Friday, November 23, 2001

It didn’t take John Bach long to figure out how to be a basketball coach. At the age of 26, his first Fordham team went 20-8.

Figuring out how to be an artist is taking a little longer.

“I’m still trying to find myself,” he said.

Bach, in his second year as an assistant with the Wizards at the age of 77, has been looking for several years. He always had artistic talent, but only got serious after suffering a near-fatal heart attack in 1994. “I was flat-lined dead,” said Bach, whose heart stopped for more than a minute and a half.

Tall and trim, topped by a thatch of white hair, Bach modified his eating habits and listened to the doctors who told him he needed to find something to battle stress. He had always sketched pretty well, “Then I thought I could color it,” he said. “I failed miserably for years. I sort of gave up on it.”

He picked it up again after the heart attack, eventually attending Chicago’s prestigious Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. He was out of basketball, having been a member of Doug Collins’ staff when Collins was fired as coach of the Detroit Pistons in 1998. Now Bach and Collins are together again for the fourth time. Bach was an assistant on the ill-fated 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team on which Collins played, and he went to Chicago when Collins became coach of the Bulls in 1986.

Bach remained after Collins was fired in 1989, working with successor Phil Jackson and assistant Tex Winter, three years Bach’s senior, on what had to be the oldest coaching staff in the world. With Winter teaching the triangle offense, Bach handling the defense and Michael Jordan being Michael Jordan, the Bulls won three straight championships.

Bach was fired by general manager Jerry Krause in 1994 and went to Charlotte, then rejoined Collins with the Pistons two years later. When he was in Detroit, Bach said, “I couldn’t find an artist.” After leaving the Pistons, he went back home to Chicago and couldn’t find a job, either. So he enrolled at Palette and Chisel. Then Jordan returned to basketball last year as the Wizards’ co-owner and executive vice president and hired Bach as an assistant to Leonard Hamilton. During his time away from the game, Bach grew considerably as an artist.

Today the Alexandria townhouse he shares with his wife, Mary, a lawyer, and Siamese cats Juno and Leo, is adorned with much of his work. All are signed, “Johnny.” But far more of it, literally hundred of pieces, sits in drawers, out of sight, unsuitable for public viewing according to Bach’s exacting standards.

“I’m still trying to get a style,” he said.

For example, Bach takes out a perfectly lovely painting and declares it flawed because, he says, “I just didn’t get the fence right.”

There’s something wrong with this one, and that one, too. And the ones Bach really doesn’t like? “I throw them out,” he said.

The call of the sea

Bach loves to paint scenes with lighthouses, and just about anything with water in it. That figures. Bach is a Navy man commissioned as an officer at the age of 20 and a veteran of World War II and that remains one of his varied and passionate interests. In the upstairs room where he paints, amid the videotapes with names like “UNTOUCHABULLS” and the autographed photographs of Grant Hill, Joe Dumars and Jordan (the only players Bach has on display), are soldier figurines and officer’s swagger sticks, model warplanes and a British Royal Marine dress uniform hanging on the wall.

There is a cap worn by Bach’s father and a knife he used. Jacob Cornelius “Jack” Bach was 41 and a World War I veteran when he was called up from the reserves to fight in World War II. He was a tough guy, a maritime officer on freighters that cruised the waterways around New York City. He served as a Seabee in five Pacific invasions, including Guadalcanal, “and he was happy to do it,” John Bach said.

Bach’s only sibling, a twin brother named Cornelius whom everyone called Neal, also fought in the war. The family lived in Brooklyn and Johnny, who was a few minutes older than his brother, wanted to be a college athlete. He earned a basketball scholarship from Fordham after starring for St. John’s Prep. Neal, who went to a public high school, wanted to be a Navy flyer. He eventually flew an Avenger torpedo bomber and in January 1944 was shot down somewhere over the Pacific and, lost at sea. Neal was 20.

In that upstairs room in the townhouse in Alexandria, John Bach has a painting (not his own) of an Avenger. He also found an old Royal Air Force trophy made from an aluminum propeller blade and affixed Neal’s picture to it, fashioning a tribute to his brother.

With his father and brother both off defending their country, John wanted to do the same thing by the time he got to Fordham in 1942. He joined the Naval ROTC, played one season of basketball, then transferred upstate to the University of Rochester so he could enroll in the V-12 officer’s training program. The father of Bach’s roommate was an admiral, and Bach told him, “Get me over there,” meaning the war. “I cannot face my father or my family if I can’t get over there.”

Bach played for Rochester, then had to transfer yet again for his military training. This time, it was Brown University, where the basketball coach, Rip Engle, also coached the football team. Engle later would recruit a quarterback named Joe Paterno, whom Bach knew from his Brooklyn days. Later, Engle left to coach football at Penn State and took Paterno with him as an assistant, and the rest we know about.

While still at Brown, Engle and John Bach led the Bears basketball team to its best season ever. The only problem was the team could not play in any postseason tournaments, because Bach and a few other teammates had a war to fight.

Bach was commissioned and assigned to a heavy cruiser, the USS Wichita, a command ship. He participated in the invasion of Okinawa, which hastened the end of the war, although he still points out with a tinge of regret that his father saw more action. After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Wichita was sent to Nagasaki Bay to help bring home American prisoners of war. The ship also transported supervisor of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie Groves, who helped build the bomb, so that the general could view the destruction from the blast.

On the job training

Art might be a relatively new avocation for Bach, but he never strays far from his military roots. In fact, Lieutenant Junior Grade John Bach gave hard thought to a career in the Navy before leaving in 1947 and returning to Fordham. He loves to paint Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and he routinely takes game films and edits into them scenes from war movies like “Full Metal Jacket” or clips of the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Team and its famous Sunset Parade.

