Global Dominance: How USA Basketball Has Achieved Success

Audio Description

USA Basketball has dominated since the 1992 Dream Team. Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball, reveals the secrets to successful leadership and fostering competitive excellence in a safe, inclusive environment.


00:09 - 00:16

Hi, everyone. Adam Sansiveri here, welcome back to The Big Stage. It's July 2020. And you know what that means.

00:16 - 00:48

The Summer Olympics are back, or at least they should have been if it wasn't for COVID-19. Now, we may have to wait another year. But I know I speak for many when I say how excited I am to see the world come together again around sport. When you think about the Olympics, what comes to mind? If you're like me, it's athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Carl Lewis. But nothing stands out more than the Dream Team. USA Basketball is an organization that has become synonymous with winning.

00:48 - 01:09

The US men's national team is the most successful team in international competition, winning medals in all 18 of the Olympic tournaments they've entered, of which 15 were gold. And the women's national team, they haven't lost a game in the Olympics since 1992, capturing eight gold medals in 10 Olympics with a standing record of 66 and three.

01:10 - 01:35

And today we're going to speak with the man behind this amazing organization, the CEO of USA Basketball, Mr. Jim Tooley. Jim, thanks for joining us today. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. Yeah, we're very excited to talk with you. Also with us again is my friend Bernstein Advisor and member of our Sports and Entertainment group, Jeff Kragel. So, Jeff, let me start with you. How did you and Jim meet? Thank you, Adam.

01:35 - 01:54

So this was a little over a year ago, I'd say Jim and I had the good fortune of being at the annual Aaron Rodgers, Chris Paul, NFL vs. NBA celebrity golf tournament. Jim's wife was helping to coordinate the event. I was there on the philanthropic side, and that meant for most of the actual golf.

01:54 - 02:11

Jim and I didn't have a whole lot of responsibility. So we ended up hanging out around the course for quite a bit of it and kind of just dialed up a friendship from there. So thanks for joining us, Jim. Great to be here. I love it. So, Jim, you've been the USA Basketball CEO for almost 20 years.

02:11 - 02:45

You've been with the organization since 1993, I think. Tell us about your journey leading up to joining USA Basketball and becoming the CEO. Well, I started with USA Basketball in '93 as the men's national team director. Prior to that, I had worked in the Continental Basketball Association, which was at that time the developmental league for the NBA. So I had a chance to kind of get my feet wet in a lot of capacities there and public relations and operations. I got to do leagues schedule, a lot of game operations, sold franchises. So I got a lot of experience.

02:45 - 02:57

And then while I was there, the Continental Basketball Association became a member of USA Basketball and got to know some of the folks involved. And in '93 they were looking for a men's national team director.

02:58 - 03:13

And I was fortunate enough to get the position and been with them ever since. Did you always know you wanted to work in sports and in basketball particularly? Absolutely. I thought I would wind up being the shortstop for the Yankees, but that didn't work out.

03:14 - 03:47

Played a little basketball and one of my high school coaches told me that I was a terrific shooter, but I wasn't a very good maker. So I should look at the administrative side of things. So that's how I got my focus narrowed to not being an athlete. I never aspired to be a coach. And yeah, but I always wanted to work in sports field and been fortunate enough to work in the great sport of basketball, which I love and really fortunate to still be here. I imagine there are days where it doesn't even feel like work.

03:47 - 04:11

That's fair. Before your time around the mid to late 80s, USA Basketball had lost its dominance. I think some of us out there remember that our American amateurs were playing against international professionals at the time. So then in 1989 it was decided that we should even the playing field and the 1992 Dream Team was formed. That was I think one year before you joined.

04:11 - 04:29

So were you under the spell of the Dream Team like the rest of the world. Yeah, it was fascinating to to watch that team be assembled and the growth that it created for international basketball is still unbelievable. I mean, Pau Gasol will tell you he watched the '92 team.

04:29 - 04:53

It was in his home. The '92 Olympics were in his home country of Spain, and it had such a tremendous impact on it. A quick aside about the... about the vote for the NBA to be... or professional athletes to become involved in the Olympics. When the vote happened in '89, two countries voted against it. It was the Soviet Union and the United States voted against it, actually.

