CARBONDALE - Marius Markevicius is primarily interested in narrative films, not documentaries. The Los Angeles native was an executive producer of last year's highly regarded, edgy romance "Like Crazy" and has several scripts in mind he would like to direct.
But with the true-life tale of "The Other Dream Team," Markevicius happily jumped at the chance to become, for the moment, a documentary filmmaker. Not only does the story take place at the unlikely intersection of communism, basketball and the Grateful Dead, it was a piece of history that Markevicius watched unfold with deep interest.
"It's the definition of a passion project," he said from his L.A. office. "It's something I grew up with, a story I wanted and needed to tell. With 20 years having passed, it seemed like the time to tell it."
In 1988, Markevicius, along with most every basketball fan on the globe, witnessed the nearly unthinkable: The U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, which had lost only one game ever in any Olympics, the hotly disputed 1972 finals against the Soviet Union, went down in defeat, again against the Soviets. Though the Cold War was nearing its end in 1988, the common perception was that the game was yet another round in the bitter rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, between democracy and communism.
Markevicius was just 12 at the time, but he possessed an uncommon insight into the American-versus-Soviet drama that played out on the basketball court in South Korea. Markevicius, as the son of Lithuanian immigrants, knew that four of the five starters on the Soviet team were Lithuanians and not aligned with the Soviet cause. Those players, including future NBA stars Arvydas Sabonis - "a 7-foot-3 Larry Bird, those kind of skills," according to Markevicius - and Sarunas Marciulionis, were interested more in competition on the hardwood than in politics. And if they were to take ideological sides, they certainly would have leaned toward the West - Lithuania was among the satellite republics that had been swallowed whole by the Soviets in Moscow.
"The portrayal of the Soviet athlete was Ivan Drago from 'Rocky,' this robot working for the machine of the Soviet Union. Communist, Russian, evil - there were all these labels, and they were all wrong," Markevicius said. "Most of these athletes wanted no part of what the system represented. But people here didn't understand that. They just thought of them as a bunch of communists, the Evil Empire. That kind of hurt."
If there is an association that Americans have with Lithuanian basketball, it came four years later. For the 1992 Olympics - famed for the U.S. Dream Team, which featured Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and won by an average of 44 points a game as it steamrolled to the gold medal - the Lithuanians often were shown in tie-dye T-shirts with a distinctly Grateful Dead-related design. The Lithuanians, an independent country following the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, went practically banging on doors to raise money to compete in Barcelona. Sarunas Marciulionis was a member of the Golden State Warriors, in the San Francisco Bay area, and the Grateful Dead family, which included some basketball fans, took up the Lithuanian team like it was a hometown cause.
"The Other Dream Team," which is showing at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale, weaves together these unlikely strands. Basketball scenes roll to a soundtrack of the Grateful Dead's "U.S. Blues"; Sabonis, a compelling character, offers views on global politics and basketball. There's a history of communist aggression, along with the backstory of how Lithuania, a country of some 3 million, came to be so hoops-happy. (Here's how: Frank Lubin, a Lithuanian-American who starred for UCLA in the 1930s, returned to Lithuania to coach and play for a team that twice won the European championship. "They got pride out of that. It became part of the culture," Markevicius said of the sport's popularity in Lithuania.) There is the triumphant and emotional sight of the Lithuanian team defeating the archrival Russians in the 1992 bronze-medal game and then celebrating in their tie-dyes.
The documentary is thus broad in scope, but it coheres enough to have been a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the Sundance Film Festival. Central to all the components in "The Other Dream Team" is the concept of liberty.
The Grateful Dead, noted Markevicius, "is very American, very iconic and a real symbol of freedom. They represent that freedom generation, that hippie vibe, independence. The whole story is about freedom and independence and charting your own course."
Markevicius' course isn't likely to include another documentary.
"It will be hard to find another subject I'm as passionate about," he said.