Jonas Valanciunas: Promising Raptors rookie centre. National symbol. Movie star.
The 20-year-old rookie has a key role in the outstanding 2012 basketball documentary The Other Dream Team, as the story of his journey from Utena, Lithuania to the NBA represents both hope and freedom only made possible by generations of countrymen before him.
“Basketball brought us together so that’s a great movie to show how it was in Lithuania at that time. For me, it’s a really important movie,” Valanciunas told the Canadian Press on Friday. “I have pride every time to play for Lithuania; I feel that Lithuania is something inside my heart.”
The film’s focal point, however, is the Lithuanian men’s team that captured bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games — a triumphant moment for a country that had just regained its independence after 50 years of occupation by the Soviet Union.
Despite impressive critical reception after its release in January of 2012, The Other Dream Team has not been officially released in Canadian theatres. That prompted the Canadian-Lithuanian Sports Federation to work with the film’s producer and director Marius Markevicius, Alliance Atlantis and the Raptors over the course of several months to help bring a special screening to Toronto on Thursday night.
Stan Kuliavas, Director at the Canadian-Lithuanian Sports Federation, was among those who worked hard to make the event happen and saw a natural fit given the active Lithuanian community in the GTA and two native sons playing for the Raptors.
“We sold out about 600 tickets in about 25 minutes and I think that just goes to show the unbelievable pride the Lithuanian community has in its culture and in its support of both Jonas and Linas (Kleiza) as ‘our’ Raptors,” he said.
That support was reciprocated as Valanciunas attended the screening with his mother Danute, (who’s also in the film), receiving a loud ovation as soon as he stepped into the theatre.
“Those guys have been supporting me so much,” Valuncianas said on Saturday. “So I just want to say thank you to them. I think basketball brought us together, like a country. This movie is the face of our country.”
Raptors personnel including head coach Dwane Casey, assistant coach Tom Sterner, executive vice president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski and director of sports science Alex McKechnie were also on hand to support Valanciunas and see the film.
Markevicius also attended and revealed that the inclusion of the eventual Raptor wasn’t exactly in first draft of a directorial debut he called “the definition of a passion project.”
“What’s interesting is when we first started the movie, it was over three years ago now, he was 16 and wasn’t yet on the international radar and it wasn’t part of my script for the documentary,” said Markevicius. “But as we were shooting, we started hearing about this kid who’s going to be an NBA draft prospect and possibly the future of Lithuanian basketball.”
When Markevicius soon discovered that Valanciunas was born in 1992 – the same year of that memorable medal win – including the story of the prospect’s journey to the Raptors simply made sense.
“He literally was born in the first year of Lithuania’s independence and is from the first generation to grow up free. So he truly is the ‘independence generation’ and I really wanted to contrast and compare that with the legacy the guys before him carved out and [show] that he’s the one carrying the torch forward.”
Valanciunas says he enjoys hearing those things, but prefers a simpler approach.
“I’m not taking responsibility or as some kind of pressure,” he said. “I’m playing basketball. I’m enjoying playing basketball. I love Lithuania and I’m going to play for them until I can’t step on the court.”
The Other Dream Team is now available for purchase on DVD and will be available for download via iTunes on January 15th. Check out the trailer below.