I’m not an expert on the history of Lithuania but I’ve been told by several of that country’s proud descendants that basketball is their “second religion.” That’s why when the Pistons take on the Toronto Raptors next Friday night (March 29) at the Palace you should expect to see and hear a noisy cheering section of Motown Lithuanian fans dressed in yellows, greens and reds – the national colors.
March 29th is Lithuanian Heritage Night at the Palace. I’m told there will be hundreds of basketball crazy Lithuanian’s cheering for one of their heroes – who, by the way, is also one of the up-and-coming future stars in the NBA and a member of the Toronto Raptors.
He is #17 Jonas Valanciunas. He’s only 20 years old and in his first NBA game against the Indiana Pacers recorded a highly-prized “Double-Double” (12 points & 10 rebounds). But that’s only a small part of the real story behind Lithuania’s basketball crazed country and the phenomenal pride they have for their basketball heroes… and the reason why basketball unified a nation.
For the record, the history of Lithuania dates back a thousand years to at least the 10th century. A few hundred years later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was established as a successful and lasting warrior state – not to be confused with the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors. The Duchy remained fiercely independent and was one of the last areas of Europe to adopt Christianity.
In 1795 Lithuania was erased from the political map and lived under the rule of the Russian Empire until the 20th century. Lithuania was re-established in 1918 as a democratic state and remained independent until World War ll, when it was taken over by the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years. With the fall of communism, Lithuania restored its sovereignty and was the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence.
So how is it that this modest country of 3.5 million came to be so preoccupied with basketball that it has its own group of heroes aptly named The Other Dream Team?
Turns out basketball became a catalyst for Lithuania’s freedom from Soviet communism and was a significant force that resurrected national pride.
“The Other Dream Team”’ is also the title for a documentary film about the inspirational story of the 1992 Lithuania Olympic Basketball team and its incredible journey to freedom from communism and its Bronze Medal victory over Russia at the Barcelona Summer Olympics.
Basketball was brought to Lithuania in the early 1930s by Pranas Lubinas who returned to his homeland from America. Under his leadership, Lithuania became the European champions in 1937 and 1939 catapulting basketball to its national sport. Soviet occupation in 1940 destroyed plans to host 1941 European championship in Lithuania and removed the national team from basketball geography. Despite the nation’s dire political events, basketball remained strong and in the 1980s half of the members of Soviet Union national basketball team were ethnic Lithuanians.
The film documents the team’s experiences behind the Iron Curtain, where they shared a common goal … to utilize their athletic gifts to help a nation’s struggle for freedom.
After leading the USSR to a gold medal (and victory over the U.S.A.) at the ’88 Seoul Olympics, Lithuanian players, Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis were poster boys for the Soviet sports machine. Four year later, after the fall of the U.S.S.R., they emerged as symbols of democracy.
Now for the rest of the story … The 1992 Barcelona Olympics introduced the world to the American stars of the NBA led by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing who along with the rest of the USA squad became known as The Dream Team. They were arguably basketball’s greatest team of all time going 8-0, averaging 117 points per game and beating their opponents by an average 44 points per game. They were absolutely dominant. They were untouchable. Simply put, they played at a level of performance never before seen in Olympic basketball history.
But let’s remember now there was another basketball team in Spain that summer playing for more than just a medal. The other dream team (little ‘d’, little ‘t’) from Lithuania, just two years removed from declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, was also using basketball as a tool. The difference though was basketball helped mobilize the small nation and gave it hope during a time when there was little.
When the 1992 Olympics came around the nation’s economy was on life-support and there wasn’t a major sporting goods brand outfitting the Lithuanian team. Instead, it was the Grateful Dead. The band was all about freedom and celebration and loved the Lithuanians fight for freedom so it donated money to create an almost electrifying display of yellow, green and red tie-dye warm ups. The shirts, which contained a dunking skeleton, signified the rebellious, fun-loving and prideful nature that the basketball team represented.
Basketball allowed the nation to forget atrocities that happened to families and to expose the myth of Soviet sports propaganda. The team wanted no part of playing for their occupiers. They wanted to play for their own country.
On the medal stand in Barcelona the Lithuanian players proudly wore their colorful tie-dye gear and skeleton logo. By beating Russia, David had beaten Goliath … and the game of basketball had been raised into an unforgettable expression of political and cultural identity.
If you’re at the Pistons vs. Raptors game and the hometown fans in yellow, green and red are cheering on the Raptors #17 just remember they are not only rooting for national pride they are celebrating freedom.