NO KERR NO GOLD? Coach John Thompson cuts Steve Kerr from 1988 U.S. Olympic team

The members of the 1988 US Olympic expedition arrived at the Games in Seoul wearing unforgettable One Seoul, One Goal T-shirts, determined to win more gold medals than USSR. 

Nowhere else was this moto more applicable than on the court of Chamshill Gymnasium, where Team USA faced the stiff competition led by mighty USSR and Yugoslavian national teams.

USA’s head coach John Thompson, as well as his coaching staff, knew a lot about their potential foes in the tournament. 

After winning the 1986 World Championship in Spain in a final thriller vs. sharp-shooting USSR squad, Team USA selections suffered three alarming losses to international teams in 1987. First in the Junior World Championship (Bormio, Italy) from the Yugoslavian junior national team, led by Toni Kukoc, who hit 11-12 triples in a single game. Then in the 1987 World University Games from Yugoslavian junior NT led by Drazen Petrovic, and maybe the most hurtful in the final of the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis from Brazilian NT led by Oscar Schmidt (46 points).

All these international teams had one thing in common – the disciples of shooting mastered their craft and fully embraced the newly established three-point line, introduced by FIBA in 1984. 

Meanwhile, coach Thompson’s plan for Seoul was aggressive whole court defensive pressure and pounding the boards. Stopping some of the elite international scorers of that unique basketball era and achieving the rebounding advantage, in Thompson’s eyes, should have resulted in opening fast transition and scoring easy buckets at the other end. 

What Thompson didn’t count on was the dominant inside presence of centers such as Arvyday Sabonis (USSR) and Vlade Divac/Dino Radja (Yugoslavia), as well as great play from the versatile Sarunas Marculionis/Alexander Volkov (USSR) and Zarko Paspalj/Toni Kukoc (Yugoslavia), who all proved their NBA value in front of NBA scouts.

Their great frontcourt play additionally opened the space for their team’s shooting specialists, such as Rinas Kurtinaitis (USSR) and Drazen Petrovic (Yugoslavia).

But, Thompson didn’t dare to open his eyes and reset his traditional views by recognizing the new order in world’s amateur basketball. It wasn’t USA (meaning ABA USA) setting the pace anymore – USSR and Yugoslavian NT came of age and took over that leadership role.

Before the Olympics, he believed that defensive specialists such as Stacey Augmon and Jeff Grayer, playing alongside established Mitch Richmond and versatile Dan Majerle, would provide the defensive edge in the match-ups with some of the world’s best scorers of the era.

Therefore, on July 5th, 1988, more then two months prior to the Olympics, Thompson decided to cut guards Steve Kerr and Rex Chapman, reducing his team’s roster to 21 players.

In hindsight, it seems almost unreal that Thompson decided to get rid of two players who could have significantly boosted his team’s chances in the Olympic tournament. With their long-distance shooting expertize and overall level of play at both ends of the floor, Kerr and Chapman could have been the game-changers.

Kerr was coming out of his senior year with the Arizona Wildcats in which he was the ‘court general’ of a team that reached 1988 NCAA National semifinals. While displaying excellent leadership for his teammates, alongside his playmaking skills, he astonished the nation with his sizzling shooting, setting an all-time NCAA record with 57.2% from beyond the three-point arc. 

Knowing that such a prolific three-point threat would team up with an excellent frontcourt nucleus featuring David RobinsonDanny ManningCharles SmithJ.R. Reid would have certainly helped boost Team USA’s chances in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. 

The worst moment of the 1988 Seoul Olympics odyssey for Team USA came in the form of historic 76-82 semifinal loss to USSR led by future NBAers Sabonis and Marculionis. 

Another critical moment was the strained knee injury of USA’s only legit three-point specialist Hersey Hawkins, which he sustained with the competition well underway. To that point, the Bradley University alumni averaged 8.8 points in 14.8 minutes per game, hit 5 triples out of 8 tries, and could have certainly boosted USA’s chances in the semifinal and final round of the tournament. 

With Hawkins sidelined and Kerr, Chapman, Sean Elliott, and Danny Ferry all back at home, the only thing Team USA could do was to watch the opposition put up shooting percentages.

Numbers don’t lie. 1988 US Olympic team scored 83.9 points per game (7th in the tournament) while hitting only 42.9% of their three-point shots (tied with Canada for the 4th place). 

Interestingly, during the 2000-01 NBA season Kerr, Elliott and Ferry accompanied San Antonio Spurs ‘twin towers’ David Robinson and Tim Duncan, helping them to achieve league-best 58-24 regular-season record and winning the Midwest Division title. Along the way, three great players who weren’t selected to the 1988 US Olympic team, poured in a total of 158 triples.

Arizona Wildcats shooting expert Steve Kerr went back to Arizona. It was the Phoenix Suns who selected the NCAA sharp-shooting specialist in the 1988 NBA draft with the 50th pick overall. 

Kerr spent his first year as a pro guarding star in the making Kevin Johnson in the Sun’s scrimmages. While working on his overall game, he knew his time in the NBA would eventually come.

If Kerr eventually won the bronze Olympic medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he would later join the elite company of Michael JordanScottie Pippen, and Toni Kukoc as the only Olympic medalists on 1996-1998 NBA championship-winning Chicago Bulls teams.