Coach uses basketball to teach life lessons

  • Published
  • By Kendahl Johnson
  • 78 ABW/PA
Most people have a hobby or pastime. For many, it's nothing more than an enjoyable way to pass the time. But for others, it's much more than that. Their pastime is an integral part of their lives, something that is forever in their blood.

For John Bailey, basketball is that pastime, the kind that gets in the blood and becomes a way of life. But for Bailey, it's a healthy obsession and he has found a way to use his love for basketball to affect others in a positive manner.

"I try to use basketball as a way to teach youth about life," said Bailey, an item manager for the C-17 Product Directorate. "You can learn a lot from sports, including camaraderie and team work. Playing team sports can help you become stronger in facing adversity and in dealing with life's ups and downs. It can help you be successful in your career and in life."

Bailey has seen success following this philosophy. He recently worked with the Macon Police Department in bringing to life a program called Midnight Basketball, which helps provide a weekend activity for high-risk youth. It's a program he's proud of, one that has kept youth out of gangs and off the streets.

"If I see kids with talent and promise, I try to keep them going in the right direction. I let them know they have to first of all, go to school and being productive will increase their chances of playing in college," Bailey said.

Bailey's basketball talent and athleticism were clearly evident by his teenaged years, when he played for Northeast High School in Macon. As a senior, he was team most valuable player, was selected to the all-state team and competed in the state all-star game. Upon graduation in 1978, he fielded scholarship offers from numerous colleges, including Division I programs Virginia and Georgia. Eventually he settled on the Big 10, choosing the University of Wisconsin.

The first two years of his collegiate career, Bailey, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, saw limited action because he played behind eventual first-round NBA draft choice Wes Matthews. When Matthews turned pro, Bailey got his chance to shine, starting the next two years and averaging in double figures both seasons. His first season as a starter, in 1980-81, he was selected to the all-Big 10 third team. His senior season, as co-captain, he made the second team all-Big 10 and earned his team's MVP award.

Although he wasn't drafted by the NBA, he still had dreams of playing professionally, and he signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Clippers. Unfortunately, it was when the Clippers were transitioning to Los Angeles and none of their free agents were invited to training camp. Hoping to get noticed by other teams, he played for the Wisconsin Flyers of the Continental Basketball Association for several years. Eventually he abandoned his goal of playing for the NBA and enlisted in the Air Force in 1984.

"Rather than jumping around from team to team trying to pursue a career in basketball, I decided to join the military. Fortunately I was able to rediscover basketball in terms of playing for the All-Air Force team. I didn't even know about the Air Force sports programs when I enlisted." He said he was the only player in the history of the Air Force team to play for 10 consecutive years, and he was selected to the All-Armed Forces team six of those 10 years.

Recently, Bailey made the transition from playing to coaching. He has coached the All-Air Force basketball team for the past two years, leading the team to a first place finish in the Armed Forces tournament and the All-Armed Forces team to a third place finish in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe tournament in Belgium. He will coach the team again next year.

Bailey said he is very fortunate to have the support of Robins leadership. Without it, he would not be able to take the time off work to lead the All-Air Force team in the Armed Forces tournament each year.

"Col. Madeline Lopez, commander for 564th Aircraft Sustainment Squadron, Billy Mitchell, deputy director, my immediate supervisors, Horatio Robinson and Jacquline Ellison, the gym staff -- they have all been very supportive," he said. "They want to see me bring recognition not only to myself but to the base and to the Air Force community as a whole. They have been bending over backwards to give me the opportunity to do this."

Bailey said coaching the Air Force team can be challenging. Budget cuts Air Force-wide have eliminated many of the tournaments he formerly used to scout potential players. Now, he relies on gym staffs at other bases to scout talent, as well as the AF Form 303. And Form 303, the application submitted by players who wish to compete, can often be unreliable.

"It's just a paper list so occasionally we'll have a guy who says he's 6-foot-9 and then when he gets to camp he has mysteriously shrunk to 6-foot-5, so we have to really scrutinize the applications in advance," Bailey said. "We only bring in 25 athletes from the entire Air Force community so it's a strenuous and competitive selection process."

Despite the challenges, coaching has been very rewarding for Bailey. In addition to coaching the Air Force team, he is also head coach of the World Basketball Association's Southern Crescent Lightning, a semi-professional team out of Peachtree City, Ga. Bailey was recently selected as one of's "top 10 coaches you don't know about but should." He has aspirations to coach at the collegiate level and hopes his current coaching stints will give him the experience he needs to get there.

When he's not coaching, Bailey will still occasionally find his way onto the court as a player. He recently returned to the University of Wisconsin to play in an alumni game. Sharing playing time with 30 other former players, he scored 13 points, proving he "still got game." He said it was fun, but he'll stick to coaching. "I miss the competition but not the wear and tear playing takes on my body."

Whether it's playing, coaching, refereeing or just attending games as a fan, Bailey continually immerses himself in the sport he loves. "I have tried to stay with basketball in every capacity possible." It is in his blood.