In 17 Years as USA Basketball CEO, Jim Tooley has Led Growth on All Fronts
Tooley took over as CEO in 2001, following eight seasons as USA Men’s National Team director.
In the early 1970s in a driveway in Yonkers, New York, a young boy often could be found dribbling to his favorite spot to release a jump shot. He liked the right elbow on this home court, where he always imagined he was Dave DeBusschere of the New York Knicks and routinely made the game-winning shots.
This is where Jim Tooley, Chief Executive Officer of USA Basketball, first fell in love with the sport he now oversees.
“I never missed a game-winning shot in my driveway when I was playing in my head, because if I happened to miss the shot, of course, the referee called the foul,” Tooley recalled.
He grew up playing basketball, baseball and football, and even if he dreamed of a lifetime involved in one of those games, he never could have imagined he’d make an impact felt worldwide. But more than four decades later, those kinds of achievements are on his résumé.
Those who only occasionally pay attention to USA Basketball every four years when the Olympics roll around might assume Tooley’s job is easy. Just throw together 12 of the best players the nation has to offer and send them on their way, and they’re sure to bring home gold wrapped in red, white and blue.
But the success of the national teams is really only a small percentage of the job leading an organization that continues to grow and whose influence continues to spread around the globe.
“One of the most difficult things in all of sports is winning when you’re supposed to win, because where is your upside?” Tooley said. “What we do here is not just about winning but trying to bring structure and standards to the sport that will have a bigger impact than just those who are on the podium at an Olympic event.”
Tooley began down his path toward his current role when he left New York for college in the early 1980s. He chose Colorado State University, where he worked in the sports information office supporting athletes in just about every sport the school offered at the time.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism in 1987 and went to work almost immediately for the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) in Denver. The league served as a minor league for the NBA at the time, and just five years later, Tooley was its vice president of operations.
On the heels of the success of the original Dream Team in the 1992 Olympic Games, Tooley joined USA Basketball in March 1993 as the USA Men’s National Team director. During his eight seasons in that position, the team captured gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, as well as numerous other international tournaments. Tooley also played a major role in developing the Nike Hoop Summit and the USA Basketball Men’s Youth Development Festival.
All of that success led Tooley to his current role as CEO in January 2001.
USA Basketball has enjoyed robust expansion and continued success over the past 17 years and continues to branch into new areas under Tooley’s leadership. He said he is proud of surrounding himself with a young, diverse staff that challenges him to look at things in new ways and take different approaches as opposed to simply staying with what has worked in the past.
Perhaps the best example of that is leading the charge for 3x3 basketball being integrated around the world and becoming an Olympic sport in 2020. Tooley said he recognized the 3x3 game could play an important role in the sport when he served on a FIBA committee that looked at the idea.
“The idea of 3x3 basketball and getting it into the parts of the world where it wouldn’t otherwise be was tremendous,” he said. “It was really a no-brainer. We’ve been very successful at USA Basketball with our teams, but not every country in the world has 12 great players or the resources to fund players training and going to competitions. But with 3x3 basketball, most countries can get together four quality players, because it’s three plus a substitute, and be involved and engaged at the international level.”
Tooley said one of his most important jobs is making sure the athletes who choose to participate in USA Basketball are treated well. He said advocating for athlete protection and creating safe environments is an initiative that has no finish line.
He’s also overseen growth in other areas of the organization.
The women’s national team has continued to enjoy unparalleled success since Tooley took on the CEO duties. The women haven’t lost a game in the Olympics since the semifinals of the 1992 Olympics and have won six consecutive Olympic gold medals. During that time USA Basketball also has introduced the Women in the Game program, which seeks to help and encourage women to pursue a career in sports through a variety of career options.
USA Basketball has increasingly poured resources into youth initiatives under Tooley and runs approximately a dozen youth programs. The organization is also licensing approximately 25,000 coaches a year, which helps improve coaching standards and provide consistency to developing players.
Additionally, the organization continues to have conversations with the NBA and NCAA about ways in which it can help improve summer basketball for kids all over the country. Tooley said it’s likely USA Basketball will begin to help fill a void there in the future through more camps and clinics.
“Our mission in the youth development is to develop, grow and elevate the game, and I’m proud that we have done that,” Tooley said. “We’re trying to kind of unify an ununified structure. Bring structure to an unstructured environment.”
Tooley said when he became CEO he chose to approach the role with a philosophy that he didn’t have all the answers, and so he wanted to surround himself with creative thinkers. He said a top goal was creating an inclusive culture while continuing a tradition as a first-class organization that leads by example. He said he feels good about where USA Basketball with those fundamental standards in mind.
“I’m really very fortunate for the opportunity I’ve been given and have, and I don’t take the responsibility lightly,” Tooley said. “We continue to want to grow and make the sport bigger, better, faster, stronger. We’ve done a lot of good work, not only though our national teams programs, which are the pinnacle of the sport in my opinion, but also through a lot of our youth development, grassroots programs.”
Kyle Ringo is a freelance contributor toUSAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.