Bach Where He Belongs

Coach Bach and Michael Jordan in D.C.
Before rejoining the Bulls last summer, Bach assisted Doug Collins in Washington and witnessed Michael Jordan notch his 30,000th point. (NBAE Photos)

Posted February 3, 2004

Johnny Bach is basketball history.

He knows today's players inside and out, and the generations of players and coaches who came before them. If it's happened on a court, Bach's seen it — if not in person, then at least on film.

He pounded the scorer's table in protest at the 1972 Olympics as the USA basketball team was being robbed of victory. He was the Bulls defensive guru when Chicago swept the 1991, '92 and '93 NBA Championships. He was assistant coach for the Washington Wizards when Michael Jordan scored his 30,000th point. Along the way, he's played with, met or coached the game's greatest players.

A self-described perfectionist who demands precision and toughness, Bach is a Brooklyn-born, World War II Navy veteran who participated in the assault on Okinawa, Japan. After his discharge in 1947, he came home and earned a second college degree. Bach was a Boston Celtic for one year — 1948-49 — and from there began a coaching career that's now stretched into its 51st season.

Technically, a guy's got to be fairly old to accumulate that kind of history. And in the scheme of things, a lot of years have gone by in Johnny Bach's life; he'll be 80 in 2004. But the trim, fit Bach doesn't look, act, or in any way fit the picture of what you might imagine a 79 year old is. The youngest Bulls are awed by him, the older ones appreciate him and the members of the coaching staff know they're fortunate to have him around.

"I love coach," proclaims Tyson Chandler. "He always has a saying when he comes in, like 'Fellas, today's a great day to die!' You gotta love him for it. He can yell, pass the ball, dribble and shoot, and show us what to do. I just hope I can do half the stuff he can do when I'm that age."

Though he was hired in July 2003, Bach's not new to Chicago; in fact, he considers the city home. He spent eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Bulls from 1986-94, under the direction of Doug Collins (1986-89) and Phil Jackson (1989-94). During his first tenure with the Bulls, the franchise posted a 432-224 (.659) record and captured its first three World Championships.

Before this season, Bach spent three seasons as an assistant coach under Doug Collins with the Washington Wizards, after serving as assistant coach under Collins in Detroit from 1996-98. He also spent two seasons on Allan Bristow’s staff with the Charlotte Hornets, from 1994 to 1996.

Prior to his first stint with the Bulls, he took his first coaching job in the NBA, as assistant coach with Golden State. Following the resignation of Warriors Head Coach Al Attles in 1983, Bach was appointed interim head coach for four games before being named head coach for the 1983-84 season. He spent three seasons at the helm. Prior to that, he coached 10 years at Penn State and 18 years at New York's Fordham University.

"It's a joy to be back," declares the former Navy man, who still gets up early each morning, showers and shaves and then commutes on the train from downtown Chicago to the Berto Center. "Everyone likes to come home."

Coach Bach's father and brother
Not only is Bach a World War II Navy Veteran, but his father (standing), Lt. Col. J.C. Bach, and twin brother, Neil (seated), a Navy pilot, also fought in WWII. Sadly, Neil's plane was lost at sea during the war.

Berto's filled with familiar faces; Bach has coached General Manager John Paxson; Special Assistant and scout B.J. Armstrong; Assistant Coach Pete Myers, Bulls radio analyst Bill Wennington and veteran Scottie Pippen.

Just as important to Bach, however, is that he's getting the opportunity to coach.

"People are whatever age they believe they are, as far as energy, vitality and ability to meet a challenge," he says. "I don't mind saying I'm 79, but I want a chance to compete." Last summer, Paxson gave him that chance.

Bach knew there was an opening for an assistant coach and let the new Bulls GM know that he hadn't retired. He'd left the Wizards along with Doug Collins and Michael Jordan, but he wanted to stay in the game. Paxson told Bach there was no need to interview. He knew what he was capable of, and he'd put him on the short list of candidates.

