Published in the February 15, 2012 edition of the Ventura County Star
If you really want to learn the truth about world politics, sometimes your best bet is the sports pages. At least that was the case in 1988, when the USSR basketball team trounced the Americans in the semifinals at Seoul on their way to Olympic gold.
Sports writers were able to cut through the fog of communist propaganda by focusing on a fact the Soviets couldn't spin — four of the five starting players for the USSR team (Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius) were actually Lithuanians being forced to compete for the Soviets.
They also noted that while Lithuania — a tiny Baltic country about the size of West Virginia with a paltry population of 3 million — had been annexed, oppressed and brutalized under Stalin since 1944, it sure could produce basketball players.
Lithuania, you see, is a country that considers hoops its national pastime, if not religion. In fact, 90 percent of the population follows the sport.
Back in the late 1930s, when Lithuania was still sovereign, its teams captured two European basketball championships. Even the estimated 10 percent of all Lithuanian adults banished to Siberia managed to keep their spirits high by shooting hoops in the labor camps.
In the interests of full disclosure, both my maternal grandparents were born in Lithuania. Attending the Santa Barbara Film Festival with my Lithuanian hubby to see "The Other Dream Team" was a no-brainer. Neither was tucking Kleenex into my bag.
Before the film rolled, the 35-year-old director and co-writer, clad in faded jeans and nondescript shirt, hopped up on the stage of the Lobero Theater. For this self-described "100 percent Lithuanian," his documentary proved to be a three-year labor of love.
Still basking in the rosy glow of a Sundance success, Markevicius not only acknowledged the number of rabid-to-the-max basketball fans in the audience but also those who remembered to sport tie-dyed shirts in the colors of the Lithuanian flag (more later).
In 1991, Lithuania became the first republic to break away from an imploding Soviet Union after 52 agonizing years of occupation.
The split was hardly amicable and the documentary not only reminds the audience that it was Nobel Peace Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev who dispatched tanks to mow down unarmed Vilnius citizens but also illustrates the raw moral courage of Lithuanian independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis as well.
To demonstrate the difference between capitalism and communism, Ronald Reagan would recount the tale of the thrifty Soviet citizen who had squirreled away the asking price of an automobile. Due to production shortages, however, he was told his order would not be filled for 10 years.
"Do you wish morning or evening delivery?" the man was asked. "Afternoon," he quickly responded, "The plumber is coming in the morning."
In the same vein, the audience also chuckled as Chomicius confessed to smuggling Western contraband gleaned on road trips. The budding entrepreneur was merely attempting to subsidize the meager $100-a-month salary he earned as a star athlete.
Yet, the worst aspect of Soviet dominance was not the scarcity of cabbages or cars, but being forbidden to express one's culture, language and identity as a Lithuanian.
Most folks remember 1992 as the year America's "Dream Team" — including such professional icons as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley — claimed top honors after defeating eight opponents by an average of 44 points.
However, another dream team also made its debut on the basketball court in Barcelona that year. The team was from Lithuania, and the dream belonged to the core four that defeated the Americans four years earlier under the Soviet banner.
Although the now-independent Lithuania had the talent, it lacked the capital to cover travel costs and operating expenses.
The athletes, however, were quick to embrace a "better dead than red" modus operandi, when, according to Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated: "The Grateful Dead donated $5,000 and, more symbolically, prevailed upon one of its licensees (artist Greg Speirs) to provide the Lithuanian players with the red, yellow and green tie-dyed T-shirts that have since become as much a symbol of the end of the Cold War as those souvenir chunks of the Berlin Wall."
Speirs, in fact, acquired "major sponsor" status when he donated the $400,000 in profits realized from his trademarked "Slam Dunking Skeleton" basketball jersey to the team as well as Lithuanian children's charities.
It was on the Olympic podium, however, that the Lithuanians, who grabbed the attention, approval and affection of most spectators with their fast-break style, underdog status and uber-hip tie-dyed uniforms, found bronze to be more precious than gold.
And that's the truth Markevicius — rather than some sports writer — was ultimately able to uncover. The stoic Lithuanians trusted him enough to allow their tears to say it all.