Psychedelic Ballers: How a Baltic Minnow Took it to the Soviet Empire

The only combination better than music and politics is music and politics and sport.  So: what do the fall of the Soviet Union, Olympic basketball and the Grateful Dead have in common?

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics the United States failed to win gold in the men’s basketball for only the second time in Olympic history.  Appropriately, given the times and even the location, on the peninsula that saw one of The Cold War’s most tangible manifestations, the shock defeat was delivered at the hands of the Soviet Union.

The magnitude of the upset would have been more apparent though had it been known that four of the Soviets’ five starting players were from Lithuania.  From an empire with 285 million inhabitants, covering what is today 15 countries and over a fifth of the planet’s land mass, 80 per cent of those on court were from a country less than half a per cent the physical size of Russia and with a population smaller than that of Seattle, Cape Town or Melbourne.

Thus opens The Other Dream Team, a documentary on Lithuanian basketball I recently enjoyed, thanks to a (Lithuanian) friend’s recommendation.

Lithuania was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and was the first former Soviet country to declare independence in 1990.  The half century of Soviet rule in Lithuania was harsh with “mass murder, deportations, collectivisation, forced atheism and unrelenting propaganda”.  Basketball was an unlikely locus for national identity and pride.  For that reason the win over the USA in Seoul was bittersweet, mostly bitter, achieved as it was in Soviet colours.

Separation from the Soviet Union was messy and painful.  As the first state to secede, Lithuania was subject to aggressive retribution from Moscow that saw 14 people killed.  Lithuania eventually triumphed in this David and Goliath battle and the Soviets finally recognised its independence in August 1991.   Just in time for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Which is where The Grateful Dead come in.

Like other post-Soviet states, in the short term independence came with drastic state restructuring and economic difficulties for Lithuania.  The degree of these difficulties is a matter for debate I’m not qualified to weigh in to, but needless to say sport funding was not a priority.  Jerry Garcia and co. got wind of the Lithuanian team’s troubles, saw the synergies with their own philosophy of freedom (political and otherwise) and decided to help.  They provided the team with some funds and a to-be-infamous tie-dyed uniform.  I won’t ruin the ending of the film except to say that the last game the Lithuanians played at those Olympics was for a medal, against Russia and had a final margin of four points.

Lithuania’s 1992 Olympic basketball team, resplendent in tie-dye

The Grateful Dead are mostly thought of as a psychedelic band – as reflected by the tie-dye that marked their Lithuanian venture – but I personally prefer their folk-rock side.  My unoriginal favourite is ‘Box of Rain’, written and sung by bassist Phil Lesh for his dying Father.

The Grateful Dead ended with the heart-attack death of front man Garcia in 1995.  Today Lithuania is a parliamentary democracy and EU member with one of the fastest growing economies on that continent (despite being hit heavily by the global financial crisis).  Its men’s basketball team has qualified for every Olympics since Barcelona, three times to win a medal.  Their fans still wear tie-dye.

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