A true friend of Elgin High School athletics will be inducted to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on April 30 as a Friend of Basketball, a fitting honor for Dr. Nick Bumbales, whose passion for the sport was sparked by a miraculous shot in a back alley in Gary, Indiana.
The little boy who grew up to become Dr. Nick Bumbales was only seven years old when he talked his way into coaching a pickup basketball game between high school kids in an alley in Gary, his hometown.
The high schoolers were playing for money. They always played for money, he said.
Confident he could draw up the winning play, young Bumbales called timeout and gathered his team. He knew the play he wanted to run -- a bounce pass from the point guard into the team's best post player, the younger brother of a local star.
Problem was, young Bumbales had yet to learn the term "bounce pass."
During the timeout he instructed the point guard to "throw a pass that bounces." When the game resumed Bumbales encouraged the same player to "bounce it, bounce it, bounce it!"
Unsure what the instructions from his young coach meant, the confused point guard bounced the basketball against the blacktop as hard as he could, to a surprising end.
"The guy bounced the ball from about 20 feet out, and it went in the basket," Bumbales said. " We won the game. I was hooked after that."
His career trajectory now set, Bumbales began coaching youth league basketball while still a student at Merrilville High School. He learned from three mentors there: football coach Ken Haupt, basketball coach Jim East and baseball coach Bill Metcalf. Each is enshrined in his respective sport's hall of fame in Indiana.
Bumbales was also still in high school when medicine sparked his interest. He became the student manager and trainer for Merrillville's football and basketball teams, and he eventually earned scholarship offers from dozens of colleges to work as a student athletic trainer.
He accepted a full ride to St. Joseph's, Ind., where was part trainer, part student coach for the basketball team. At the age of 19, he was scouting opponents for St. Joe's, which at the time was a top-40 Division II team.
After college Bumbales joined the medical staff at York High School in Elmhurst, where he worked with longtime athletic director Jack Tosh and basketball coach Bob Ociepka, the latter of whom has been an NBA assistant coach for the last 22 years.
In 1988, Elgin Area School District U-46 was seeking a full-time medical professional to tend to the athletic programs at its three high schools: Elgin, Larkin and Streamwood. Soon after Bumbales applied, he determined it would be inefficient to split his attention between the three campuses, so asked which high school had the smallest medical staff. Elgin, he was told, needed help most.
Thus, the man who would become known to a generation of Maroon athletes as "Dr. Nick" or simply "Doc" came to work at Elgin High in the fall of 1988. He has been an integral figure in the athletic program ever since, and his role has consistently expanded over time.
Bumbales was hired to work for all the Elgin High athletic programs and did so, but he quickly developed a strong bond with basketball coach Jim Harrington and became a fixture around his team.
"It was a situation where we were having a lot of success at the time and he got involved down at the grass roots level and helped us out any way he could," Harrington said.
One important way Bumbales helped was by agreeing to coach in the Junior Maroons feeder basketball program. Within two years he was the league's director. For the next 13 years he handled everything -- bringing in new players, scheduling, officials.
The Junior Maroons later became affiliated with the Greater Suburban Basketball Association. Bumbales spent a stint on the 70-team league's board of directors.
While directing the Junior Maroons he had a hand in the development of such future Elgin hoops heroes as Marcus Smallwood, Sean Harrington, Marcus Howard, Quintin Howard and Charlie Tomlin. However, Dr. Nick's goal was to present Jim Harrington with all the components necessary to mold great teams, not just groom the occasional star player.
"As important as it was to develop the great players, it was as important if not more so in my mind to make sure that we were developing kids that were going to be the supporting cast," Bumbales said.
A trusted friend
All the while, Dr. Nick was helping kids develop mentally. Due to his affable nature and willingness to listen, Bumbales became a trusted confidant to whom Elgin athletes would open up.
"I've been told you have a good team doctor or trainer when the kids kind of spill their guts out to him," Jim Harrington said. "That's how much they trusted him. They wanted him to be part of their lives. They would tell him things they would never tell their coach, and I think that speaks volumes about the kind of person he is."
Tom Roth, now a sophomore baseball player at Elgin Community College, was a three sport athlete at Elgin. He played quarterback, point guard and pitched. The pounding he took playing those three challenging positions translated to countless hours in the trainer's room receiving treatment from Bumbales, all of them meaningful.
"Doc was more of a friend than anything," Roth said. "I could tell him about anything. We talked about a lot. When I was in high school I always saw people coming back and talking to him about life and what's going on. That's the kind of guy Doc is. Even if you played 20 years ago, you just always want to be associated with him."
Roth's experience was similar to that of Marcus Howard, who starred on Harrington's 1998 state-qualifying squad and currently serves as an Elgin assistant varsity boys basketball coach.
"He was not only good at his job, he was definitely one of those guys who was very personable and you could easily get along with," Howard said. "You could sit down and talk to Doc about sports or whatever was going on. He's just a great guy, which is why he's still around the program.
