Johnny Bach died the other day. He was 91. He coached the Penn State men’s basketball team for 10 seasons, 1969 through 1978, and managed to slip out the door one game over .500.
But that merely was one, brief chapter. Bach seemed to have a million friends and lived a rich, diverse life. Basketball was just a part of it. I met him years after he left Penn State. He was an assistant with the Washington Wizards late in a remarkable career, 77 and still at it, and he had taken up painting and was getting good at it and, well, that’s what we call a story. A few years later we reconnected, as they say, for another story, this one about his volunteering to help coach a high school team at the age of 85. What I remember most from my sporadic and brief dealings with him was that Bach was a true gentleman, a delightful, brilliant, engaging man. But make no mistake, he was a tough guy, too. He was tall and lean, white-haired, both courtly and occasionally salty in manner and always impeccably dressed. Even better, he had a million stories.
Bach was a revered and gifted coach at every level, including the Olympics, who specialized in teaching defense. He grew up in Brooklyn. He knew a kid from there, a football player named Joe Paterno. He was commissioned a Navy officer at 20 and served on a cruiser during World War II, interrupting his education and basketball career at Fordham. He had to serve. It was in his blood. His father fought in that war and also World War I. His identical twin brother, a pilot, was shot down over the Pacific and never found. He also was 20.
Bach later learned to fly and loved it, and was an avid student of military history. After dabbling in sketching, he learned to paint at the age of 70 to deal with stress after suffering a heart attack that nearly killed him. In fact, it did. Bach said he was “flat-lined dead.” He eventually became a good enough artist to display his watercolors a Chicago-area art gallery.
Bach was an excellent student and player at Fordham, and after washing out of pro basketball, he returned to his alma mater presumably as an assistant coach. Instead, he was asked to become the Rams’ head coach. He was 26 and did not believe was qualified. According to Bach, after he confessed this to Joe Lapchick, the legendary St. John’s coach, Lapchick replied, “Johnny, None of us have ever been qualified to coach. But you’re gonna learn.”
He did, picking many brains, Lapchick’s and others’, including the former freshman football coach at Fordham, Vince Lombardi. Bach’s first team was 20-8 and made postseason play the next two seasons. He thought it would be easy. For awhile, it was. But when reality set in and he finally had a losing team in his sixth season, “there was no way I could recover the team or myself,” he said. “I didn’t know how to bring my team out of it.” But Bach figured it out and stayed until 1968, a total of 18 years. No Fordham coach has won as many games. By then he also was the athletic director. He planned to leave coaching but Penn State made a big offer. Among the candidates he beat out was the coach at Army, Bob Knight.
As the college game grew, Bach grew disenchanted with recruiting. He would cite as a tipping point his failure to sign Tom McMillen, the high school All-American out of Mansfield, Pa., who wound up helping transform the Maryland program under Lefty Driesell. “I was very disappointed at the end of 10 years,” Bach said.
During his time at Penn State, Bach served under Henry Iba as assistant coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team that competed at the games in Munich. Those Olympics are best known, of course, for the 11 Israeli athletes and German police officer killed by Arab terrorists. The Games went on, wrongly, many believed. During the basketball competition, the Soviet Union infamously beat the U.S. in the gold medal game on the basis of some last-second chicanery with the game clock. To this day, no American player has accepted the silver medal. “Most of us still carry a very deep wound from that,” Bach said years later.
Bach gravitated to the NBA, where he would become best known as Phil Jackson’s assistant with the Chicago Bulls. Bach was the “defensive coordinator,” Tex Winter handled the triangle offense and Jackson presided over the operation as Michael Jordan and Co. won three straight championships. He moved on to a few other teams before retiring in 2006. A few years later he was back in the gym. He couldn’t help it. He coached a wheelchair basketball team comprised mostly of Chicago gang members who were “shot into the chair,” as Bach put it. The next year, he volunteered to coach the sophomore team at a Chicago private school located not far from where the Bulls played. He worked mostly with the big men. “We should reach 85 and be like that,” the school’s athletic director said.” The coach likened Bach to a “40 or 50-year-old,” adding, “He’s a young person with a lot of his actions and the way he communicates. I just feel lucky to get to know him.”
He is hardly alone.
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But don’t just take it from me. Listen to someone who really knew him. This from Jackson on Bulls.com:
Bach was knowledgeable about the East Coast game and could tell a great story. He was fascinating and vibrant—an evangelist. Winter, on the other hand, was knowledgeable about the West Coast game and knew all the educators of the game. Tex would go to bed at 10pm on an off night, while Johnny would stay at the bar and tell stories late into the night. Tex was dogmatic about the game and the way it should be played, whereas John was about “let’s get this hand to hand conflict on”. I was their student for 2 years. I thought I knew the NBA game, which I did, but I didn’t know the history of the game of basketball.
Johnny Bach and I had the job as video recorders to set up the pre-game tapes for our next opponents. These video recorders were new devices that would let us cut and paste tape into 7-10 min videos of the coming opponents. We would get competitive about our product trying to outdo each other’s edits. Johnny would end his tapes with an ace of spades on a rifle butt signifying an enemy kill. He talked in WWII terminology. My generation protested the Vietnam conflict and I’d end mine with Jimi Hendrix’s anthem at Woodstock or Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense”. One day John was preparing a video and called me over to the video editor. “Check this out”, he said. “Del Harris has started using Horst Pinholster’s Pinwheel offense.” There wasn’t much you could put by John Bach and he loved defense. Many people don’t know that when I was given the job as the Bulls coach I named John as the defensive coordinator, but knew Tex was the offensive coordinator. That early Bulls team was a terror on defense with Pippen, Jordan, and Grant as the Dobermans of D. We had 3 types of presses besides a full court man-to-man press that put teams under duress. John was the defensive teacher of that first 3-Peat team.
Johnny Bach was an identical twin. This brother was lost to him during WWII. He was a pilot in the Pacific and one day, did not return on a mission. John, a gunner ensign, would get his pilot’s license and wear his brother’s wings as a bracelet on his wrist. He loved to fly. One day when the team was in Pittsburgh for a preseason game, John was out all afternoon—he was a man, who loved to explore. That night at the game he took off his shirt and proudly showed us his full fighting eagle tattooed on his chest. Tonight I’ll think of him and that spirit he embodied, especially his motto after a late night on the road. “What? You can’t be tired, you can sleep in the grave.” Sleep well, Johnny.