1988 Week: How the 1988 Olympics changed USA basketball in the realm of international hoops

1988 was a game-changing year. 

The NBA was ruled by a flying men, Bad Boys and His Airness. The PBA was ushering in a new era with a bunch of hotshot rookies. The rivalry between Katipunan and Taft was starting anew in the UAAP.

Beyond basketball, 1988 gave us icons like Rain Man, Big and Die Hard. Another Michael was rising up the charts with his own Bad style. DJ Jazzy Jeff, NWA, Biz Markie, Run DMC were all rolling. Even in the world of sneakers something fresh was coming. Mike rocked a pair of J’s that shone brightest, even though surrounded by All-Stars.

Good, bad, hilarious and legendary, 1988 is a year to remember. It’s a classic year, an iconic time, a perfect 50.


These days and for most of recent history, the United States is considered as the gold standard when it comes to global basketball. Aside from the popularity of the NBA that continues to encroach communities and culture around the world as well as countless journeymen from the country plying their trade across continents sans Antartica, the US has so far stomped its class in international basketball competitions. Boasting a dominating streak that to finish runner-up or third on the podium is considered a disappointment.

And when it comes to hoop tournaments of that degree, no stage is more grand than the Olympics. There may be other global meets such as the FIBA Basketball World Cup but none can equal the prestige and glamour that playing and winning in the quadrennial event brings. With the US assembling one star-studded roster after another, it is no surprise that the basketball tournament in the Olympiad has became one of the more sought-after and popularly watched events in the international meet.

Yet despite the success that the United States national squad has been enjoying as of late on the Olympic hardwood, it was their stint three decades ago that proved to be the defining moment in establishing themselves as the world’s superpower in the sport.

Long before the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and others from the NBA’s elite represented their home country as professionals, the United States was content with sending amateur players to the Games.

That decision did paid off well as these contingents of collegiate standouts were able to bring home 9 gold medals including one at home during the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

So it is quite understandable that in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the US men’s basketball program decided to stick to the same formula that brought them glory and triumph at the Games. Why fix when it ain’t broke?

And for the first six games, the United States did looked poised to repeat as Olympic champions by dispatching their foes by an average of 36.7 points entering the semifinals against perennial arch-rival Soviet Union.

Yet despite having a roster brimming with NBA-level talent such as David Robinson, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond, Team USA was still in essence, an amateur-laden squad composed of college players. And this would prove telling against a USSR side that had seasoned professionals Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Mariculionis, among others, in its line-up.

Sabas Wikimedia 1988 olympics

The defending gold medalists did managed to put up a fight but in the end, it was the pros from Eastern Europe that would go on to march to the Finals. The Soviets would later on cop the championship while relegating the young Americans to fight for scraps against the Aussies, salvaging the bronze which coincidentally is the team’s first in Olympic competitions.

While USA basketball might have very well brushed off its 1988 campaign and continued sending collegiate players to the Olympics since this is a mere blemish to their otherwise remarkable list of accomplishments in the Games, this incident became an eye-opener that the rest of the world is now slowly chipping away at the Americans’ perceived invincibility.

Amateurs alone, even those considered as cream of the crop talents, aren’t enough to get the job done especially when matched against more older and rugged foreign counterparts. If the Soviets and the Yugoslavians are able to do it, then why can’t the United States? Especially that during 1980s, the world has already been witnessing Jordan, Johnson and Bird light up the competition night in and night out on the NBA hardwood.

Eventually, the United States blinked and gave the green light for its professional cagers to represent the country in the Olympic games beginning in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as they paraded the Dream Team, literally a collection of the NBA’s best during that era. From then on, save for a hiccup in Athens 2004, the United States has established itself anew as a perennial power in the Olympics, mainly because of the top-flight talent being deployed.

In essence, the 1988 Seoul Olympiad may not have been kind insofar as the United States’ basketball campaign during that time was concerned. But this experience did served as a valuable lesson in helping the program turn things around and reclaim its spot as the game’s premiere superpower in the years to follow.

While it is not a far-fetched possibility that the United States may incur a similar situation given the evolving nature of the sport in the international level, there is no doubt that the program will adjust to whatever adversities it may face, just like what they did at the Olympics three decades ago.

But it wasn’t only the US that adjusted to the dynamics of this international meet. National squads from all over the globe that relied on amateurs before have also beefed their respective lineups as well by enlisting professionals whether these are playing in the domestic leagues or abroad, all in the spirit of being able to compete at the highest level.

The 1988 Olympics also served a s the shot of adrenaline that international basketball needed to move things forward. Without that Team USA, bronze, there would be no 1992 Dream Team. The Dream Team brought out NBA and their superstars to the rest of the world. The Dream Team also brought out the best in the rest of the world.

Photos from Wikimedia

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