"Plus, he really knows the game of basketball, too. You could talk to him about Xs and Os. It was like having another coach."
Bumbales' love affair with Elgin High did not end after Harrington's final season as Maroons coach in 1999-2000. He remained the athletic program physician and always offered a shoulder to lean on during the tenures of subsequent boys basketball coaches Mike Miller, Dave Gilliland and Rob Brault.
Becoming a mentor
When Mike Sitter took over as Elgin boys basketball coach in 2007-08, he leaned on Bumbales for tips the way a high school freshman leans on Cliffs Notes to get through Shakespeare. Bumbales qualifies as a human reference material when it comes to coaching in general and coaching at Elgin High in particular.
"I very much consider him a "Godfather" figure," Sitter said. "When I need advice or I need something really, really important, he's the one I sit down with."
Whether it's a player who wants to quit the team or an out-of-control parent that needs attention, Sitter knows he can turn to Bumbales for advice on handling the situation because the eyes and ears of the program has seen and heard it all.
Sitter can also count on Bumbales' vast network of contacts for help. After working the Elgin Holiday Tournament for the past 22 years, Bumbales has formed lasting friendships with many area coaches. Such networks come in handy come playoff time.
"As soon as we won the sectional title (in 2008), Doc shook my hand and said congratulations," Sitter said. "Then he was like, 'OK, we need to get film on Zion-Benton. I have three people I know who have played Zion-Benton I can contact and get film from. And we'll need a DVD player to take to Peoria if we go down there.'
"We hadn't accepted the trophy yet and he had a shopping list of things we had to do next. He always knew what the next step was when it was always new to me."
Sitter isn't the only newcomer Bumbales has made feel at ease within the Elgin athletic department.
"He was instrumental in the transition once Art Rohlman left and I came in as athletic director," Elgin AD Gwen Poore said. "He was so instrumental in giving me the history and the background. He's been here for 23 years, so he has a wealth of knowledge and he was very helpful."
"The other thing he does behind the scenes -- and he never takes credit for this -- but he is a mentor to all these coaches. He is constantly in touch with all of them. He does so many things behind the scenes for the program whether it's out in the community, with the kids or with the coaches.
"He just always has been a positive force for Elgin. He strongly supports Elgin. I think he loves the history of Elgin, and it's the place he feels at home. It's his family."
Labor of love
Bumbales, who married his wife Christine when he was 40, loves Elgin High so much he went back to school to get his teaching degree in order to become a science teacher there. However, due to budget cuts and reorganization within District U-46 last year, he was reassigned to teach at Streamwood
Officials have been working behind the scenes of late to reverse the reassignment, but Dr. Nick has nevertheless maintained a presence within Elgin's Chesbrough Field House despite his absence from the building as a teacher.
Last fall he volunteered to be the Elgin girls volleyball coach because a more qualified candidate didn't come forward after former coach Keith Foster departed for Genoa-Kingston. Bumbales stepped aside as head coach last week in favor of assistant Scott Stewart.
This spring he's helping out by coaching the junior varsity boys volleyball team.
Also, Bumbales stepped down last year from his position as Elgin team physician in order to return to basketball coaching full time. Elgin athletes are now looked after by trainers from Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers, which has been contracted to supply trainers to all five U-46 high schools.
For the past two seasons Bumbales has coached the Elgin girls basketball team in hopes of eventually returning that program to prominence. The Maroons have won just 2 games in Dr. Nick's first two seasons, but that's not the point. The point is developing young athletes into good citizens, which is the main priority for Bumbales.
"Wins are nice, but they're kind of far down on the totem pole of life as far as importance" he said.
And therein lies the importance of men like Dr. Nick Bumbales. He understands what proper mentoring means to child development. He should since he's dedicated his life to the cause. That's why Jim Harrington nominated his longtime friend for induction to the IBCA Hall of Fame in the "friend of basketball" category.
"A friend of basketball is someone who has dedicated his life to not only basketball but to kids in general, to high school athletes," Harrington said. "Dr. Nick's done that with no preconceived ideas of getting anything out of it. It's just his love for the kids.
"He's just somebody very special. The reason you have the kind of success you have is because of people like him. I was very, very blessed having those kind of people around me, and he was one of the best. He went above and beyond the call of duty for me, and he's still doing the same things.
"I think Dr. Nick has always put himself third or fourth in line when it comes to priorities. He cares most what's best for kids and what's best for Elgin High School. He's a remarkable individual."
Bumbales said he is humbled by the IBCA honor and owes it to the support of his wife of 10 years and to the support of his parents and sister. Without their understanding of his "crazy hours," Bumbales said he could never do what he does.
And what Dr. Nick Bumbales does is clearly special.
"I approach it like it's my family," he said of being involved with the Elgin High community. "I try to handle things so the kids have as positive an experience while they're there as possible.
"I always tell the kids in our program that this is our family. We're together a lot. We'll look back and hopefully remember it as a special time. I hope they look on it as being a positive experience for them."
Win or lose, how could they not?