The other Dream Team
Have your ever asked yourself why the concept of dream is so frequently used when people talk about sports? We have heard and read so many times about a dream season, a dream opportunity, a dream result, and of course a dream team. This happens because this is what sport – to a very great extent – does for all of us. It offers everyone the chance to imagine how they would want things to look like, happen and be, thus bringing them one step closer to that reality.
With the Olympic Games happening this summer, let’s have a closer look at one such case where a dream became reality with the help of sport. The case of Lithuania and their love for basketball.
Lithuania is a European country with 3 million inhabitants. The state was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union first in 1940, and then again in 1944, right before the end of World War II, following the retreat of the Germans. Nonetheless, in the 1920s and 1930s, when the country was independent, Lithuania organised and eventually ended up winning the European Basketball Championship. This way, thanks to their national team’s fantastic achievement, children of the age in the small Baltic state fell in love with this sport.
In 1941, the deportation wave began, with almost every family in the region, at that moment in time entirely under Soviet rule, being affected by this. Fathers, sisters, sons, students or farmers, all were forced to move to Siberia and start from scratch over there. Nonetheless, although they had to give up their lives in their own country, they did not give up basketball. Somehow, they managed to build a regulation court in Siberia, and basketball enabled people to keep their dignity, their sense of humanity, their hope and – essentially – helped them survive in those atrocious conditions.
It goes without saying that during the entire Soviet era, Lithuanian athletes had no other choice but to compete under the USSR flag. Thus, in the 1988 Olympic Games that took place in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets won the Gold medals, after defeating the Americans in the Semifinals.
Out of the starting 5, 4 players were Lithuanians. Moreover, they from the same city of Kaunas. Their names: Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Arvydas Sabonis, and Valdemaras Chomičius.
All four mentioned and pictured above had been part of the Zalgiris Kaunas basketball team, Soviet Union Champions in 1985, 1986 and 1987, ahead of CSKA, the mighty Red Army team. They made a clear public statement with their victories that, no matter how small in population compared to the USSR, Lithuania would not surrender and could and would continue to fight. And win. Even if only on the basketball courts.
For the desire to succeed sometimes overshadows the force and size of the opponent.
Lithuania, alongside two other Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, wanted to regain their independence and sovereignty, and the signs of their desire were obvious and omnipresent. The human chain uniting the capitals Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga of the three aforementioned countries, formed in 1989 by two million people – that was almost 600 kilometers long – stood as an undeniable and emotional proof that people no longer wished for others to dictate their lives.
With the arrival of Perestroika and the Glasnost policy reform put forward by Mikhail Gorbachev, this became possible and freedom in Lithuania was restored in 1990 on March 11th. But not without fights, crimes and abuse from the Russian part.
Independence brought along a great degree of poverty. The following Olympic Games, hosted in Barcelona, were to happen soon and the National Basketball Team had the opportunity to compete against the best in the world under the Lithuanian flag. Therefore, the players, scattered by their professional careers all over the globe, from NBA to Western Europe, came together and, with financial help from The Grateful Dead, an American rock band, and building on a sky-rocketing motivation, qualified with an unbeaten record to the 1992 grandiose event.
In Barcelona, Lithuania lost the Semifinals of the tournament to the Dream Team, who would go on and win Gold and forever change the image and popularity of basketball around the world. In their match for the Bronze medals, Lithuanians faced the then Unified Russian Team, and after a fantastic game, managed to win 82-78. Their victory was highly symbolic, making an entire nation proud and drawing everyone’s attention towards the state once mistaken for yet another part of the Soviet Union.
Their plays – but even more so – their attire drew the attention of the world. Their shirts designed with The Grateful Dead's help are retro icons in the world of vintage clothing lovers having made appearances in shows like FRIENDS, worn by stars of all sorts, and sought after by avid collectors of the genre.
Basketball has been and will continue to be the number one sport in Lithuania, not only because Lithuanians are very good at playing it, but mostly thanks to the fact that it has helped their nation to achieve its greatest dream. Basketball was there when needed and granted this small but strong-willed nation the unique possibility to keep the flame of hope alive for so many years.
The dream of freedom, the dream of independence, the dream of being liberated from social and political occupation, the dream of being able to draw their own destiny and make their own choices for the days to come. These all created the big dream that came true for Lithuania and basketball was the catalyst that enabled a peaceful outcome that was witnessed and applauded by the entire world.