Valanciunas legacy of what Lithuania fought for
TORONTO - Jonas Valanciunas had only just been born when Lithuania captured bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in a tie-dyed moment that transcended sport.
But the Toronto Raptors rookie is well aware that when he steps on the basketball court, he's following the path that a courageous and freedom-loving few laid down for him to follow.
The 20-year-old Lithuanian stars in the documentary "The Other Dream Team," a stirring story of the team that — with a big assist from the Grateful Dead — toppled the mighty Unified Team in the bronze-medal game in Barcelona, its first Games as an independent country since the Iron Curtain came down.
"Some twists in history are really big and Lithuania got caught up in those twists," Valanciunas's mom Danute says in the film. "For basketball players and for every young person, the walls have opened to choose your own path. They were born and raised in a different spirit, the independence spirit. They are the children of independence, that's the truth."
Marius Markevicius, a Californian born to Lithuanian parents, teamed up with Jon Weinbach to make the movie that he calls a passion project.
Valanciunas, who was cheered when he appeared at a special screening of the movie in Toronto on Thursday night, figures prominently in the documentary.
"By including Jonas, he's the connection, he's the legacy of what those guys fought so hard for," Markevicius said. "Of course he's worked his tail off but it's been different. It's the free world and free market and the doors are open for him, and I thought it was important to show that contrast."
The movie, which comes out on DVD and is available on iTunes on Jan. 15, opens with the young Valanciunas in the weeks leading up to the NBA draft. It then wonderfully weaves together the story of Lithuania's plight under the Soviet Union's rule through to its bronze medal and finally the selection of Valanciunas with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft.
"Basketball brought us together so that's a great movie to show how it was in Lithuania at that time. For me, it's a really important movie," Valanciunas said Friday. "I have pride every time to play for Lithuania; I feel that Lithuania is something inside my heart."
The movie, a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the Sundance Film Festival, is both humorous and heartbreaking, and the team's connection to the Grateful Dead is almost stranger than fiction.
After gaining its independence, the Lithuanian team found itself with little funding. Sarunas Marciulionis, who joined the Golden State Warriors in 1989, and the team's assistant GM Donnie Nelson went banging on doors, ultimately meeting the Grateful Dead at a concert.
The band didn't just fund the team but provided the tie-dyed team outfits — their logo was a skeleton soaring toward the hoop for a dunk — that were so popular at the Barcelona Games. The team wore the shirts on the medal podium, one of the more humorous and touching moments in the film.
"It was really one of the first moments of the new country where they could really plant their flag and define the new independent country," Markevicius said. "This story is like Miracle on Ice (when the U.S. beat Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic semifinals), if it was in 1776 and George Washington was in the stands and then all of America became obsessed with hockey.
"In this case, it's genuine, the impact."
The movie chronicles the sport's growth in the tiny country of three million.
"Really, truly it's far and away the No. 1 sport, and it's like a religion and people are really devoted," Markevicius said.
Players such as Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and Valanciunas are heroes that get mobbed when they walk down the street.
"I like to say it's almost like Michael Jordan if we didn't have any other sports in the United States," Markevicius said. "Or in Brazil, it's Pele if they didn't have surfing and Carnival. In Lithuania as a small country, they don't have a lot and they have this. And it's so important to them. So yes, they're heroes."
Markevicius interviews the four Lithuanians — Sabonis, Marciulionis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Rimas Kurtinaitis — who starred for the Soviet team that won Olympic gold in 1988.
The four talk about their trips abroad when they would buy clothes, shoes, electronics, and even aspirin, to smuggle back home to sell.
"I'm fortunate they were willing to open up and talk about that stuff because in the past, you might end up in Siberia," Markevicius said.
Sabonis, who was drafted by Portland in 1986 but didn't gain permission from the Soviet Union to go to the NBA until three years later, talks about team trips to the U.S. Lithuanian Americans would sneak them out of their hotels in the trunks of their cars to avoid the KGB agents.
When asked how the seven-foot-three Sabonis could curl himself into a trunk, he says, "Come on, it was a Cadillac!"
Markevicius's dad was 13 when he left Lithuania during World War II, and his mom left with her family when she was three. He remembers watching the Barcelona bronze-medal game with them.
"To me it was awesome, I was 16 so the scope of it all I probably didn't grasp," he said. "As a sports fan I was ecstatic and my parents maybe shed a tear on the side, but as a kid I was just happy and running around the living room."
Markevicius is hoping the film will be used as an educational tool to teach young Lithuanians about their heritage.
His main goal, however, was to tell North Americans the story that he said has "been in my head my whole life almost."
"Growing up as Lithuanian in America, all my life was explaining my name and how weird it is and where you're from, and it's this little country that people hadn't heard of, and if they have heard of Lithuania, a lot of times it's because of basketball," he said.
"But most people still, especially in the United States, we're geographically inept, they don't know anything about it, so I really wanted to teach the western world about this story. And it had the Grateful Dead, and had a U.S. connection, and Americans love basketball too."