Johnny Bach: Ace of Spades

January 18th, 2016 | by Sam Smith

The ace of spades came for Johnny Bach.

It does, inevitably, for everyone, but it’s probably never had to fight like this. Johnny would have sneered and his friends would have smiled.

1991-92 - Johnny Bach - Bulls Head Shot 1991

Johnny Bach, one of the truly great Americans of the 20th Century, the prototype for the Greatest Generation, died Monday. He was 91.

I know when people die we are quick to praise and perhaps exaggerate their accomplishments. There’s a bit of guilt involved. After all, we’re still alive and they aren’t.

I’d exaggerate Johnny’s accomplishments if I could, but I’d only end up falling short.

This was truly 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, a major college, professional and Olympic team coach, an artist who commanded his own show, a pilot and perhaps above all great American.

The ace of spades 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 face 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.

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I remember traveling with the Bulls during the first Gulf War in 1990 and the teams were trying out all sorts of patriotic stunts. Bach always stood at attention, erect and rigid and in full salute for the national anthem, his thick, flowing gray hair almost at attention as well. Once a team had someone come out and whistle the anthem. The hairs on Johnny’s neck were becoming as stiff as the fury flashing in his eyes for the disrespect of the flag. “Are they going to have someone fart it next!” he spat.

You didn’t mess with America in front of Johnny Bach.

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.

Johnny would draw an ace of spades on the board after wins to depict an opponent erased.

Johnny didn’t much deal in subtlety.

But that also was the point he was trying to make with the players. Though players use the term “war” too easily without experience, Johnny had been there and understood. He knew the difference between a basketball game and a day of life and death, but he also understood the commitment, focus and resolution required for success. The Bulls players needed that to win their battles.

Jordan had it; Johnny understood that.

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’d 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 on 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.

Like when he became a naval officer aboard that heavy cruiser in a war zone, navigating, gunnery work.

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“That’s what the military does,” Bach explained. “It wasn’t a school kids’ outlook anymore. There wasn’t time for that. The frivolousness of youth was gone.”

Stand up, accept and embrace your responsibilities.

It was one of Bach’s proudest days when Grant and Pippen could see that ace of spaces between the toes of those Pistons.

Johnny was born in Brooklyn and I know the neighborhood; it’s where I was born as well, East New York, an immigrant mix, hard workers, straining to share in a part of that American dream, the children of refugees escaping and seeking shelter, grateful for the welcome but not about to take anything for granted.

It was service for Johnny’s family.

His father, J.C., was a lieutenant colonel in the Navy. Brother Neil was a Navy pilot lost at sea during the war. Johnny afterward always wore a bracelet for his brother. 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 force occupying and policing Nagasaki after the bombing.

Johnny was also an exceptional athlete, a lean 6-2 who remained strong and hearty until past 90. In some respects he was a victim of American society’s lack of veneration and respect for its senior citizenry.

Age isn’t just a number; it was the way Bach lived his life. But American society, in particular, makes judgments about that number. Johnny remained mentally razor sharp and intuitive well into his late 80s and 90. I’d still consult him in recent years about defenses teams were running and the intricacies of the systems. He wasn’t a fan of the simplistic isolation and pick and roll game so many teams play, though warmed more to the flow that the Bulls with Fred Hoiberg have talked about.

The game is meant to be played with passing and movement, unselfish and relentless like in the military, to combine the elements of teamwork with fierce effort.

But Bach could not get jobs, though the Bulls eventually brought him back yet again in recent years as a consultant and scout. So Bach would volunteer to help coach at places like St. Ignactius High School, Fenwick High School or the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the latter where he coached a wheelchair basketball team that played at the United Center at halftime of Bulls games. He’d try with the local colleges, but NCAA rules would not permit him to work for free. Imagine that.

“People are whatever age they believe they are as far as energy, vitality and ability to meet a challenge,” he would say. “I just wanted chances to compete and help.”

Johnny was good enough to play minor league baseball as a catcher and for the Boston Celtics in the 1948-49 season and in the Eastern League, then a powerful basketball minor league as the NBA had about 10 teams and some on the verge of bankruptcy.

He’d played in high school for Vince Lombardi and played against the legendary Harlem Rens, among the pioneers of basketball. There may have been no one throughout the entirety of the 20th Century with more first hand knowledge of the game and more experience from high school, to college, to international to the pros.

1948-48 - Johnny Bach - celtics

Bach attended Fordham and got a degree from Brown. After his season with the Celtics following his military discharge in 1947, Fordham asked the 25-year-old to start as one of the youngest head coaches in big time college basketball. And New York was the heart of college basketball back then until betting scandals rocked the game. Johnny spent 18 years coaching Fordham to among the top programs in the country and then went to Penn State, somewhat in the shadow of football legend Joe Paterno, but bringing success to the previously ignored basketball side.

During his time at Penn State, 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.

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 as 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 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 Phil Jackson. I’d remember Bach and Winter sitting side by side for years debating the finer elements of the offense and defense, both with the wisdom and passion of their experience and first hand knowledge from their efforts.

When Winter had 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, Winter a refugee from the Depression Dustbowl. Bach never heard back, but until being incapacitated only recently Bach continued to write a letter to Winter every week.

Johnny’s was not a mind at rest.

He took up watercolor painting after he died.

That was in 1995 in Charlotte.

Bach left the Bulls after the 1993-94 season and 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, lots of ships, and portraits of military men he admired, Native American chiefs.

“I know there is an art to the game,” I remember him telling me. “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.”

Bach was good enough that the Sevan Gallery in Skokie 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.

There hardly have been any like Johnny Bach.

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