"Johnny let us know early on that he wanted to be here, and that he was very eager to coach and contribute and bring back a defensive mindset," says Pax. "When all was said and done, I felt very comfortable with him coming back because he is a great basketball mind."

In fact, Paxson and Bach are a pair of traditionalists who share a passion for basketball and the way it should be played. "Johnny has always felt that you have to be tough-minded and competitive to be successful in this business," says Paxson, who as a player would watch clips from movies such as "Full Metal Jacket" that Bach put together with game film. "I believe that too, and it's a wonderful attitude to bring to any team."

Bach also brings a sense of time and place to coaches and players. "He's one of the few guys in the league who understands the history of this league and how privileged these guys are to be here," says Paxson, who adds that Bach gives the coaching staff a sense of the big picture. "He's not a hardcore guy who jumps on you, but he's very direct. Two people can say the same thing, but one person has the ability to make you hear it; he's got that ability."

Bach is the son of an Irish mother and Dutch immigrant father, who grew up in what was then the immigrant ghetto of East New York. He played baseball and basketball and at one point, made it to Double AA ball as a catcher. Bach attended Fordham University, then the University of Rochester and finally Brown University, where he earned a degree in naval science. When World War II broke out, all three Bach men — Johnny, his twin brother Neil and their dad — were called to serve. Bach's dad was a lieutenant colonel in the Navy; Johnny was a naval deck officer, and Neil was a Navy pilot. Neil was lost at sea in 1944, just shy of age 20.

At that same age, Johnny was a naval officer on board a heavy cruiser, doing gunnery work, navigation and other tasks. "There were a lot of duties thrown on you when you were very young," he recalls, "and you wonder why they're entrusting them to you, but that's what the military does. [That generation] didn't have a schoolboy outlook. You were competing for positions at officer, assigned to warships or whatever duty. The frivolousness of youth was gone."

Coach Bach as a member of the Celtics
Fresh out of the Navy and from earning a degree at Fordham University, Bach played one season for the Boston Celtics in 1948.

He was called up in June 1943 and stayed in the Navy until 1947. He went back to Fordham, unsure what to do with his degree in naval science, and talked to the dean. The two worked out a deal; Bach took some philosophy and theology courses, Fordham's cornerstones, along with economics to prepare for a law career.

He earned the degree after two semesters and in 1948 was drafted by the Boston Celtics; he was cut by the team his second year. Soon, Fordham gave him a call, asking if he would be their new basketball coach.

"I wasn't looking to coach," explains Bach; "it's just what happened to me."

The young veteran talked to mentor and father-figure Joe Lapchick, the legendary basketball coach who was then at St. John's University. Bach told Lapchick that he didn't feel equipped to take the job. Lapchick's reply: "None of us have ever been qualified to take over the role of coach. Just do it — you'll either succeed or you won't."

That was 1950 and Bach was 25 years old. He ended up spending the next 18 years at Fordham, and his team became the most improved in the nation.

"I think everyone who goes into coaching must have some apprehension," says Bach. "It's awesome because it's far more than basketball. It's philosophy and discipline. It has so many demands — to represent the university and the game. I don't think anyone should enter it easily."

Another coaching opportunity opened up, and Bach went to Penn State, where he spent the next 10 years. During that tenure he helped coach the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team under celebrated Head Coach Henry Iba, which turned into a bitter experience for every American player and coach involved. It's a story Bach discusses, though not often.

After a fantastic 8-0 run in Munich, the U.S. team faced the USSR for the gold medal. Doug Collins shot two free throws with three seconds left, putting the U.S. in front 50-49. Immediately following Collins' free throws, the Soviets inbounded the ball and failed to score, but one official had whistled play to stop with one second remaining after hearing an earlier horn and seeing a disturbance near the scorer's table. The Soviets argued that they had requested a timeout before Collins' foul shots. The referees ordered the clock reset to three seconds and the game's final seconds replayed. However, the clock was in the process of being reset when the referees put the ball in play. A length of the court pass missed its mark, the horn sounded and the U.S. again began celebrating.

