By Elliott Almond

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sarunas Marciulionis just wanted to play basketball.

It's a sport the former Warriors star from Lithuania could do gracefully two decades ago.

But sometimes circumstances decide a man's path. Twenty years later Marciulionis still has surreal memories about becoming a central figure in a political chess match when Lithuania won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

"With all this glory there is responsibility," he said while in town for the Bay Area premiere of the documentary, "The Other Dream Team," a riveting film that chronicles how basketball stars Arvydas Sabonis and Marciulionis became an inspiration to a Baltic nation of 3 million.

"That is where it is so tough. I don't want to go back to that time. I don't want to be in that position."

The 90-minute film directed by Cal graduate Marius Markevicius makes its local debut Friday in Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

The filmmakers have more on their minds than presenting a dramatic sports narrative about pioneer Eastern European basketball players. The story is a vehicle to revisit the Cold War era when Lithuanians had little freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

It reminds viewers of how difficult lives were under Soviet occupation and how Marciulionis and Sabonis were used to promote Eastern Bloc idealism against their wills. The players became the regime's mouthpieces after leading the Soviet Union to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics. The team that started four players from Kaunas, Lithuania, stunned the mighty Americans in the semifinals.

Four years later, everything had changed. The Lithuanians went to Barcelona as members of a newly independent country.

They entered an arena overshadowed by a U.S. squad that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley -- the original "Dream Team."

But it was this other dream team that embodied the Olympic spirit by representing something larger than their own ambitions. In one symbolic moment, they won the bronze against the Russians. It was just a year earlier that Moscow sent tanks to storm a Lithuanian television tower.

"Basketball was more than a game," Marciulionis said. "I was thinking, 'What if we lose?' How many people we would hurt? That's why I don't want to go back to that time."

But he felt only warm memories this week during a special screening in San Francisco with other cast members, including Hall of Fame center Bill Walton and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

The Bay Area played an important role in the Lithuanian groundswell that captured the world's imagination in 1992. It began with Donnie Nelson, the son of then-Warriors' coach Don Nelson. He developed a friendship with Marciulionis in the 1980s. When the Berlin Wall fell in '89 and the Soviet grip on satellite states loosened the 6-foot-5 Marciulionis was allowed to sign with the NBA.

Despite the atmosphere of perestroika, he chose the Warriors over the Atlantic Hawks because their owner Ted Turner had strong ties to Soviet leaders. Marciulionis played four years with the Warriors, finishing as runner-up for the NBA Sixth Man award twice.

As the '92 Olympics approached Lithuania had little money to support a sports program. But Marciulionis contacted prospective players, helped select uniforms and arrange for sponsorships.

The agile wing player went around the Bay Area giving speeches to raise money. News of the campaign reached the Grateful Dead.

"It was a spirit thing," Hart said. "That is what the Grateful Dead is all about."

The band became the team's sponsor through its charitable Rex Foundation that raised millions for the Lithuanians. Also, New York artist Greg Speirs donated his design of the colorful tie-dye T-shirts that became so popular. The players wore their dunking-skeleton attire to Olympic news conferences and whenever they went out in Barcelona.

"It allowed these guys to rebuild what had been taken away and destroyed through Soviet occupation," Walton said of the financial support.

But the campaign also added more pressure on Marciulionis "because they became invested," he said of Bay Area supporters.

Now the former star is one of Lithuania's most successful businessmen, owning a hotel and sports bar in the capital of Vilnius. Marciulionis, who spends his winters in San Diego, also founded the Lithuanian Basketball League and runs a basketball academy for new talent.

But he never has become comfortable with the attention over what transpired decades ago.

"It's 20 years later," Marciulionis said. "I have my own trajectory."

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.