Skip to main content

Main content


Longtime coach Johnny Bach should have a spot in the Hall

POSTED: Sep 8, 2012 11:04 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Assistant John Bach (center) greets Michael Jordan during a 2003 game in Washington, D.C.

Johnny Bach is in better shape than you are (probably) and me (definitely). He is in something like his 56th year of coaching, his 77th in organized basketball and his 89th year, period.

Where Bach isn't, though, is in Springfield, Mass., and not just this weekend, either, as the basketball world descends on the birthplace of the sport for the Class of 2012's enshrinement. Bach belongs there always and forever, as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

As a coach in both college and the NBA, as someone who drew a paycheck from the Boston Celtics before Red Auerbach ever did, as a lifelong teacher and role model for players across eight decades, Bach has checked most of the boxes and drawn a few more at the bottom of any eligibility sheet for the hoops Hall.

Donald "Taps" Gallagher was hoping that he and Bach would be there too, as the happy outcome of Gallagher's nomination of the veteran coach last year. Gallagher -- an attorney in the Chicago area and a co-author of the book "Stolen Glory: The U.S., the Soviet Union and the Olympic Basketball Game That Never Ended" -- got to know Bach while doing research for the story of the 1972 U.S. men's team that got thwarted in their quest of gold medals in Munich that summer. Bach was an assistant on coach Hank Iba's staff, alongside Don Haskins.

"He's been a head coach in college [Fordham 1949-1968, Penn State 1969-1978], a head coach in the NBA [Golden State, 1979-1980, 1983-1986]," said Gallagher. "He played in the league, he was an assistant when the Bulls won their first three championships. He deserves the credit for their 'Doberman defense.' He's the one who really architected zone defense in basketball -- there are not many people who could say they were on the same page as him with zone defense.

"If the HOF is based on your contributions to basketball, he's contributed his whole life to basketball. How did Tex Winter get in?"

Tex Winter, famous as the mastermind of the "triangle offense" that the Bulls and later the L.A. Lakers perfected through 11 championships under head coach Phil Jackson, went into the Hall last year as a contributor. It was considered an honor overdue and a career-capping moment that Winter, at age 89, surely would have enjoyed more a few years earlier.

Gallagher had that in mind when he nominated Bach last year, accompanying his pitch with endorsement letters from Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and current Chicago basketball boss John Paxson. He had taken Jerry Colangelo at his word when the Hall's board chairman talked about "a place in the Hall of Fame for all contributors to the game of basketball. ... Somehow, some way, we don't want them to get lost in the shuffle."

From WWII to Boston and beyond

Bach, of course, has been hiding in plain sight for a long time. An archetype of the Greatest Generation, he served six years in the U.S. Navy during and after World War II; his lost his twin brother Neil, a pilot, in 1944 and their father succumbed to war-related setbacks soon after it ended.

After returning to Fordham for his senior year and degree, considering a career in law, Bach was signed by the Celtics for the 1948-49 season. Cut before his second year, he returned to Fordham, almost accidentally accepting the coaching gig and staying for 18 years. Then it was Penn State for 10, during which he earned the Olympic spot in '72 with a shot at coaching the 1976 team in Montreal.

The controversy and heartbreak for the U.S. squad in Munich, however, briefly put Bach out of basketball completely. He needed to step away, so at 53, he spent a year flying planes for Piper Aircraft and considered a pilot's career with Allegheny Airlines. But the coach in him reared up, and his friend Pete Newell recommended him for a job on the Golden State bench.

Bach took over for Al Attles twice, first in 1979-80 and then, full-time, in 1983. This was during the Warriors' Joe Barry Carroll years - he went 95-172 before being relieved of his duties. That's when Bulls GM Jerry Krause called, adding Bach to Doug Collins' staff; Collins, of course, was the shooter who scored what would have been the winning free throws in that '72 gold medal game, if not for the re-re-rerun final three seconds.

"Johnny means the world to me," Collins told last year. "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."

Bach survived Collins' firing, taking over defensive duties under Jackson. Having him and Winter on that team's bench, Jackson said, was "a lesson in the history of basketball with two men who were there for just about everything."

Bach might have gotten himself sideways with Bulls management when he forgave Pippen for his notorious 1.8-seconds playoff breach (refusing to re-enter a game because he wouldn't get the final shot) at a time when the bosses were ready to trade Pippen. But he coached again at Collins' side in Detroit and in Washington, where he was on hand to see Jordan's 30,000th NBA point.

Paxson brought Bach back to the Bulls in 2003, and his work with the young players - not just defensively, but in discipline and philosophy - was much valued. He left again in 2006 but remains a coach. Not a retired coach -- a coach.

Still looking to help

"I'm looking for work," Bach said two weeks ago, early in the '72 Olympic team's 40th reunion weekend. And while it got a laugh, he wasn't merely kidding. He remains as competitive as ever and believes that, in a lot of professions, retirement comes too early.

"As you get older in coaching, you're quite willing to share more of yourself," Bach said. "You're not afraid of anything. You've seen it all."

He is not, however, a big fan of the NBA game circa 2012. "I don't like the game they're teaching now, but that's just a personal view," Bach said. "If you can dribble 15 times into a screen-and-roll, you might be a player. This was a beautiful passing game -- it's no longer a team game."

Bach still stays active as a coach. He was asked for, and provided, some tips to Collins' staff as recently as last spring when the 76ers were searching for ways to defend Derrick Rose. And get this, he volunteers his time to the varsity team at Fenwick High, a prep school just west of the city in Oak Park, Ill., working with coach John Quinn (whose brother Pat is the governor of Illinois). Prior to last season, Bach spent several seasons helping out the sophomore team at Chicago's St. Ignatius.

That ought to burnish his resume for Springfield, right?

The Hall would benefit too, embracing some of the game's greatest mentors and teachers by honoring a few more of those who sit one seat over from the head coach. Just as baseball ought to have a pitching coach or three in its Hall in Cooperstown - Dave Duncan? Johnny Sain? Leo Mazzone? - basketball ought to look hard at Bach, Phil Johnson (Jerry Sloan's forever sidekick), Brendan Malone, Bill Bertka and others.

While Gallagher was disappointed that Bach wasn't enshrined in 2011 -- putting him in with Winter would have been a nice touch -- his understanding is that it's rare for someone "except for a Jordan" to get inducted the first year he or she is nominated. Bach's nomination will earn him consideration again in 2013 before it needs to be renewed.

A by-product of the book and the Hall nomination has been a friendship for Gallagher and Bach, who still lives in a downtown Chicago condominium. "I sat with him at the Bulls' first playoff game last [spring] and just sitting with him was a clinic," Gallagher said. "He told me exactly what they're supposed to be doing, 'here's what they should do, watch this guy' - he was just amazing."

Still is.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.