Skip to main content

A Few Good Men

Assistant coach John Bach, a former naval officer and a student of
all things military, can make a trip to the grocery store sound like
the invasion of Normandy. Usually, Bach's warlike metaphors are
perfectly appropriate. It's fitting, for instance, that he refers to
himself and his fellow assistants, Tex Winter and Jim Cleamons, as
coach Phil Jackson's lieutenants, because when they meet at about 8
a.m. on the day of a home game at the Berto Center, the room becomes
a command center where they help Jackson prepare his troops for
Bach (second from left) constructs the defense, which he once
described as ''fortifying the citadel to withstand enemy assault.''
Winter (far right), the offensive guru, suggests creative ways to
deploy such smart bombs as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Cleamons (far left) scouts the enemy, er, opponent.
Their responsibilities may neatly mesh, but Bach, Winter and
Cleamons are an unlikely mix. ''Some people look at us and say this
is a strange brew,'' says Bach, 67. ''You've got Tex and myself, two
opinionated guys who have been in coaching so long that a lot of
people think of us as dinosaurs. You've got Jim, who's the opposite
of us in that he's more of a strong, silent type. Then you have Phil,
who's been known to apply Zen teachings to the game, play Pink Floyd
to the team and bring incense into the locker room. I'm sure some
people would look at this staff and say, What in the world is going
on there?''
Bach is also in charge of most of the tape editing, a job he
attacks far $ more creatively than most coaches. ''John likes to slip
scenes from war movies into our tapes,'' says center Bill Cartwright.
''We might be ready to watch films of the Knicks' trap, and suddenly
we're looking at a scene from Apocalypse Now.''
Parts of such movies as A Few Good Men, An Officer and a Gentleman
and Full Metal Jacket have all been screened by the Bulls. ''I'll use
any scene that illustrates something we're looking for -- leadership,
responsibility, loyalty,'' says Bach, whose highest form of
congratulations to a player after a good game is not a high five but
a salute. ''It's not that I think the world should go military; it's
just that there are some values you learn there that we would do well
to apply to sport and life in general.''
Bach has been coaching for 42 years -- he held head-coaching jobs
at Fordham and Penn State and with the Golden State Warriors -- but
that's not tops on the staff. That distinction belongs to the
70-year-old Winter, who has 46 years of experience, a span that
includes five college head-coaching jobs (Marquette, Kansas State,
Washington, Northwestern and Long Beach State) and one in the NBA
(the San Diego/Houston Rockets).
Winter has long been respected as one of the game's finest
offensive minds -- his triangle offense is the foundation of the
Bulls' attack -- yet he also admits to being something of an
absentminded professor. ''I might have a hard time remembering the
name of someone I met two hours ago,'' says Winter, ''but I remember
every player I've ever been associated with.''
With 88 years of experience between them, it's not surprising that
Winter and Bach have strong opinions on the game and that those
opinions aren't always compatible. ''We don't have arguments,'' says
Winter. ''They're more like heated debates.''
Observing all of this is Cleamons, 43, who is every bit as intense
as his colleagues but tends to keep his emotions in check. ''In his
quiet way Jim has learned to live with us,'' says Bach. ''There is a
fire smoldering in him.''
Cleamons, a veteran of nine seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers,
the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New York Knicks, and the Washington
Bullets, considers working with Jackson, Winter and Bach the ideal
apprenticeship. ''It's like working with three distinguished
professors in graduate school,'' says Cleamons, who spends almost as
much time watching other teams as he does his own.
Cleamons's tenure with Chicago might be his last step on the way
to an NBA head-coaching job. He is the only one of the assistants
with that aspiration. That's not a coincidence. In fact, the presence
of Bach and Winter may represent the start of a trend in which NBA
coaches with little head-coaching experience hire more-experienced
men as assistants, both because of their tenure in the league and
because they have no designs on the head job.
''I think you're going to see it more and more,'' says Bach.
''Teams are hiring more guys not far removed from their playing
careers to be head coaches, and they're surrounding them with people
who can give them the benefit of more years of experience without
being a threat. Tex and I are content. We've had our time in the
spotlight. Maybe that's why this staff gets along so well.''
Or maybe it's because they have been through so much together. As
Bach would surely tell you, this staff is like any good platoon: The
most important thing is not that its members have different
backgrounds, temperaments and opinions but that they would trust one
another in a foxhole. -- P.T.