04:53 - 05:12

So it wasn't like we were looking for a new avenue. But when one became available, the NBA became a member of USA Basketball and then it just kind of shot up from there. Well, you have to elaborate on that, because I can't say I'm surprised the Soviet Union didn't vote for it because maybe they thought we'd then have a less of a chance of winning.

05:12 - 05:30

But why did... why did we vote against it? Well, at that time, USA Basketball was... the governance, if you will, was comprised a lot in the scholastic space. The collegiate community was the driving force behind all of our national teams.

05:30 - 05:53

And so it was just one of those things where they felt like the Olympics and the international competition should remain in the amateur space and, you know, what wound up happening was the greatest thing ever because it grew the game to such large heights that it's been fascinating to see it happen.

05:53 - 06:16

And Jim, on that note that you mentioned, I mean, you have been with the organization for 27 years. So what has kept you around so long? What is it about the organization that has kept you around? Well, you know, it's a great honor to not only represent a sport that you love, but represent your country. You serve as an ambassador in this role.

06:16 - 06:46

We get to work with the best coaches, athletes, executives at every level of the sport, from high school ages, up through the collegiate ranks up to the professionals. And our scope is global. I've gotten to travel the world and be involved in events that have been incredible experiences for me, both personally and professionally, and that becomes a little bit addicting. But each year, you know, it's different all the time. It's never Groundhog's Day. We've grown tremendously.

06:47 - 07:07

We were... we were just really national team-centric back in the nineties. A lot of focus on the NBA players participation... and the NBA—WNBA comes into existence and people view this is just, oh, we're just about professional athletes in the Olympic Games. We have... we have U19 national teams. We have U17, 16 teams.

07:08 - 07:24

We have youth and sport development opportunities now where we're trying to just teach the game and develop with the game. So there's always been a challenge. We have 3x3 now. We started a foundation last year or so. There's been so much growth opportunity.

07:24 - 07:55

I've been very fortunate to never have to kind of repeat a cycle, if you will. So speaking of never Groundhog's Day, this is a year where you're going to have your work cut out for you because the Olympics have been postponed until July of 2021. You've got the NBA that's about to restart their season. If all goes according to plan, they will finish their season a couple of months later. We'll start the next season, which will end in June, just in time for the July 2021 Olympics.

07:55 - 08:01

So let's talk about logistics on how you're going to be fielding a team during this.

08:02 - 08:20

Yeah, you know, player availability is the key here because depending on how long the NBA season goes next summer will determine what the pool of athletes are for us to draw from. So, you know, it's not said exactly when they're going to start their next, you know, next year's season.

08:21 - 08:42

I think they're still working through some of that. But if it goes into June, for example, and we have to decide who is on the team before the season is over, we'll probably take players from teams that maybe don't make the playoffs or if we can have extended to after the first round of playoffs.

08:42 - 09:00

So it will depend on how late they go as to what players we will have access to. On that note, Jim, if I have my history right, I think the Olympics have been canceled or postponed three times. I think World War I and twice during World War II. So this is certainly a unique occurrence.

09:01 - 09:25

So can you give us a little bit more insight into where you sat when those decisions were being made and the conversations that were happening when you thought the whole thing was just going to be rescheduled? Well, as an organization, USA, we don't have a vote here. It's really the IOC, the International Olympic Committee that decided it. And I was in my office when I learned about it. I heard a lot of chatter that we're talking about canceling it.

09:26 - 09:53

We were hoping for postponement because that's much more doable. We could just repeat what we're doing, what we had planned for this year, a year later. So I was pleased that the Olympic Committee decided to postpone it. Number one, they made that decision fairly quickly in this pandemic situation versus waiting to say now to determine what would happen. So we were pleased to learn, OK, we know it's postponed.

09:53 - 10:05

We could start planning for that while we still have some questions with player availability, we'll figure that out. We're working on our plan to what our training will be and so forth.

10:05 - 10:28

So I appreciate you sharing that. Yeah, it's... I'm sure it's decisions being made every day now so... When I think of USA Basketball, you know, I think of an organization that unifies and works to create a global family around sport, meaning to create something bigger than itself. But I think our listeners would appreciate hearing from you what is the mission of USA Basketball.

