CHICAGO – You probably don’t know Johnny Bach. You’ve seen him, the ruddy-faced guy with the stern demeanor sitting on the bench of the champion Chicago Bulls next to Phil Jackson in the 1990s, steely grey eyes fixed on the defensive play, his “Doberman defense” as it came to affectionately be known during the Bulls’ first three championships.
Johnny Bach was one of the best and most successful assistant coaches in the NBA, working the sidelines as a chief aide in Golden State, Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit and Washington.
Which was probably the least of Johnny’s accomplishments in an amazing and remarkable 91 years. Johnny died Jan. 18, and if the phrase “Renaissance man,” can be applied to anyone in the NBA — and it doesn’t come up often — Johnny Bach would be the model.
Here was a kid who was a great athlete, good enough to be sought by the pros in basketball and baseball, having played hoops in high school for legendary football coach Vince Lombardi and worked out with baseball great Joe DiMaggio.
Bach eventually would play a season for the Boston Celtics. But his country called and Johnny and his family were there. Johnny’s twin brother, Neil, was a flier lost at sea in World War II, and his father was a lieutenant colonel in the Navy. Johnny served as a naval officer in the assault on Okinawa and was on the ships headed for Tokyo when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bach was among the American forces occupying and policing Nagasaki after the bombing.
Johnny Bach was truly one of the great Americans of the 20th century, the prototype for what we in the U.S. like to call the “Greatest Generation.”
This was a remarkable and skilled man, principled in his commitment to his nation and his profession, articulate and endearing, tough and scholarly with a passion for learning and sharing. Johnny reached the apex of pretty much every profession and discipline he encountered.
He was a military hero, a professional baseball and basketball player, one of the nation’s youngest ever college coaches at Fordham in New York City, an NBA head coach with Golden State and an Olympic team coach, an artist who commanded his own show, a pilot and perhaps above all a great American.
Johnny was fond of drawing an ace of spades on the board in the Bulls locker room after games to depict triumph. It is one military sign of death soldiers place on the battlefield.
There are no niceties or political correctness on the front lines.
Not that many in our generation faced combat like they did in Johnny’s, and certainly few of the basketball players Johnny taught for more than five decades. But Johnny’s message transcended the reality and brutality of war.
It was a metaphor for life for his students. You may not face death on the battlefield like I did, like his twin brother did in World War II. But life is hard and you have to be tough, and you have to be strong and relentless in your vocation. Even if it is a game for there are no games. Excel in your arena.
It was a message delivered and a life lived.
Johnny was a Bulls assistant from 1986 through 1994 and in a later stint in 2003. He was even invited back this past fall by the coaching staff as a consultant. He was the architect of the so-called Doberman defense, the aggressive defensive effort led by Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant that was truly the cornerstone of the Bulls’ success even with all the attention to Jordan’s dunks and Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.
Johnny was fond of splicing scenes from movies like “Full Metal Jacket” into the Bulls advance scouting tapes, a practice Phil Jackson popularized with those Bulls teams. There was no reveille, but he always was up at 5. He would march into practice at the Deerfield Multiplex and later the Berto Center, back stiff and erect, and announce in his best drill sergeant’s voice, “Men, today’s a great day to die!”
We’re not here for fun and games. Anything you do, take seriously, was Bach’s message. It’s how you become great.
Jackson often credited Bach and his military references and war imagery for helping grow that in Pippen and Grant, two country kids a bit overwhelmed even by the big city. The Bulls would not succeed until they did.
And Bach was there every step of the way, especially against the brutal Detroit Pistons, getting them to put their basketball left foot in front of their right and their backs straight and minds committed.
Bach always taught those young players the lessons learned in the military that were most important, that they were men, they were now responsible; their teammates and more were depending on them.
It was one of Bach’s proudest days when Grant and Pippen could see that ace of spades between the toes of those Detroit Pistons.
Bach was a walking encyclopedia of basketball. I remember Phil Jackson telling me when he was an assistant coach with the Bulls of preparing the scouting video on the Milwaukee Bucks and consulting Bach, who told him the Bucks were using Horst Pinholster’s pinwheel offense from decades ago.
Who knows stuff like that?
During his time coaching Penn State after 18 years as Fordham’s winningest coach, Bach was asked to join the staff for the 1972 Olympic basketball team that “lost” the infamous multiple replay game in which Doug Collins made the two free throws that should have won the game. Until rules officials allowed multiple replays until Russia finally won. The U.S. players voted to reject their silver medals, which they never accepted.
You’ll see pictures of Bach banging on the scorer’s table in full fury.
Not long after, Bach left Penn State to follow his dream of flying. He became a pilot and was in training for Allegheny Airlines before he felt the call to the game he loved. He became an assistant coach for Al Attles with the Golden State Warriors. Bach eventually replaced Attles briefly in 1979 and was Warriors head coach later for three seasons.
When Doug Collins was hired as Bulls coach in 1987, Bach was added as his top assistant and went on to combine with Tex Winter as the veteran offensive and defensive sages for rookie coach Jackson.
When Winter suffered a stroke seven years ago, Bach began writing him weekly letters about basketball, about his life, about what he’s been seeing in the game and what they experienced in lifetimes in sport and hardship. Bach never heard back, but until being incapacitated a few months ago with a stroke, Bach continued to write a letter to Winter every week.
Johnny’s was not a mind at rest. He took up watercolor painting at one point. That was in 1995 in Charlotte.
Bach left the Bulls after the 1993-94 season when Bulls general manager Jerry Krause forced Bach out, accusing him of revealing Bulls secrets. It was false, of course, as Johnny lived with the military motto that “loose lips sink ships.”
Krause later apologized and recanted his charges. Bach went to become an assistant for the Hornets. He suffered a heart attack and was medically flat lined. Of course, he had driven himself moments before to the emergency room.
He recovered and took a step back in life, though just small enough to take a closer look at everything around. He painted seascapes and ships, portraits of military men he admired, Native American chiefs.
“I know there is an art to the game,” he would say. “You see as a coach the spacing, the movement, the positioning, the flow. In basketball, I’m impressed when I see team movement, spatial relationships. The artist also must stay with certain things, where to bring the lighting, the colors, background.”
The Sevan Gallery in suburban Chicago did a show with 32 of his watercolor paintings. They said the basketball court was a canvas for Michael Jordan, the Michelangelo of the basketball court. Johnny painted his life with a broad brush.
Johnny went on to rejoin Collins when he coached the Detroit Pistons and then when Jordan returned to basketball in 2001 as an assistant for Collins with the Washington Wizards.
Whereas Bach had to be stern for players like Grant and Pippen, he would be the reassuring voice for someone driven like Jordan. It was to Bach whom Jordan confided about suffering from racist incidents in his childhood and the frustrations of working with teammates who didn’t demand as much.
Michael would sit with Johnny for long bus rides and talk about the pain and the frustration and the fight it took to succeed. Johnny understood.
Because he always fought, fighting for his team, for his players, for his country.
Even into his late 80s, Bach still coached, as a volunteer for two high schools in the Chicago area and for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he coached a wheelchair basketball team that played at the United Center at halftime of Bulls games. Bach at 91 was in Bulls training camp last fall helping new coach Fred Hoiberg with defensive techniques.
Johnny Bach, one of a kind.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”