Bach, longtime standout as NBA assistant coach, dies at 91

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Coach John Bach (front row, 7th from left) was a trusted assistant in the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat teams.

John Bach lasted long enough, worked hard enough and cut a wide enough swath through basketball and life at so many levels that most who knew him knew only parts of his story. Few had the endurance to witness the entirety of his life well-lived.

Bach, 91, died early Monday in Chicago after battling cancer and other ailments. The longtime NBA coach spent 16 of his 19 seasons as an assistant coach (Golden State, Chicago, Charlotte, Washington, Detroit) and served as the Warriors’ coach from 1983-86.

The Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson, issued a statement Monday via that read, in part, about Bach: “Johnny was a true treasure in the world of basketball. He was the classic ‘old school’ coach who came to work each and every day with energy and enthusiasm for the game he loved. His zest for life and basketball were unparalleled.”

Bach was 55 by the time he drew his first NBA paycheck, working the equivalent of two or three careers prior to that in college basketball and in the U.S. military.

“Everyone has a different experience to talk about with John, because he did so much in so many different places,” said P.J. Carlesimo, former NBA and NCAA coach working now as an ESPN game analyst. “You talk to Kevin [Calabro, NBA broadcaster], he knows him from Golden State. So many people know him from Chicago. With Doug Collins, it’s the [1972] Olympic team. For me it was at Fordham. People don’t remember everything he did. And there were 10 others – Navy, Penn State.

“He touched so many people. Delightful guy. He was just always extremely kind to me when I first came in the league. The ultimate gentleman. People loved him.”

While Bach’s profile rarely thrust him into the spotlight, especially with modern NBA fans, the breadth of his work put him in contact with countless notable figures across generations. Bach was 64 when he joined the Chicago Bulls as a member of Collins’ coaching staff and later, with Phil Jackson, helped that team with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant win its first three-peat of championships.

“He encouraged me, worked with me and really helped me to mold my game,” Jordan was quoted Monday in the Chicago Tribune. “Without him, I don’t know that we would’ve won our first three championships. He was more than a coach to me. He was a great friend. I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”

And yet, when Golden State won the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June, Bach’s influence was on the Warriors’ championship season through his work with coach Steve Kerr and defensive guru Ron Adams.

“What an incredible life he led,” Kerr told NBA.com Monday after his team’s shootaround in Cleveland, where the Warriors face the Cavaliers in a Finals rematch (TNT, 8 p.m. ET). “He was [Navy pilot] in World War II. That experience shaped him in a lot of ways – he used a lot of military references in his coaching style. And what stands out is how colorful a character he was. He had an incredible way of going through the scouting report and describing opponents.”

Kerr got to Chicago in time for Bach’s sixth final season there, before he moved on to assist the Hornets, Pistons, Wizards and Bulls again.

“He was the Bulls’ defensive architect,” Kerr said. “But I think he was the guy who dubbed Scottie, Michael and Horace the ‘Dobermans.’ The other thing that stands out was his style. His hair was always slicked back. He liked bolo ties. Cowboy boots. Leather jackets. He was a real, one-of-a-kind character.”

Adams would often next to Bach on team flights while both men were members of Scott Skiles‘ staff in Chicago.

“I spent many a delightful hour with that man – listening,” Adams said. “He told me his life story several times over and it was fascinating. But the amazing thing about him was, let’s say the game was in 1932 and he was jumping center, he could tell you who he jumped against and who the other eight guys were on the floor.”

Fact is, few remember that Bach was a pro player, appearing in 34 games for the Boston Celtics in the old Basketball Association of American [BAA], the precursor of the NBA. Here are some of the other stops in Bach’s long, winding road, from a 2012 NBA.com story on him – and his worthiness for Naismith Hall of Fame consideration that still hasn’t come:

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 Bulls.com 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 [Tex] 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.

[VP John] 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.

For Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, Bach’s generosity was evident from the start.

“As someone who has a great respect for the history of the game, I’d known of Johnny Bach long before I ever played in the NBA,” Carlisle told NBA.com. “When I got hired [by New Jersey] as an assistant coach in the fall of 1989, the first assignment I got from Bill Fitch was to scout the Celtics and the Lakers in Boston. I walked into the Garden and there on the scouting row, the first guy that greeted me was Johnny. He stood up, put out his hand and said, ‘Welcome to the business.’

“I’ll never forget that moment just because of the respect I had for him.”

After leaving the Bulls again in 2006, Bach continued to reside in Chicago with his wife, Mary. He spent time helping out local high school programs, stayed in touch with coaching colleagues throughout basketball and even displayed his work as a painter at a suburban art gallery.

Services are scheduled for Wednesday morning, with the two NBA teams he impacted most prominently – the Warriors and the Bulls – set to play that night at United Center (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

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