Bach Closes Out Legendary Career
Bach has served as a coach to Michael Jordan for 10 season.
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Just before the second to last home game of the season against the Atlanta Hawks, Wizards assistant coach John Bach was led to the players parking area in the MCI Center garage by the entire team. There he was presented with a completely refurbished, late 1980's Rolls Royce, a car he had always dreamed of owning, courtesy of Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing.
"I was shocked," Bach said. "As an old-timer, I felt I'd like to get a used, old Rolls-Royce. I don't want those fancy sports cars. Between Patrick and Michael, they make a lot of people's dreams come true. I'm very happy. I can't tell you how much it meant."
But the generosity Jordan and Ewing showed to Bach that day could never match the generosity and appreciation to the game of basketball that he has shown for 50 years. Bach began his coaching tenure at his alma mater, Fordham University. Just two years removed from the military and failed stints with the Boston Celtics and Hartford of the Eastern Basketball League, Bach was offered the Rams head coaching job. Though excited by the offer, Bach wasn't so sure that he was ready to become a head coach so young.
"Fordham's offer of the head coach job was an opportunity that I really debated because like any other 25-year-old I said, 'I wonder if I'm qualified for this with no prior coaching experience,'" Bach explained. "I know I am far better prepared today than I was when I started my first day of practice."
Bach would spend the next 18 years as head coach and 11 as both coach and athletic director of Fordham University. He compiled a record of 263-193 and appeared in seven postseason tournaments, two NCAA Tournament appearances and five NIT Tournament appearances.
While successful as both a head coach and athletic director, Bach became bored with the job. He no longer wanted to be an athletic director and was frustrated with the administrative work that came with the job. He wanted to go to a school where he could focus on coaching, and that opportunity came from a school in the middle of Pennsylvania which Bach said, "was conveniently located 100 miles from nowhere."
"I found it very cumbersome to try to coach, and be the athletic director of, in those days, maybe 14 team sports at Fordham," said Bach. "I went to Penn State where I could just coach, and ended up spending a decade there."
Bach's move to Penn State was not without open arms from some now legendary Nittany Lion coaches.
"Anyone who has gone to Penn State will tell you it's a marvelous Big Ten university," said Bach. "At the time that I started coaching there, there were 30,000 students enrolled, and there was a real sports demand on the coaches to do well."
"Since I had competed against Joe Paterno when I was in high school and I had played for [then Penn State head football] coach Rip Engle at Brown University, I did find friends there to help me get started in trying to redo their basketball program which was a difficult task. Because of where Penn State was located, recruiting was difficult, and I found those 10 years to be difficult with a lot of ups and downs."
Bach posted a 122-121 record at Penn State and although he had seasons of 17 wins in 1970-71 and 15 wins in 1971-72, the Lions never received a tournament bid.
During the summer of 1972, Bach served as Henry Iba's assistant at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where the Soviet Union beat the United States for the gold medal in, what is still today, one of the most controversial games in Olympic history.
Bach coached a young Doug Collins that summer. He enjoyed the chance to coach Collins and little did he know that their paths would cross again 14 years later he would reunite with Collins as his assistant in Chicago.
"He was marvelous," Bach said. "He came from a small school as the nation's leading scorer and ended up our best defensive player on that Olympic team."
The 1977-78 season would be Bach's last as a head coach in college basketball. When the season ended he decided to walk away from coaching after 28 years and decided use the skills he learned in his years in the military.
"After 10 years I felt that I was in need of a rest," Bach said. "I had coached 28 straight years of basketball so I decided to take a year off. I had been a pilot [in the military] so I began flying airplanes for Piper Aircraft. As they built them up in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania I took them out. I would fly them to anywhere that was on a listed card, through good and bad weather."
After a year of flying the small Pipers, Bach wanted to qualify to be an air transport pilot which meant he would be able to fly jets. Unfortunately, money constraints and age played against his decision so Bach decided to go in a different direction.
He was offered a professorial position at Penn State, but turned it down.
"I had professorial rank, which is one of the great virtues of Penn State," said Bach. "Every coach, if they are teaching classes, has the ability to qualify for an appointment as a professor and all the rank and prestige that goes with it. However, I didn't want it."
"I looked elsewhere and what beckoned was the professionals," Bach added. "I said, 'what a wonderful entry; no recruiting, no parents to deal with, no school grades to deal with and no alumni to deal with.'"
Bach began his professional coaching tenure with the Golden State Warriors, who gave him an assistant coach position under Al Attles prior to the 1979-80 season. After Attles stepped down as head coach during the 1982-83 season, Bach took over interim duties for the remained of the season before being named head coach before the 1983-84 season.
Bach became the oldest rookie head coach in NBA history when he took over the post at the age of 58. In three years as a head coach for the Warriors, Bach compiled an 89-157 record. He stepped down as head coach after the 1985-86 season. While it was tough to deal with not having the success he wished he had as a head coach in the pro level, Bach never regretted the opportunity he had.
"I think being a head coach is a difficult job," said Bach. "It's a role of both leadership and understanding of a very simple game that can become very complex, and with players who are driven both to play a team game and who are individuals. Essentially it's a job of can you handle that situation? Does it turn you on? Can you coach when it's good and things are going well, or do you run away when you lose? It's a sport that has chased out a lot of guys, so it's not an easy one, but it's highly rewarding."
The next season, Bach returned to the place he felt most comfortable, as an assistant. He joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant under the man who he once coached, Doug Collins. When Collins left the Bulls after the 1988-89 season, Bach stayed to coach under Phil Jackson. He was rewarded for all his hard work when he helped coach the Bulls to the NBA Championship in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Bach left the Bulls after the 1993-94 season and became an assistant under Allan Bristow in Charlotte. He reunited with Collins two years later as an assistant in Detroit where he stayed two years.
Bach would take the next two seasons off before returning to the bench before the 2000-01 season when he was hired by the Wizards to serve as an assistant coach on Leonard Hamilton's staff. Bach and Collins reunited once more the next season when Collins replaced Hamilton as head coach.
So as his 50 year came to and end April 16 in Philadelphia, Bach looked back on all his accomplishments with no regrets. He is grateful for all the opportunities basketball gave him and said that he will always remember how good the game was to him.
"It's been a long journey with a lot of turns in the road, a lot of wonderful memories and a lot of wonderful people en route," Bach said. "I think I will carry to the grave my love of the game of basketball and a very deep feeling for people who have helped me along the way. People who essentially have the same liking for the game that Naismith invented."
"The game we are playing is the same as it was; the basket is still ten feet high, the ball is about the same type of ball and the three jump circles are still there. It is still a team game and anyone who has tried to make it an individual game has really reached the summits. They may have gotten a lot of attention and acclaim, but talking about winning championships, that's what awaits a team, not individuals."