Editor’s note: Star columnist Greg Hansen is profiling 10 times that Tucson teams beat No. 1. Today: Lute Olson-coached Team USA’s win over the Soviet Union in the 1986 FIBA World Basketball Championship.
Injured and on crutches, Steve Kerr was sitting on his couch Sunday afternoon, July 20, 1986. The next day, Kerr would undergo surgery to repair a torn ACL at St. Mary’s Hospital.
As he began to watch a tape-delayed broadcast of Team USA’s stunning upset over the Soviet Union to win the 1986 FIBA World Basketball Championship, Kerr had no idea that Lute Olson’s team had won the USA’s first world title since 1952.
Kerr asked his mother, Ann — visiting Kerr’s Tucson apartment from Los Angeles — not to tell him or his brother the game’s outcome, played eight hours earlier.
Kerr had left Madrid, Spain, 48 hours before the championship game after tearing his ACL with 4:03 remaining in a rousing semifinal victory over Brazil. UA assistant coach Scott Thompson and Brazil’s global basketball star Oscar Schmidt carried Kerr from the court.
“We helped Steve into the locker room where the team doctor told Steve that it could be a career-ending injury,” remembers Thompson, now a Tucson wealth management advisor for UBS Financial Services.
Thompson paused for effect. “That sure went over well,” he says.
On the bus back to the team hotel that night, I walked past Kerr, sitting alone in a front seat, wiping away tears.
When Prince Felipe of Spain placed gold medals around the necks of Olson, Thompson and Wildcat sophomore Sean Elliott in a joyful postgame celebration, Kerr could’ve had no idea that (a) he’d ever play basketball at an elite level again, (b) lead Arizona to the nation’s No. 1 ranking and the 1988 Final Four and c) go on to win eight NBA championships as a player and coach.
“It was a special time,” says Thompson, who went on to be the head coach at Wichita State, Rice and Cornell. “It’s even more special when you look back and see all that Steve overcame after he was sent back to the United States before we played Russia.”
What was equally remarkable was that Kerr was even part of the USA’s surprise winner of the world championship. After his junior season at Arizona, Kerr was somewhat of a longshot candidate among 48 players invited to Team USA’s training camp in Colorado Springs.
Not only that, Kerr became the fourth-leading scorer for Olson’s championship team, averaging 10 points per game and shooting 56%, the team’s most feared shooter and ball distributor.
When Olson, Thompson and fellow assistant coaches Jerry Pimm of UC Santa Barbara and Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech arrived for a four-day tryout camp in Colorado Springs, the big-name guards among 48 collegians were UCLA’s Reggie Miller, St. John’s Mark Jackson, North Carolina’s Kenny Smith, Georgetown’s Reggie Williams and Duke’s Tommy Amaker.
Wake Forest guard Muggsy Bogues, who became one of the team’s four guards, admitted that he had never heard of Kerr before meeting him at training camp.
“Out of the original 48 we invited to Colorado Springs, we got maybe four of the ones we really wanted,” Olson told me on that July night at the Madrid Sports Palace, a gold medal hanging above the USA emblem on his shirt.
The process of selecting 12 elite players fractured when NCAA championship center Pervis Ellison of Louisville didn’t seem enthused about going through the tryout process, and when Kansas All-American Danny Manning was injured and couldn’t play. Indiana All-American point guard Steve Alford chose not to participate.
“We discussed the potential roster makeup every night and it wasn’t easy,” says Thompson. “We just had a bunch of young guys. A gold medal was the goal, but it’s probably good that we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
Such as: how good world powers Russia and Yugoslavia were with such future NBA standouts as Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic.
Olson and his staff ultimately chose a squad whose average age was 19ƒ. The Russian team’s average age was 23½.
One of Olson’s most eye-raising choices was to select team-chemistry players like Bogues, Amaker, Smith and Kerr as his four guards rather than the more high-profile Miller, who had led the Pac-10 with 25 points per game that season.
On the first day of training camp, I asked Olson about Miller’s chances to make the team. Olson was typically upfront, saying “we want to see him play defense and give up the ball.”
Miller didn’t make the cut.
“It wasn’t that controversial,” Thompson remembers. “I give so much credit to Lute; he was able to put together a team that could play to its maximum abilities in a short time.”
Team USA moved to Tucson to train for three weeks in June. On June 23, a week before flying to France, Team USA played New Zealand’s national team in an exhibition game at McKale Center. The 12,409 who almost filled the arena quickly saw why Kerr made the team.
With 18:03 remaining in the second half, Kerr swished a 16-foot jumper.
With 17:23 remaining, Kerr buried a 3-pointer.
With 16:46 remaining, Kerr hit another 3-pointer.
And with 16:14 remaining, Kerr again swished a 3-pointer.
The public address announcer at McKale Center almost became hoarse delivering his trademark “STEEEEVE KERRRRRR!” exclamation after every Kerr basket. Team USA won 112-49. Kerr had been discovered.
Navy center David Robinson, who would go on to be the MVP of the world championships, said “Kerr’s a leader. You can expect to see a lot of him in Spain.”
Said Kerr: “I never felt like I had a lock on making the team. I felt good about it, however.”
After playing two exhibition games in France, Team USA flew to the Mediterranean coast town of Malaga, Spain, and clobbered West Germany, Ivory Coast and Italy. It survived an off night, beating Puerto Rico, 73-72.
Then it was off to small-town Oviedo, Spain, where they lost to Argentina, 74-70, but rallied to whip Canada and upset Yugoslavia, coached by former BYU All-American Kresimir Cosic.
As it moved to Madrid for the semifinals, Olson’s team came together. Pitt power forward Charles Smith led the team in scoring with 15 points per game. Smith, a clutch shooting guard, averaged 14, Robinson 12 and Kerr 10. Alabama’s Derrick McKey, UNLV defensive stopper Armon Gilliam and Arizona’s Elliott rounded out the rotation.
It wasn’t like “The Miracle on Ice,” the USA’s hockey gold medal victory over Russia six years earlier, but it was close.
It was pros against college kids.
“The Russians were really good,” says Thompson. “Sabonis was such a factor; he’s 7-2 and he was much older and more experienced than David Robinson. But I felt optimistic we could win. There were no expectations that this was a Dream Team, but Lute had done a remarkable job in getting the most out of almost everyone on the roster.”
After opening an 80-63 lead over Russia with six minutes remaining, everything changed. With 10 seconds to go, Team USA’s lead had been diminished to 87-85 and the Russians had possession and a chance to win at the buzzer. They missed.
Sitting in his apartment in Tucson, Kerr celebrated with his mom and brother as Prince Felipe of Spain was escorted to the court. There, he presented gold medals to Team USA.
Postscript: “The exposure gained for Arizona’s program was such a big step forward,” says Thompson. “People found out what a great coach Lute was. It put the UA program on a national and worldwide stage. It didn’t take long to understand the magnitude of it.
“And, to be truthful, even though Kerr had to redshirt and sit out the 1987 season, it couldn’t have worked out better for him. He returned in 1988, led us to the Final Four and began his almost storybook career in the NBA.”
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Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ghansen711
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