Interbasket had the pleasure of interviewing Marius Markevicius, the director of “The Other Dream Team,” the film surrounding the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team.
The interview is in two parts. In this first part, we talked about the reprucussions for Lithuanians after their country was annexed by the Soviet Union, the process of working through those atrocities, what could have been with Arvydas Sabonis had he come to the NBA earlier in his career, and where Sabonis was during the 1992 medal ceremony.
Stuart Leung: Hi Marius, thanks for taking some time out to sit down with interbasket and discuss your film.
Marius Markevicius: No problem at all.
Stuart Leung:: Awesome. So to get started, how has The Other Dream Team been received?
Marius Markevicius: It’s been great. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the positive response esp. back then if people would care about this little country that a lot of people never heard of. It really worked out and got a good response.
Stuart Leung: Lithuania is such a small country, were you concerned about the reach of the film, that maybe it was too niched?
Marius Markevicius: I’m Lithuanian. My parents grew up back there. I was born in the US, but I grew up idolizing these guys. This was like my life. I grew up knowing all this history. My family lived through this history – we had family sent to Siberia. I followed these basketball players. For me, there couldn’t be anything more personal or more passionate about – you have to ask the question ‘does everyone else is going to like it. I’m biased, but I realized right off the bat, especially when I pitched it, everyone would just light up. You realized it’s a universal story – it’s a classic underdog story… a story about freedom and independence. Themes that Americans really love and really cherish in a similar way. After Sundance, it got such a good response and it’s been off to the races since then.
Stuart Leung: Was it tough to get the players through the process of breaking through and talking about such a difficult time.
Marius Markevicius: Maybe the timing was right. I was really surprised about how open and how willing these guys were to tell their personal stories and they got quite emotional. Athletes and basketball players are usually quite stoic, especially guys from Eastern Europe. It was fortunate for me that the right amount of time had passed and they were ready to let it all out there.
Stuart Leung: You say they got emotional, Was there a common theme to the players’ personal stories? What memories triggered those emotions?
Marius Markevicius: Anytime you talk about the war crimes, what happened after World War II, and Siberia and so forth, even though not all the guys had been born yet, they all had grandparents or uncles and aunts that suffered or died during the war or sent to Siberia. You could tell that those were emotional stories to talk about.
Then you talk about 1992, getting on the medal stand and seeing the (Lithuanian) flag rise up next to the American flag. They hadn’t won the gold, but won a bronze. It was just the journey of getting there was, you know, the most important thing, but, you know, they all kind of choked up.
Stuart Leung: “Kind of choked up.” As far as what they accomplished and when they got on the medal stand, when they framed their accomplishment and how they wanted to motivate themselves, was it going against the former USSR, or was it, “We just kind of want to win a medal for our country”, or maybe a little bit of both? What was the overwhelming motivation if there was one that was kind of in the forefront of their mind when they stepped onto the court?
Marius Markevicius: Yeah, given that these guys, you know, didn’t really want to be political, they didn’t want any of that, but the situation arose when they were going to play the former Soviet Union team, and I don’t think they had any animosity for the players. They played with a lot of those guys and were friends with them…
Stuart Leung: Yeah.
Marius Markevicius:…but there was so much pressure from back home, you know. I mean, the entire country’s hopes and dreams, and it was a very tough time in their history, and they were just marching for a new democracy, and the economy was terrible, and like, the Russian Mafia had taken over a lot of things there, and it was a bad time, a tough time, and they felt that.
They knew that everyone was going to be watching, and this was their moment to shine, so I think they really didn’t want to let down the country, and the other symbolic things were obviously important, and they wanted to be this symbol of the old regime, but mostly they wanted to do it for the people back home.
Stuart Leung: So it was less, kind of, even though they might feel a push to beat the USSR, it was more kind of, “Hey, let’s win this for our country, let’s bring it home to our country, kind of, you know, during a really tough time…
Marius Markevicius: They knew they had a moment in history. I really think in the interviews that came across. They weren’t out for revenge against the guys or the other team. It was all looking forward and we have a moment in time to win the medal and plant the first flag, so to speak, in the new country.
Stuart Leung: Speaking of the of medal ceremony, as I told you, I’m a huge Sabonis fan, and, you know, looking back, I remember not seeing him on the stands. And I’ve heard rumors about why that was, that the celebrations were a little crazy, and that he wasn’t even physically able to get on the stand because he was partying too hard, for a lack of a better phrase, I guess. Do you have any insight into that?
Marius Markevicius: I can’t say too much, but you sort of hit it on the head. He tells a funny story that basically the bronze medal game ended like four or five hours before the ceremony because the gold medal had to still happen, and basically, you don’t want to give Lithuanians that long…
Stuart Leung: Got it.
Marius Markevicius: He actually said something like he was actually hanging out with some of the other athletes, even some of the guys from the other team, and someone tapped him on the shoulder and was like, “Look on the TV.” And his team was already over there getting the medal.
Stuart Leung: That’s hilarious.
Marius Markevicius: He made a mad dash to the taxi to try to make it, but he just missed it, apparently.
Stuart Leung: Interesting. I had this whole idea — and I won’t go too deep into it — that was he just slumped over in the locker room not even able to stand up straight.
Marius Markevicius: No, it wasn’t like that. He was aware. I mean, he lost track of time and was having fun, but he wasn’t passed out.
Stuart Leung: Got it. Being a huge Sabonis fan, you know, Interbasket actually got it’s start based on a Sabonis forum that I created like 10, 12 years ago. Any cool tidbits that didn’t make it into the film — nervous ticks, or if he bites his nails? You know, anything is interesting to me because he is known to be media-shy sometimes.
Marius Markevicius: Um, you know, he was really great. In fact, when the interview ended, one of the cameramen — we interviewed him twice — he was really easy-going and telling jokes and smiling. You don’t see that a lot from him in media interviews, you know, he was always pretty quiet. He really opened up. So when the interview ended, one of the guys — the cameraman — and the producer tapped me on the shoulder and were all, “Wow, we’ve never heard him say that much or open up that much ever.” It kind of gave me a hint that we were onto something special. Like I said, I think I was just lucky that maybe the right amount of time had gone by and that he was ready to talk, you know. But…I can’t say that there was anything odd or obsessive.
He was open and really warm, and people watch the movie and they fall in love with him because he’s a gentle giant, you know, and is always smiling. There were a couple funny things that didn’t quite make it the cut. One of them, one of the things that was funny, I remember, I asked him something like, “Do you have regrets?” or “do you ever think about what could have been, you know, if you didn’t have those injuries or you could have come to the NBA sooner?” He thought for a second, and chuckled, and he said, you know, It doesn’t translate that well, but in Lithuanian he said, you know, “What if? You know, what if? What if your grandmother had balls?” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” And he’s like, “She’d be your grandfather.” It took me a second because he said it in Lithuanian, like, you know, it was like “eggs,” like huevos, or something like that, and I was like, and then I got it, and I was just cracking up laughing. He’s not the kind of guy to, you know, pontificate about what could have been, which is great, because he doesn’t look backwards. He, you know, just shrugs it off. You can’t ask questions like What if?
Stuart Leung: I think the “What if Sabonis came earlier to the NBA…” is one of these question that he gets often…
Stay tuned for part two of the interview.
To see if The Other Dream Team will be showing in your city or to buy tickets online, go to their official site or Landmark Theatres. For more information, check out Interbasket’s Lithuanian Basketball Forum