Johnny Bach has logged more than 50 years as a basketball head coach and assistant, both college and pro. He has sought wisdom and counsel from coaching giants like Clair Bee and Joe Lapchick, and has earned Michael Jordan’s trust. He’s enshrined in several basketball Halls of Fame. And with three NBA championship rings to his credit and experience coaching a U.S. Olympic team, Bach apparently has seen and done it all.
Well, almost. Unlike most of his peers, Bach skipped coaching high school students.
So at the age of 85, the former Chicago Bulls assistant coach has just completed his first season as a volunteer coach at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit high school founded in 1869 on Chicago’s Near West Side. It is located mere blocks from where he helped tutor Jordan and others while the Bulls were winning their first three national championships.
Guiding the way
At St. Ignatius, Bach prefers the label “mentor.” He was assigned to the sophomore team, specifically the taller players, giving instruction to his raw but willing basketball neophytes. Bach even had his team run some of the same drills he used in the NBA.
“I don’t think I had to prove I had the experience,” the father of five says of his latest job. “I think I had to prove I had the patience to teach [young players] … I’ve been in basketball long enough to feel very secure about what I say and what I believe, so they can see who I really am. I try to be as positive as possible.”
St. Ignatius takes its academics and athletics seriously. It was an ideal fit for Bach, known for his cerebral approach and broad interests that include flying, military history and art (he took up watercolors after suffering a near-fatal heart attack in his 70s and has exhibited his work). It also helped that he graduated from a Jesuit institution, Fordham University, where in 1950 he became head coach at 26 after a brief professional playing career. He stayed at Fordham for 18 years.
Stroke of luck
Recommended by an NBA scout, Bach showed up at St. Ignatius last July to meet with the staff. Chicago native Ken Gryzwa, the sophomore team coach and assistant varsity coach, could hardly believe his eyes—or his luck.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Gryzwa says. “I had an appreciation for him, knowing about the Bulls and knowing how they respected him. Michael [Jordan] really had a great respect for him. The fact is, [Bach is] like a 40- or 50-year-old. He’s a young person with a lot of his actions and the way he communicates. I just feel really lucky to get to know him.”
Varsity coach Rich Kehoe agrees. “He’s a great storyteller, a living legend in terms of the history of basketball,” he says. “He’s not only an asset, but an ambassador. Our kids didn’t know who he is, but their parents did. He’s a very entertaining, classy guy.”
And the players like him, too. “I think he’s the best of both worlds,” says 6-foot-7 sophomore Billy Lawrence. “He’s a great guy to talk to and joke with you, and then he can be serious. He’s not, like, overly nice, but he’s not overly mean … If we don’t get something, he’ll break it down for us and make it simpler, and then we’ll learn it.”
Standing close to 6 feet 3, with that distinctive thatch of white hair and a stately, almost patrician manner, Bach can be a charming teacher and spinner of yarns. But there is another side to this Brooklyn native that’s tougher and saltier. It’s in the family: Bach’s father served in the Navy and fought in two wars. His brother, Neal, a Navy pilot, was shot down over the Pacific in World War II and lost at sea. Bach received his officer’s commission at 20 and served on a cruiser during the war. His stint in the service interrupted his education but spawned a lifelong love and admiration of the military—the history and culture, the attention to detail. He also applies what he learned in the Navy—the repetition and detail work—while coaching.
“I put it to them,” Bach says of the students with a chuckle. “But they’re wonderful. They have no complaints.”
Since retiring from the NBA in 2006, Bach has stayed busy. His wife, Mary, an aviation liability lawyer, calls him a “dabbler.” He gave up one of his passions, flying, two years ago, at her insistence. But he has continued to paint, and the military remains a prevailing theme in his artwork. A recent subject was retired four-star general Peter Pace, the first Marine to head the joint chiefs of staff. Pace now has the portrait.
A different game
A year ago, Bach took on a new challenge. He visited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to volunteer for any job they gave him, and soon was coaching a wheelchair team made up largely of gang members who were “shot into the chair,” as he puts it. It proved to be exhausting, he says, but also rewarding.
“It is not an easy game,” Bach says of wheelchair basketball. “It’s a different game. I had to learn what they could do. They were more patient with me than I was with them. It was a really deep experience. It gave me insights I never had before.”
Bach’s own full life is an eye-opener to the possibilities of what can be accomplished in later years. Says St. Ignatius athletic director Jim Prunty: “We should all reach 85 and be like that.”
Bob Cohn is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.