10:28 - 10:56

And so I won't read you the the long paragraph that we have on our website. But basically, we want to be a worldwide leader in competitive excellence, win medals and really gold medals in international competition, while at the same time promoting, growing, and elevating the sport and doing so in a manner that provides our athletes, all participants, providing a safe, inclusive environment for them to do that. That's great.

10:56 - 11:31

Well, I think that question and that answer alludes to often that the athletes and the sport themselves have an influence, often outside of itself. And so I want to ask you a question about the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the nation. You know, it's impossible not to think about Colin Kaepernick and athletes before him who have tried to effect change. There is some pushback, though, regarding athletes promoting racial justice from the playing field or on the court. So I would just love to hear your opinion on where you stand on that. Sure.

11:31 - 11:49

You know, the chairman of our board of directors is Marty Dempsey. He is the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the 18th Joint Chief. He's an impressive, impressive man. Forty-one-year military career. And he has a great saying and he says it to me often.

11:49 - 12:10

You know, we are an organization that represents the entire country, not just the part of it that we agree with. And we have to be mindful of that. You know, our athletes are very active. Our sport is... includes a lot... majority black athletes, players, coaches, administrators.

12:10 - 12:42

So we want to listen. We really work hard to amplify their message. We have a... on our website, on our social media platforms, we have a segment we run each week called In Case You Missed It. And it's anything from maybe some of our high school athletes being named high school athlete of the year to the positions that our athletes are taking on issues of social justice or injustice. And we just want to support our athletes and make sure we listen.

12:43 - 13:10

And we really try to do that on a consistent basis. We gather people from all walks of life to represent national teams. We've been doing that for... since our existence. So it's been a great opportunity for us to bring people together that would not maybe otherwise become together, so... It's great to hear. Thanks for sharing. I know that it's a powerful voice in the conversation, so thank you for sharing that.

13:11 - 13:26

And Jim, I know a lot of the conversations that you and I have had over the last year have really been around the USA Basketball Foundation. And obviously, again, I think there was a big push utilizing the 2020 Olympics to kind of promote that foundation.

13:26 - 13:46

So now with the postponement, can you give us a little bit of background as to where things stand? Yeah, in May of 2019, we hired our executive director, Killjan Anderson, who was a former executive director of the Pat Tillman Foundation, and brought him on board to start our own foundation.

13:46 - 14:17

That is, we really want to make sure we're amplifying our women's voices and opportunities in the sport, making sure we are committed to youth and sport development opportunities, and we're growing back our attendance, if you will. We had scheduled a campaign called Win with Her in January around our women's national team activities that were going on, to promote women in the game and opportunities that exist.

14:17 - 14:34

And the day before we were to launch, was the tragic helicopter crash with Kobe Bryant. So we paused that and then we kind of relaunched it after around All-Star weekend. Then the pandemic hits. And so we don't want to be tone-deaf to what's going on.

14:34 - 14:55

So we really... we've curbed some of those activities. We'll probably come out with a giving campaign in the near future. But again, it's designed to make sure we're amplifying opportunities around a women's national team, women's basketball, and in general women in sport, and youth and sport development opportunities.

14:56 - 15:22

Great. I want to pivot a bit and discuss the business of USA Basketball. But I think that, you know, the foundation leads to a point that maybe not everyone knows that USA Basketball is a nonprofit, right? And you do depend on donations. So how do you go about raising money and has it changed given the current environment with COVID? Well, it will change now that we have a foundation. We haven't done a lot of fundraising in the past.

15:22 - 15:55

The foundation is going to give that... give us that arm to do that. But about 65 percent of our revenue is through the marketing partnerships really, around all of our national teams, but most notably the men's and women's teams that compete in the Olympics and World Cup. So without our events, we're going to really have to rely on fundraising. So our timing and getting a foundation established was good from that standpoint, because the business uncertainty is real, as everybody knows.

15:55 - 16:18

So I wish I had a crystal ball, but we're still optimistic that while we're going to have some revenue shortfall this year and 2020 without the Olympic Games, of course, we also have a shortfall of expenses. So the delta between the two is not as horrific as one might think. We're kind of deferring it all to 2021.

