Winter could pave the way for other assistants
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With Tex Winter’s long overdue induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, the door may have cracked open a bit more for one of the behind the scenes architects of the Bulls’ first three championships and a generally unrecognized class of basketball’s unsung heroes, the assistants like Johnny Bach.
Although Winter was a highly successful collegiate coach mostly at Kansas State, it was his work with the 1990’s Bulls and 2000’s Lakers champions that likely finally elevated him to Hall of Fame status.
It was a long delayed recognition and one that is beginning to open more eyes about the importance of the teacher as one of the prime foundations of the game.
“In my mind there should be a place in the Hall of Fame for all the contributors to the game of basketball. Perhaps different levels of recognition,” said Jerry Colangelo, now the board chairman of the Hall of Fame and credited with the expansion of committees that enabled Artis Gilmore and Goose Tatum to be enshrined this year. “Somehow, some way, we don’t want them to get lost in the shuffle.”
Colangelo, the south suburban native and Illini basketball player who also is a Hall of Famer and director of the USA Basketball men’s program and the former Suns president, was responsible for creating new committees to recognize and nominate American Basketball Associations stars and African-American pioneers.
“In opening some of these new categories we are accomplishing that,” Colangelo said. “It would be great to figure out a way to bring recognition to their great contributions.”
If that occurs, one of the first in line would be Bach, famous for directing the Bulls “Doberman defense” of the first three titles. Bach’s basketball career stretches back to the beginnings of the NBA when he played for the Boston Celtics in the 1940s. He later coached Penn State and his alma mater Fordham.
But Bach made his greatest contributions as a top teaching assistant and innovator for the U.S. Olympic team, the Bulls, Hornets and Pistons. He now does some preseason consulting work with 76ers coach Doug Collins, whom Bach guided as an assistant through that infamous and fateful 1972 Olympics.
“Johnny means the world to me,” said Collins. “His tough exterior belies an incredible tender heart. He always has been there for me and his wisdom, knowledge, guidance and understanding has been a guiding light.”
Phil Jackson, who molded his Bulls staff with Winter for the offense and Bach for the defense argues he probably had the most knowledgeable staff in the history of pro ball.
“With Tex with the offense and Johnny with the defense we’d see something and Tex would say it’s like what he saw at USC (in the 1930s) or Johnny would see it as something maybe the Celtics did or he’d coached against,” said Jackson. “It was a lesson in the history of basketball with two men who were there for just about everything. Tex, of course, had the triangle, and Johnny the Dobermans. Both were a big part of the championships we won.”
It’s the teachers like Bach who tend to get lost these days, though we in Chicago have seen the contribution of someone like Tom Thibodeau, a longtime assistant who emerged as this past season’s NBA coach of the year.
It’s become a vital element of pro basketball and the contributions have been immeasurable from career assistants like Bach, Phil Johnson, who was a coach of the year but chose to remain by Jerry Sloan’s side, Dick Harter, Brendan Malone, Ron Rothstein, John Killilea, Tim Grguric, Ron Adams, Carroll Dawson, Bill Bertka, Hank Egan, Frank Hamblen, Mike Budenholzer and Lee Rose. They are just some of the great ones who not only contributed to team success but were influential in the careers of many of the top stars of the game.
Colangelo said his next priority is to bring public participation to the final selection process for the Hall of Fame, perhaps something like the All-Star voting where fans have a share. Colangelo predicted there will be some element of public participation by the time of next year’s class.
“It’s going to happen,” Colangelo told me Friday in Springfield. “I have a hard head and when I want something I stay on it.”
But Colangelo admits that he is also among those opening up to the idea that the hard working assistants have played a much too overlooked role in the game and some change is in order.