“It shows how good you can be with practice,” Bach said.

Everything about Bach is precise, including his dress (impeccable) and his speech. He can talk like a coach when he has to, but he speaks in a voice that sounds more New England than New York, pronouncing, for instance, the word “rather” as “rah-there.” Mary, his second wife, said, “He’s ready to stand for inspection at any time.” She also said when they returned from their honeymoon years ago, Collins asked her, “So, how did you enjoy boot camp?”

Bach was an excellent student, relishing his return to Fordham as much for the academics as the chance to return to the basketball court. He was particularly taken with Louis Budenz, a reformed Communist who later named names for the government, but who also was a distinguished economics professor.

“He talked about the difference between labor and management,” Bach said. “He was the most charming teacher. He had led strikes, he had been in the trenches, and he got me interested. He said, ‘Why don’t you represent labor?’”

Bach thought about law school but was good enough to be drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1948. A 6-foot-21/2 center, Bach played in 34 games before getting cut. He played for Hartford of the American Basketball League, tried out with Boston again the following year, got cut again and returned to Hartford.

Then, in 1950, his alma mater called. Bach thought he was being offered a job as an assistant to basketball coach Frank Adams. Instead, the Jesuits at Fordham wanted Bach to replace Adams. He was not yet 26. Having grown up in the cauldron of New York City basketball, Bach knew the game, but this was a big job, perhaps too big. He visited Joe Lapchick, the legendary coach at St. John’s, and told him he didn’t think he was qualified.

“Johnny,” Lapchick replied. “None of us have ever been qualified to coach. But you’re gonna learn.”

And he did. Bach picked everyone’s brain Pete Newell and John Wooden and a former freshman football coach at Fordham he had known, Vince Lombardi, who at the time was an assistant with the New York Giants. “I was desperate to learn how to coach,” Bach said.

With Bach as a rookie coach, Fordham won big, and continued to win.

After a 20-8 record his first year, the Rams made the NCAA tournament the following two seasons. More important, they remained unscathed by the gambling scandals that destroyed or damaged other programs in the New York area. Bach didn’t have a losing season until his sixth year, but it came as a shock.

“I thought the business was easy,” he said. “And it was something I was punished for later, because when I finally had a bad season, I had no way to recover my team or myself. I didn’t know how to bring the team out of it.”

Bach figured it out and stayed until 1968, also becoming athletic director. His record in 18 seasons was 292-193, and no other Fordham coach has ever won as many games. Bach said he would have been happy to remain there forever, but Penn State made a huge offer and played a bigger brand of ball. Among those Bach beat out for the job was the coach at Army, Bob Knight.

After a 122-121 record compiled over a decade, Bach stepped down. Recruiting was tough, he said. The failure to land the best high school player in the country, Tom McMillen of Mansfield, Pa., who went to Maryland instead, stayed with him. “I was very disappointed at the end of 10 years,” Bach said.

Youth is wasted on the young

After learning to fly, he worked flying single-engine airplanes manufactured in nearby Lock Haven. Bach spent the summer of 1972 as an assistant to Henry Iba with the U.S. Olympic team. The story is well known how in Munich, Illinois State’s Doug Collins made a pair of free throws with three seconds left to give the U.S. a one-point lead against the USSR; how the Soviets repeatedly failed to inbound the ball; how time repeatedly was put back on the clock until Alexander Belov scored at the buzzer to win the gold medal; how the U.S. appeal was denied. And how no member of the U.S. team accepted the silver medal.

Bring it up, and you will nearly ruin Bach’s day nearly 30 years later. “Most of us still carry a very deep wound from that,” he said.

Flying planes was fun, but there was no money in it and Bach returned to coaching. He joined Al Attles’ staff at Golden State in 1980 and eventually succeeded Attles as coach in 1983. In three seasons under Bach, the Warriors were 89-157 before he, along with everybody else, was fired when Franklin Mieuli sold the club.

Joining Collins in Chicago, Bach then carved out his reputation as an assistant until he was fired by Krause. Bach said there was a “contract dispute” but also said Krause believed Bach collaborated with Sam Smith on the tell-all book, “The Jordan Rules.” Bach said he did not help Smith write the book but simply answered questions honestly.

Which has always been his style.

“He always gives an honest opinion,” Collins said, “and as a coach, that’s what you want.”

Said Mary: “He is a completely honest person. He is unable to be duplicitous in any way.”

Bach is old enough to be a grandfather to the players, but he has no trouble relating to them. Veteran forward Popeye Jones said he tries to sit next to Bach on the bench to glean pearls of insight. “If you want to talk to somebody about fundamentals,” Jones said, “he’s the guy to talk to.”

Third-year swingman Richard Hamilton calls Bach “JB,” and says the players respect him greatly.

“He’s been there, man,” Hamilton said. “He’s been through the Bill Russells, the Wilt Chamberlains, the Dr. Js, the Michael Jordans. He was around when the first ball was thrown up.”

Bach has five children from his first marriage, and 10 grandchildren.

This is Mary’s first marriage. She is 29 years younger than her husband. She uses her maiden name, Sweeney, as a lawyer with the aviation firm Speiser Krause, which has been terribly busy lately. With his eye for detail, Bach sometimes scans court depositions and observes Mary in the courtroom. Conversely, Mary is learning about John’s work, no small feat considering she never went to a basketball game in her life before meeting Bach.

The two were fixed up and hit it off, despite the age difference and the fact that John was six months older than Mary’s late father. But Bach’s outlook has always seemed forever young.

“John is truly young at heart,” Mary said. “Immaturity is a great preservative.”

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