Officials ordered the clock again reset to 0:03 and the game replayed from that point. This time, the Soviet's Aleksander Belov and the USA's Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes went up for the pass, Belov caught the long pass from Ivan Edeshko at the foul line, drove to the basket for the layup and scored. A U.S. protest was denied, and the Soviets were awarded the gold medals. The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals.

"Doug Collins made the two free throws, and Coach Iba said, 'we're not going to give the damn Russians 50 points.' That was the game plan. We were ahead 50-49 and I expected a glorious finish," recounts Bach. "What happened was a nightmare — replay, replay, replay."

Coach Bach during the 1972 Olympics
As a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic coaching staff, Bach strategized with two of basketball’s all-time great minds in Don Haskins (left) and Henry Iba (right).

"It's something I hardly ever talk about," says Bach. "It involved an unbelievable amount of political chaos. The game was poorly administered, we were robbed of a gold medal; the players were embittered. We lost the first game an American team had ever lost. I was sort of staggered by the abrupt end, the closing of that door."

He returned to Penn State but decided he needed a break from college, teaching and basketball. Bach took a year off and flew planes for Piper Aircraft. He trained to be a pilot for Allegheny Airlines. He tried to get as far from the game as he could.

"I was wise enough to know it was an escape," says Bach. "It was hard, with 28 years of coaching, at age 53, to know where to go." He heard about a job opening with Golden State and called another mentor, Pete Newell, who was their player personnel director. It was Bach's first coaching job in the pros.

The married father of five went out alone; his kids wanted to finish high school in Pennsylvania. Four years later he became the Warriors’ head coach. In 1986, Jerry Krause called, and Bach accepted a job with the Bulls, working under new head coach Doug Collins and, later, coach Phil Jackson. After eight seasons as a Bulls assistant, he wasn’t rehired, but he was offered a new job with the Charlotte Hornets. It was a major turning point in Bach's life.

Moving to Charlotte, starting a new job, leaving relationships in Chicago, and in the final stages of a long divorce, Bach, at the time, was feeling stressed. "As one doctor said, every one of those reasons was reason to have a heart attack." And he did.

Bach was preparing for the new season in Charlotte when he drove himself to the emergency room, telling doctors he didn't feel well. They saw what was happening and immediately injected a clot-dissolving drug. The next thing Bach recalls is a near-death experience of tunnels, lights, visions of his grave and pleading for his life.

His heart had stopped, but doctors revived him, and after two days he was sent to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for treatment, where stents were inserted in his arteries. He's had no recurrence, faithfully gets checked out each year at Johns Hopkins and uses a treadmill daily to stay in shape.

Coach Bach
"He's one of the few guys in the league who understands the history of this league and how privileged these guys are to be here," says John Paxson of Bach.

The experience renewed a number of things in Bach, who for years had been completely devoted to basketball. "It made me more available to look at some other things, like why am I always looking ahead? Why not look around and enjoy today?"

A few years earlier, Bach had started to realize he needed something other than basketball and took up painting. He still paints, mostly watercolors of the sea, ships and military heroes, including Congressional Medal of Honor winners. He started reading more, and he met Mary Sweeney, a trial lawyer, whom he married seven years ago.

"I think I enjoy today more because of the experience, because of counseling and because of Mary, whom I was dating at the time (of the heart attack). She's a terribly strong person," says Bach. "I never knew you could enjoy life this much." After years of travel and spending too much time away from his kids, he's now close to them.

He also feels that he's a better coach than before.

"Here I am in my 51st year doing what I vowed I wouldn't do, spending 50 years at something. But I like it even more because I can see it more objectively. I can walk away once in a while from a practice instead of watching more tape and writing more notes. I'm free of that obsession, which made me demand too much and hope for too much. I see things more realistically now."

Just as Bach has enriched hundreds of players with his knowledge over the past 51 years, he's gained wisdom in the past decade that's enriched his own life. He's still punctual and orderly, a passionate perfectionist. But he's more at peace with his passions — basketball and life.

By Anne E. Stein


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