Have your ever asked yourself why the concept of dream is so frequently used when people talk about sports? We have heard, seen and read so many times about a dream season, a dream opportunity, a dream result, and of course a dream team. They do it because this is what sport, to a very great extent, really does for all of us, offering everyone the chance to imagine how they would want things to look like, thus bringing them one step, be that as it may, closer to their desired reality.
Lithuania is a European country with 3 million inhabitants, that was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and then again in 1944, right before the end of World War II, following the retreat of the Germans. Nonetheless, in the short period 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, were all forced to move to Siberia and start from scratch over there. Nonetheless, although they were made to give up their lives back in their country, they did not give up basketball. Somehow they managed to build a regulation court in Siberia, and basketball allowed people to keep their dignity, their sense of humanity, their hope and essentially helped them to 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 colours and flag. Thus, in the 1988 edition of the Olympic Games that took place in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets won the Gold medals, after having defeated the Americans in the Semifinals. 4 players out of the starting 5 were Lithuanians, and moreover from the 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, making a clear public statement with their victories that, no matter how small in population compared to 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 the other two Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, wanted once more their independence and sovereignty, and the signs of this desire were evermore obvious and omnipresent. The human chain uniting the capitals of the three aforementioned countries (Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga), formed in 1989 by two million people, that was almost 600 kilometres long, stood as an undeniable proof that people no longer wished for others to dictate their lives.
With the come of Perestroika and the Glasnost policy reform put forward by Mikhail Gorbachev, this became possible and freedom in Lithuania was restored March 11th 1990. But not without fights, crimes and abuse from the Russian part.
Independence brought with it 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 this time as Lithuanians, not Russians. 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 Greatful 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 on the Globe. In their match for the Bronze medals, Lithuanians faced the then Unified Russian Team, and after a fantastic game, managed to win 82-78, making an entire nation proud and drawing everyone’s attention towards the state once mistaken for yet another part of the apparent never-ending Soviet Union.
Basketball has been and will continue to be for many years 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, being there when needed and sometimes granting 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, that was the dream that came true for Lithuania and basketball was the weapon at hand to make this happen peacefully and to have it witnessed and applauded by the entire world.