Monday, December 17, 2001

An Interview with ESPN's Jay Bilas

Originally posted on DukeBasketballReport.com

Hear ye, hear ye! Court is now in session. This week I offer a profile of former Duke player Jay Bilas. Bilas has kept himself quite busy since his days as a Blue Devil. He played pro basketball over in Europe, became a movie star, returned to Duke as an assistant coach and a law student, and now works as a broadcaster and attorney. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jay about these experiences.

Jay was a high school basketball star at Rolling Hills High in southern California. He was recruited by many of the major powers in college basketball. Bilas told me he took official visits to Duke, Stanford, Kansas, Iowa (when Lute Olson was their coach), and Syracuse (where he was their first California recruit). He also visited local schools UCLA and USC.

Coach K and Duke ultimately won out. Jay said "he (Coach K) was a huge factor in the appeal of going to Duke. The combination of him, the ACC, and Duke; it was just too hard to turn away from." He emphasized the importance of Coach K by telling me "If Coach K were at Michigan I think I would have gone there, if he was at UCLA I definitely would have gone there, where if he was at Central Montana State I probably wouldn't have gone there."

Bilas was part of the top rated recruiting class in the nation in 1982, when Duke was coming off a losing season. Jay told me about how Coach K pulled that class together, "We believed in Coach K before the masses knew about it. I think now, it's kind of easy to say well heck, he's a great coach; I want to commit to him. Back then, you didn't have a whole body of work to go on, you were going on what you believed was in him, maybe there was a little bit of that both ways. He believed in us too."

Jay reflected on being one of the early building blocks in Duke's success under Coach K. "Our experience was one I don't think I'd trade for anything. If you come in now as a player, the guys are pretty sure they're going to win 25-30 games a year and be really competitive right away. We were not assured of that. We played in a senior dominated league and started four freshmen. My first ACC game I started against Ralph Sampson. Back then that was as strong as I could imagine a league being. All the teams were senior dominated. At Georgia Tech they had Mark Price and John Salley, and those guys couldn't win either.

Unlike today, the Duke campus was hardly unified in their support of the basketball program. Bilas said, "When we were freshman, it was a lonely process. We didn't have a lot of people supporting us. Although they may not like to admit it, there were a number of people who sit upstairs at Duke who were very much against Coach K staying. There was constant speculation about when he was going to be fired, and that affected us. We were all worried about if that happened, what would we do. I can tell you if that had happened, I wouldn't have stayed there."

Bilas played 127 games for Duke from 1982-86, including Coach K's first Final Four trip in 1986. After finishing his collegiate career with averages of 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Jay spent three years playing pro basketball overseas; two in Italy and one in Spain. At that time, he was accepted into Duke Law School and was offered an assistant coaching position by Coach K. Regarding that decision, Bilas told me, "it's (playing overseas) something I anticipated doing for 10-12 years, but when I got accepted into law school and Coach K offered me a coaching job, I thought it was something I should take now rather than think it would be there later."

Jay spent three years (1989-90 thru 1991-92) as an assistant at Duke while attending law school. The Blue Devils reached the Final Four all three of those seasons, winning the national championship in the last two. Bilas was on the bench when Duke suffered the worst defeat in the history of the national championship game at the hands of UNLV in 1990. He remembers it well, "That was really hard to deal with. It's one thing to get beat, but we didn't just get beat, we got destroyed. To sit there as an assistant coach, I don't remember a more helpless feeling ever than watching that because we got steamrolled."

The following season found Duke matched against the Runnin' Rebels again in the Final Four. Regarding the preparation for the rematch, Jay said "I don't have any qualm in saying this; UNLV was better than us the next year. There was a feeling amongst the staff that maybe we shouldn't show them the tape of last year. Coach K's response was no, we need to do this. We need to show them we screwed up here and if we're stronger with the ball here, if we don't make this mistake, then we're in a nip and tuck game at the end. We're used to being in those games, and they're not. We played in a lot of close games, we're the ones who know how to handle it and they don't. That gave the guys a lot of confidence."

The Blue Devils' win over UNLV could have led to a Duke-North Carolina showdown for the 1991 national championship, but Carolina lost to Kansas in the semi-final before Duke's game. Bilas told me that his team paid close attention to the Tar Heel's loss. "There was a feeling of relief on two levels; one that if Duke lost, at least Carolina wouldn't be playing in the title game and kind of outdoing Duke. If we won, we wouldn't be playing them in the championship game and have that extra baggage to carry in. Everybody felt it. You can sit and listen to all these people that deny that stuff exists but it does. I remember Coach K coming out of the coaches' locker room jumping on the guys and, pretty heated, telling the guys it is not ok to lose just because they did. I think that took the guys up a notch. It was typical Coach K, attacking something head-on which was unspoken that everybody felt. It's not something people would admit, but they felt it and he attacked it, and I think the guys played better as a result of that."

Bilas shared his motivation to pursue a law degree with me. "My parents were very pro-education. I was the first kid in my family to finish college. My parents always talked about getting a graduate degree and being a serious person with credentials that would put you ahead. I think my dad always thought the most versatile degree to have was a law degree. His thing used to be; you get a law degree you don't have to be a lawyer. You go to medical school you probably ought to be a doctor. You're going to be able to handle your own affairs at the minimum and you can go in a number of different directions. Also, the discipline provides you with a different way of thinking and approaching problems and solving them. I approached it with the idea I am not training to be a lawyer, I'm just training myself."

I asked him what he does at the law firm that has employed him since he earned his law degree in 1992. "I'm a commercial litigator. I'm a trial lawyer. My practice is not as active as it once was. ESPN is really my full-time job. The off-season is the only time I have any significant blocks of time, but even just doing it in the off season, I can't carry a full practice. The legal profession isn't just a four month thing, your cases have to be serviced year-round."

Wouldn't it be stressful having two careers plus being a husband and father to two children? Not according to Jay. "I'm pretty lucky with what I've got, so I don't ever second guess my decision making. I love both jobs. I think sometimes people give you too much credit for doing what you enjoy doing."

A major part of how he handles so much going on in his life goes back to a philosophy he learned from Coach K. "I don't say this to be arrogant in any way, but there's no time on the planet more important than mine. I think that's the way Coach K is. That means if I'm sitting down to work, I'm going to devote my full attention to my work and I'm going to be efficient and I'm going to get it done. When I am with my family, they have 100% of my attention. What I'm doing at the time is the most important thing to me in the world at that time. When I'm done with it, I move on to the next thing. His (Coach K's) concept of next play I think carries over to your daily life. Whatever happens, move on to the next things. I don't dwell on good things that happen, I don't dwell on bad ones. You try to anyway. You can only do the best you can."

After working for Raycom/Jefferson Pilot and the Duke Radio Network from 1992-95, Bilas joined ESPN in 1995 as a college game analyst. He is also co-host of College Hoops Tonight seen on ESPN 2. Jay covers both men and women's games for "The Worldwide Leader in Sports."

Oh yes, about that "movie star" reference. Perhaps it was an exaggeration, but Bilas does have a feature film credit on his resume. So did George O'Leary, I understand, but I verified that Jay's was accurate. Living in the Los Angeles area, Bilas knew people in the industry.

He told me "I'm now a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors' Guild. I can call myself with a straight face an actor even though I'm probably not. It all started when I was in high school, I was on the White Shadow, I got on there through a friend of mine's dad, who was the creative consultant." The program can still be seen in reruns on ESPN Classic. If Carver High had ever defeated Maryland, that episode would probably be shown at least once a week, but I digress.

Jay later beat out 200 other "actors" to play a 6'8" white guy in a Minolta commercial. He remembered, "I didn't realize what a big deal these commercials were. It took us 3 days to film it. They had a mini-movie set for a 30 second commercial. It played for several years. I turned the TV on and I saw it all the time. It was kind of nice."

His big break came later when "I got a call one day and this guy asks me if I've ever done any acting. I said in the school play when I was in 3rd grade. I was pretty good too. He said they're casting a part in a Dolph Lundgren picture, why don't you go down and see if you like the process. So I thought, oh what the hell, it would be fun."

The movie was titled "I Come in Peace". Lundgren played a Houston cop out to stop a criminal gang that was working with an alien drug dealer. Jay, our hero, was the "Good Alien" who worked with Lundgren and the police to save the world, or something like that. If you check out the Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com) and search under the movie title, you can see the film's trailer. There is a brief scene with an alien sitting in the back of a car. Folks, that is Jay Bilas. That scene ends badly for Jay's character when his head explodes. Just as well there was no sequel.

Don't feel bad if you don't recognize him. Bilas said, "They had to shave part of my head and put hair extensions in. I had hair down the middle of the back and it filmed in Houston and LA. I walked around town looking like that. They had to put in the opaque contact lenses so I couldn't see during most of the filming. It was like looking through a glass of milk."

The experience was a good one for Jay. "It was really interesting seeing how all that stuff worked. We blew up a lot of things. It was fun just going onto the set every day. I had a trailer and a chair with my name on it, which I still have. It's hardly a movie with redeeming social qualities. It's just a shoot-em up science fiction movie." When I told him I would mention this cinematic gem in my column and possibly rekindle some interest in it among Duke fans, he said "Yeah, like anybody with a Duke education is going to watch that for very long."

When I asked Jay what he saw himself doing 5-10 years from now, he responded (tongue-in-cheek?) "Broadway!" So, Andrew Lloyd Webber, if your next musical has a part for a 6'8" alien, Jay Bilas is your man.

I wrapped up our interview by inquiring, as a member of a top ranked recruiting class himself, what advice he would offer to the latest group of blue-chippers coming to Duke next fall. He said, I wouldn't presume to give them any advice. They'll be fine. My only advice would be to listen to Coach K."

That sounds like pretty good advice. It has clearly worked for Jay Bilas long after his basketball career ended.

That's what I think. Let me know how you feel on the message board or by e-mail at thecourtmaster@aol.com

Until next time, court is adjourned!

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