trying to decipher what the Warriors’ famed coach, Don Nelson, wanted him to do. Asked whether he ever got discouraged and wanted to give up, Marciulionis started laughing and said it was when “I started to understand English and understood that he was cussing me out.”
Later, he said he is thankful for what Nelson did for him because “it meant he had to believe I could play. And it helped my teammates to look at me differently. They just saw me as another player.”
Today, the NBA has 92 foreign players from 37 countries, according to Brooks Meek, the league’s vice president of international basketball Relations, who joined Marciulionis for the screening along with Kim Bohuny, the senior vice president of international relations. Meek’s job is to meet with every international player and try to smooth the transition, and he and Bohuny cited several challenges those players face.
The biggest barrier is obvious: language. But they also have to adjust to the speed of the game, the quickness of the players and the change in culture. “In other countries, most teams have organized meals and players hang out together,” Meek said. “In the NBA, players usually go their separate ways.”
They strongly advise players to not bring their extended families with them if it will hinder their adjustment to the new culture and learning English. It’s important that these players become acclimated so that they can make better use of their time away from basketball. “What do you do all day if you don’t know the language?” Meek asked rhetorically.
About 50 percent of those foreign players stay in the country once their playing days are over, Meek said, and Marciulionis is one of those who stayed – kind of. He lives in San Diego but also spends time in his native country, where he runs a basketball academy and owns a sports bar, and in Spain.
He still follows the NBA closely – the Warriors, of course, plus Brooklyn (its owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is from Russia) and San Antonio (whose head coach, Gregg Popovich, was a Warriors assistant when Marciulionis was there) – and goes to the All-Star Game regularly. But his days playing basketball are over thanks to multiple surgeries on his right knee. His sport of choice now is paddle tennis. “I got hooked in Spain,” he said. “It’s really big there.”
Marciulionis had a big role in making sure “The Other Dream Team” got made. The catalyst behind it was Marius Markevicius, who was born in Santa Monica, Calif., but comes from a Lithuanian background. He had just turned 12 when the Americans lost to the Soviets in the 1988 Olympic basketball final.
“No one had any concept of what comprised the Soviet Union,” Markevicius said in a 2012 interview. “They were all just enemies, they were all just Communists, they were all just an evil empire. That kind of hurt. It was like everyone was angry at these Lithuanians. And it stuck in my head even as a little kid.”
Lithuania was broke after its hard-fought battle for independence, and the only way the basketball team was going to be able to go to the Olympics was through outside funding. Enter the Grateful Dead, of all people. Members of the rock band were big basketball fans and saw a story in a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper about the plight of Marciulionis and his countrymen. Naturally, the Dead had to arrange tie-dye T-shirts for the Lithuanians that became the must-have souvenir of those Olympics.
“What I like is that it tells a story,” Bohuny said. “A lot of kids here can’t even remember the Soviet Union.”
They undoubtedly walked away with a different perspective after seeing the documentary. And now they know who Sarunas Marciulionis is, too.
Contact Rick Vacek at 639.8203 or [email protected].