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1988 USA Olympic Basketball: How John Thompson lost the Gold medal

Publish Date: 04/07/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

The 1988 US Olympic delegation arrived at Seoul sporting iconic “One Seoul, One Goal” t-shirts. They were determined to outdo USSR by winning more gold medals.

At Chamshill Gymnasium, Team USA faced stiff competition from Soviet and Yugoslav national teams – an environment where this slogan held with particular force.

John Thompson and his coaching staff had extensive knowledge about all their potential opponents at this tournament.

After winning the 1986 World Championship in Spain in a thrilling final against an impressive USSR squad, Team USA suffered three alarming international losses in 1987: first at the Junior World Championship (Bormio, Italy) against a Yugoslavian junior national team led by Toni Kukoc, who hit 11-12 triples in one game; next came Yugoslavian junior NT led by Drazen Petrovic at World University Games 1987 and lastly lost to the  Brazilian National Team led by Oscar Schmidt (46 points).

All international teams had one thing in common – their shooters mastered their art and enthusiastically accepted FIBA’s three-point line introduced in 1984.

Coach Thompson had a plan in Seoul: aggressive whole-court defensive pressure and dominating rebounding advantage to stop some of the elite international scorers of that unique basketball era, opening fast transitions and scoring easy buckets at the other end.

Thompson underestimated the formidable inside presence of centers such as Arvyday Sabonis (USSR) and Vlade Divac/Dino Radja (Yugoslavia), as well as their fantastic play from versatile Sarunas Marculionis/Alexander Volkov (USSR) and Zarko Paspalj/Toni Kukoc (Yugoslavia), all of whom proved their NBA worth in front of NBA scouts.

Their impressive frontcourt play also created space for their teams’ shooting specialists, such as Rinas Kurtinaitis (USSR) and Drazen Petrovic (Yugoslavia).

But Thompson wasn’t willing to open his eyes and shift his traditional views by acknowledging a change in world amateur basketball – where USA (ABA USA) no longer led, instead it was USSR and Yugoslavian National Teams who came of age and assumed this leadership role.

Before the Olympic Games began, he believed that playing alongside defensive specialists Stacey Augmon and Jeff Grayer, established players such as Mitch Richmond, and versatile players like Dan Majerle would provide an edge against some of the best scorers from around the globe.

Thompson made this decision on July 5, 1988 – more than two months before the Olympics – cutting guards Steve Kerr and Rex Chapman from his roster and cutting down to 21 players.

At first glance, Thompson’s decision to release Kerr and Chapman seems shockingly shortsighted. Their expertise with long-distance shooting could have proven crucial in helping his team advance at the Olympic tournament. With them, the results may have been very different.

Kerr had just finished his senior season with the Arizona Wildcats, where he served as “court general”, leading his team to the 1988 NCAA National semifinals. While leading by example for his teammates and playmaking effectively, he amazed viewers across America with his extraordinary three-point shooting of 57.2% from beyond the arc – setting an NCAA record with that percentage!

Knowing that an impressive three-point threat would join an outstanding frontcourt nucleus such as David Robinson, Danny Manning, Charles Smith, and J.R Reid would certainly enhance Team USA’s chances at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

Team USA suffered its greatest defeat at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the form of a historic 76-82 semifinal loss against USSR led by future NBAers Sabonis and Marculionis, marking one of the worst moments in American Olympic history.

Hersey Hawkins of Bradley University had been one of the USA’s primary three-point shooters until suffering a strained knee during the competition, when his one and only three-point specialist sustained a strained knee ligament during play and needed medical treatment to return from it. To that point he averaged 8.8 points in 14.8 minutes per game while hitting five triples out of 8 attempts, providing USA with much-needed momentum going into semifinal and final rounds of competition.

Team USA could do nothing about Hawkins being out, with Kerr, Chapman, Sean Elliott and Danny Ferry all back at home and no Hawkins available to them; all they could do was watch as opponents posted substantial shooting percentages.

Numbers don’t lie: in 1988, the United States Olympic team averaged 83.9 points per game to finish seventh in the tournament while hitting only 42.9% of their three-point shots (tied with Canada for fourth place).

Kerr, Elliott and Ferry played an integral part in the San Antonio Spurs ‘twin towers’ David Robinson and Tim Duncan, achieving league-best regular-season records of 58-24 and winning the Midwest Division championship during the 2000-01 NBA season. All three great players who weren’t chosen for the 1988 US Olympic team totalled up 158 triples!

Steve Kerr made an impactful return to Arizona via the Phoenix Suns’ selection with their 50th pick in the 1988 NBA draft. He served as a shooting specialist for Arizona Wildcats  and later became an NBA sharpshooting specialist with Athe Phoenix Suns.

Kerr began his pro career by sparring alongside Kevin Johnson in the Sun’s scrimmages as a star-in-waiting. While working on his overall game and honing his defense skills, he knew his time in the NBA would eventually arrive.

Kerr would later join Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Toni Kukoc as one of only four Olympic medalists on 1996-1998 Chicago Bulls championship-winning teams to hold onto an Olympic medal from that event.

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