16:19 - 16:41

And so we're trying to just look at on a daily, weekly basis on how we project things going forward. But we're remaining optimistic that 2021 will be a good year for all of us. I'm willing to bet, just based on pent up demand for sports, that you're going to have a lot of active viewers in 2021.

16:42 - 17:11

Let's stick with this concept of business and and just talk about how athletes and money go hand in hand. And this plays out no bigger today than on the stage of the NCAA versus the college athlete. The NCAA has agreed to allow college athletes to make money on their name and likeness by the '21-22 school year. Is it about time or does this ruin the sanctity of college sports? I'd love your opinion.

17:11 - 17:42

Well, I think with the name, image, and likeness, I think it's a good move because everybody should have the right to earn money on who they are. My first experience with... this is not a new issue, I mean, people have been talking about pay college athletes for a long time. And as the money in college athletics grows and grows and grows, it's hard to justify a counter to that, especially to those who are contributing. But in the name, image, and likeness, my first experience with it was in 1993.

17:42 - 18:15

My first year I was at the World University Games in Buffalo, New York, and Damon Stoudamire, who played for Arizona at the time, noticed a couple of people in the stands with his Arizona jersey on it, number 20, and it said his name on the back and he goes, Hey, do I get a... do I get a cut of that? And I said, I don't think so. He goes, Well, why not? And that was really the first time it kind of came about for me personally. And that's a fair, fair thing, because it was his name, image, and likeness that was being sold.

18:16 - 18:41

And so, listen, I think they have a lot of, I think it's a good move. And I think there's a lot of work to be done to make sure it's done consistently in every state. There's different laws that try to limit it. And I'm not a lawyer, but it will be a complicated issue to navigate for sure. Hopefully it works out so everybody feels that they're being treated equitably.

18:41 - 19:14

And Jim, as a business leader with almost three decades of experience under your belt, what kind of advice can you share with listeners on the podcast here that might also be business leaders or founders of companies that has made you so successful? Listen, I think in today's the most important thing is to listen. You know, oftentimes leaders think they have to be the one leading and you lead by talking all the time or say, go this way. I think more than ever is really, really important to listen, know your audience, know who you're leading.

19:15 - 19:45

Today's workforce is different than the workforce it was 10 years ago. I think that's a really important piece here to do and look for common denominators in people and situations so that you can unite versus finding maybe the one or half a thing that is a difference and you use that to divide the situation. So that's just my two cents worth there. Great piece of advice. Thanks for sharing that. So we're going to wrap up here in a minute, Jim, but I can't let you go without asking this final question.

19:45 - 19:54

You've had the best seats in the House for 27 years. So what was your favorite game of all time? I thought about that overnight.

19:55 - 20:29

There's a lot, of course. In '98, when there was a lockout with the NBA players and we took a bunch of guys out of the CBA and international players, US players playing overseas, and went to the world championship and got a bronze. There were a lot of memorable moments with 3x3 basketballs. It's starting, but I'd have to say 2008, men's Olympic team, we had Kobe, LeBron, Melo, D Wade. They were known dubbed the Redeem Team. And after having lost the 2002 World Cup,

20:29 - 20:33

2004 Olympics, 2006 World Cup,

20:34 - 21:05

2008 was definitely redemption, and it was the first time in my time at USA Basketball when winning was about joy and not relief. And so I think that will always be one of the most memorable experiences for me. That's amazing. Well, I tell you, having this conversation brings up some wonderful memories of joy and spending time with my father and brother, watching the Dream Team and future teams. And I know everyone is excited for that next rendition in 2021.

21:05 - 21:12

So, Jim, thank you so much for taking the time and spending it with us today. Jeff, thank you for joining again.

21:12 - 21:47

Thank you for our listeners for visiting The Big Stage. And we'll see you again very soon. This has been The Big Stage. If you enjoyed this episode and you haven't subscribed to our podcast yet, please go to Apple podcasts, Spotify, wherever you listen to your podcasts. Also, please e-mail us with your thoughts, questions, and feedback to and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at BernsteinPWM. Bernstein—Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at

Adam Sansiveri
Senior Managing Director

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