Americans are surely passionate about sports, but we think of athletics, for the most part, as fun and games. In Europe, however, especially in international competitions, sports carry the weight of world events and regularly elevate or deflate the hopes of an entire nation. But even in that context, the story told in the captivating "The Other Dream Team" is totally out of the ordinary.

A stranger-than-fiction look at how sports and politics have intersected to highly dramatic effect in the history of modern Lithuania, "The Other Dream Team's" tale was a classic saga waiting to be told, but it took a Lithuanian American director, Marius Markevicius, to know enough to bring it to the screen.

If you know anything about Lithuania, you know this story couldn't involve any sport but basketball, a game that has captivated this small country of 3 million since 1939, when Lithuania hosted and won the European championships.

After World War II, when the country was annexed by the Soviet Union, basketball remained so popular that exiled Lithuanian dissidents regularly played it during their Siberian exiles. One of the byproducts of that annexation was that Lithuanian athletes were forced to play for the Soviet Union in international competitions. This compulsory alliance reached its climax at the 1988 Seoul Olympics basketball semifinals, when, in a stunning upset, the United States team lost, 82-76, to the Soviets.

Though not many Americans knew it at the time, four of the five USSR starters were Lithuanians infuriated at having to forgo their nationality. The team's two stars, spectacular guard (and later Golden State Warrior) Sarunas Marciulionis and legendary center Arvydas Sabonis had played together since they were teenagers.

As involving as "The Other Dream Team" has been up to this point, it really kicks into gear with its detailing of the maneuvering that enabled Lithuania to free itself from the Soviet Union and how basketball figured in what transpired. With the 1992 Barcelona Olympics coming up, Marciulionis and Sabonis were determined to put together a team that could play together under the Lithuanian flag, a team that could demonstrate to the world what their country had achieved.

In a tale almost too outlandish to believe, a chance encounter with the Grateful Dead led to a sizable check and, more colorfully, a group of tie-dyed practice jerseys with the band's classic skull motif designed for the team.

With this gear in tow, the Lithuanians went to Barcelona. How this all worked out makes "The Other Dream Team" a sports film to remember.

'the other dream team'

* * *

Rating: Not rated
Director: Marius Markevicius
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes