A Man of Many Hats: The Jay Bilas Interview

By Fraser Lockerbie

Actor, lawyer coach and player, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is a jack of all trades.

I’m holding the phone to my ear and dead dial tone is echoing off the walls. My hand is hovering above the keypad, a finger extended, I’m waiting to dial. I’m frozen, staring straight forward with a mental list of statistics and numbers cycling fast through my head and getting jumbled like a pressured crossover through traffic with two minutes to play. I’ve lost all my words. Are these questions in order? Was it the Cardinals or the ‘Cuse in ’86? Was it three or four Final Fours? And how many championships?

Aztec? Azeck? Razteck?

One of the things we fear most is sounding stupid in front of the people we respect. It’s an inherent and normal fear that typically causes us to behave in decidedly abnormal ways. Manifestations of said fear include stammering, stuttering, blabbering, blurting, full on rambling and of course profuse sweating and I experienced all of the above in my recent conversation with one Jay Bilas, former four-year starter with the Duke Blue Devils basketball team and current College Gameday analyst for ESPN. Our conversation was brief but crossed quickly between the many sagas of Jay’s life, with basketball always weaving in and out. Somehow no matter where we took the talk it always came back to basketball, which seems exactly how Jay wants it and where he feels most comfortable. He’d tell me later it’s where he wants to be.

Someone picks up on the other end. Introductions are made and suddenly I’m stammering like a school girl in the presence of a teen idol, like Bieber. “Oh Jay, I’ve seen all your shows! I watch you on TV every Saturday morning!” Off to a good start here, this is some real staunch unbiased journalism.

When I finally stop gushing I’ve lost my place and ask the only question I can think of off the top of my head: “So Jay, you start every morning off tweeting a Young Jeezy lyric and the world wants to know, why are you so hood?” Yep. Real solid stuff here.

But Jay doesn’t shake. The man has been on the big stage in the limelight. A trip to the National Title game as a player in ’86. Three Final Four appearances and two National Title wins as a coach. The man makes his living calling the fast paced plays of the hard court so a question about Jeezy is answered with ease.

As he tells me the story of coming up through high school listening to the Sugar Hill Gang and later Run DMC, I find my place and begin to settle down. It turns out the fascination with Jeezy is a combination of experience and evolution, building on his past musical tastes like the aforementioned forefathers of rap and the new found influences he attributes to the players he’s around and from his 15 year old son. We wrap up the question both bemoaning the lack of a Jay Bilas shout out on Jeezy’s new joint and quickly jump into the world of college hoops.

As a player, Jay was drafted in the now infamous class of ’82. In their final year they won a then record setting 37 games and are still the highest scoring single class in NCAA history. One of their few losses that season came in the final game against Louisville for the National Championship, something that hasn’t escaped him in all the years since.

“It’s hard…We lost to an outstanding team. The fact that we had a record breaking season that year and then lost in the final game is disappointing. I think everyone on that team was disappointed and still is…you know we’re able to function [laughs] but it’s something you never really get over. Were we the better team, maybe? But so what? We lost….We lost by a basket. It was frustrating”

It’s clear the loss stuck though Jay would eventually avenge it as an assistant coach helping Duke and himself to three Final Fours and a title in ’91 (and another in ’92) but he says it wasn’t the same.

“It’s different. Championships mean more to players. I remember coming down the elevator, going home after that (’86) championship game and a fan said ‘geez that was a tough one, you’ll never know how hard it was to lose that game’ and I’m looking at him thinking, ‘I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how hard it was. I think it hurt me a lot more than it hurt you.’ As a coach you’ve got a bigger window to win. As a fan…you’re a fan forever, you get to be a fan every year. As many years as you live is how many chances you have to win as a fan. As a player your window is smaller, three or four years.”

Coming out of college, championship or not, Jay’s heart was still on the hard-court. “I wanted to play,” he says. He was selected by Dallas back when, in his words the NBA draft “had a hundred rounds,” but opted instead to play in Europe.

“Dallas had 12 roster spots and 13 guaranteed contracts at the time and I knew no matter how well I played I was probably gonna get cut. Truth is, I would have been a fringe player in the NBA anyway, a bench player, so I took the deal in Europe and the money.”

His foray overseas was successful but brief, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds over three years before returning to the college court and the classroom at Duke where he not only earned his coaching stripes but his J.D. from the school’s renowned law program.

From there, opportunities knocked. From the silver screen to the court room to the sands overseas, the doors all opened and Jay managed to walk through every one. An interview about basketball had quickly turned into a matter of tracking a jack of all trades. No easy feat; how does one arrange the many hats of Jay Bilas?

Jay Bilas the Actor: Considering myself a connoisseur of early 90s action films, I would have been remiss had I not asked Jay about his time on the Silver Screen starring as “Azeck the Good Alien” in I Come In Peace. From a commercial audition seeking a 6’8,” white guy (a friend hooked him up with the highly persuasive argument of “that’s you!”) to being offered the role in the Dolph Lundgren picture, Jay’s acting career, though short lived, moved fast. “I had done a few auditions and on the last one they asked me to sit down, started asking me questions about myself, and all of a sudden a guy comes into the room and says ‘congratulations, we just got off the phone with your agent, we’ve got a deal, welcome to the movie’ and I’m like ‘what’re you people talking about?’ But it was a lot of fun. One of the coolest parts was getting the mold made for my head because they had to blow it up. I used to have a lot of hair in the late 80s and they had to shave it off which was my first look into my future: baldness.”

Jay Bilas the Lawyer: Currently Of Counsel to the Charlotte office of Moore & Van Allen, Jay’s law career took a strange turn when he found himself ostensibly litigating against Barney the Dinosaur, defending a costume company from the trademark holders who suggested a likeness to Barney could damage the lovable dinosaurs reputation should someone behave in a “decidedly un-Barney like manner.” With two young kids at home, Jay’s life was for a while all-consumed by Barney. “It was maddening. Coming out of law school you have all these high-brow ideas about future cases and here I am in court arguing over Barney the purple Dinosaur with federal anti-trust and murder cases happening two doors over.”

Jay Bilas and Operation Hardwood: Offered the opportunity to go overseas and coach United States Service Teams in a basketball tournament, Jay jumped, saying it was easily one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. “It was a life-changing experience for me. We stayed on base with these guys and you can’t imagine how hard they work during the day and then to come and play basketball at night? They played their tails off too…They really appreciate it…We were embarrassed by them saying thank you, you know? That’s why we were there, to say thank you to them. [Their appreciation of us] pales in comparison to ours of them.”

So what’s next for Jay? Actor, lawyer, Indian chief? He says none of the above.

“I was recently called as a witness in a deposition and got to see from the sidelines all the things that lawyers do…the day to day grind of litigating cases…and I didn’t miss it. Right now, I enjoy basketball too much…I’ve got a great job, there’s no heavy lifting, it’s all indoors…I don’t look at myself as a broadcaster, I’m a basketball guy who happens to be a broadcast basketball…I don’t close off any opportunity but I just love basketball…I like doing this.

To check out Jay’s college tournament picks, head on over to PBBracket.com. If you think you can do better than the Bilustrator, fill out your own.


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