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Vol. 3, Iss. 12
August 20, 2014



Jay Bilas is the most knowledgeable person in America on the subject of college basketball. The Duke basketball star went on to become an assistant to the team’s legendary Coach K. Bilas then traded the ball for a microphone – spending the past 20 years as a college basketball broadcaster on ESPN. Last month the website The Hoops Doctor listed the ten most influential people in the college ranks. The list included eight household name coaches, the President of the NCAA and Bilas. This from Hoops Doctor: “Bilas sometimes comes off as the smartest guy in the room, that’s because he is.” But Bilas isn’t all roundball. He has another noteworthy title on his resume – lawyer with Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte.

Such a combination can mean only one thing. Surely Bilas is banned from entering the firm’s NCAA Tournament bracket pool. Anything else would be unspeakable unfairness. And even if Bilas is allowed to enter, he would be wise not to. Can you image the embarrassment of losing to Ethel in Accounting.

This is my first question for Bilas after I thank him for taking the time to speak with me for Coverage Opinions. No, he’s not banned from the office pool he tells me. But he never enters because he’s always out of town at the time of the Tournament. In fact, Bilas’s bracket is published. He laughs that it is not uncommon for people to send him checks after the Tournament, accompanied by a note, explaining that they won their pool thanks to his help and want to cut him in on the winnings. Of course he tosses these checks out.

I’m on the phone with Jay Bilas to discuss his New York Times bestselling book Toughness, what it’s like to be a lawyer and celebrity sports broadcaster and a few other things jotted down on my legal pad. The 6’8” Bilas and 5’4” me actually have a lot in common. He’s a lawyer. I’m a lawyer. He played basketball. I have a Nerf hoop in my office. Two peas in a pod.

Jay Bilas: Career Statistics

Jay Bilas started for Coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke from 1982 to 1986. He finished third among Duke’s all-time career field goal percentage leaders (56%). During his senior year the team won 37 games but lost to Louisville -- by three points -- in the NCAA Tournament championship game. Bilas was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks and played pro ball in Europe for a couple of years before returning to Duke to attend its law school from 1989 to 1992. While at Duke Law he served as an assistant coach to Krzyzewski. As a Duke coach he won the NCAA Championship (twice, in fact) that eluded him as a player.

Bilas serves as both a game and studio analyst for ESPN. He also co-hosts ESPN’s popular road show, College GameDay, is a regular contributor to Sports Center, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN radio. He provides commentary on coverage of the NBA Draft and NCAA Final Four. Bilas has twice been nominated for an Emmy for Best Studio Analyst and in 2010 was named Best Game Analyst by Sports Illustrated. Bilas’s popularity is on display on Twitter, where he has a staggering 724,000 followers. Curiously Bilas follows only one Twitter account – Princess Lacey. [Google Princess Lacey and Michigan State. It’s worth it.]

Besides his knowledge, Bilas brings a je ne sais quoi to the microphone. The confident, deep-voice and good-looking Bilas, with a custom suit (as I rightly suspected) hanging on his athlete frame, and touch of a hanky peeking out of his jacket pocket, is as cool as the other side of the pillow. [Credit to Bill Lyon, former sports-writer extraordinaire for The Philadelphia Inquirer, for that great phrase.] In one ESPN short, Bilas is referred to by another broadcaster as the swag-master and asked since when he’s had his swag. The 50-year old Bilas responds, matter-of-factly, 1963.

Bilas is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. He has appeared in various commercials, including a very clever one for Dove Men+Care, where he helps his son tie a bow-tie to get ready for “the big dance.” And one for ESPN, where he can’t figure out why he’s being treated so poorly in a dining hall, is brilliant. [I won’t spoil the ending.] Bilas had a feature role in the 1989 Columbia Pictures movie “I Come in Peace” starring that classically-trained actor Dolpf Lundgren. Bilas played an alien cop chasing an alien drug dealer. His character dies after his head blows up in the back of a car. [I learned that part from reading a Bilas interview. I did not see the movie. I do a lot of preparation for my interviews. But I have a limit.]

Toughness: The Article That Goes Viral

Last year Bilas published Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court. To understand the book requires knowing the back story. In January 2009 Bilas wrote a short blog post for ESPN.com called “How does one define toughness in basketball?” He did so by describing nearly two dozen things that happen on the court, such as getting on the floor for a loose ball, blocking out on free throw situations every time, going after rebounds with both hands and talking on defense and letting your teammates know that you are there in case they get beat. A couple of weeks later Bilas wrote a longer follow-up article on the subject.

The article went viral. In his book Bilas described the response this way:

“The response to my article on toughness was overwhelming and humbling. Hundreds of coaches, players, parents, teachers and administrators from all of the world, from the NBA to the military to the elementary school level, called and wrote me to tell me that they had posted the article in their locker room, handed it out to their teams, studied it in class or gone over it in detail with their players, teams, families or co-workers.

A young high school coach in California wrote to tell me his staff had just read the article and it was enlarged, put on a poster board and hung in their locker room. Every player had a small copy in his locker, and as far as the coach was concerned, the article will be the team’s bible going forward.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, then coaching at Memphis, told me he required each of his players to post the article above their beds. Countless other college basketball coaches, from young, up-and-coming coaches to Hall of Famers told me that they had used the article with their teams and had posted it in their locker rooms.”

On a more personal level, Bilas’s son’s team lost a game, badly, to a coach who told Bilas that he had based his entire program on the article. After the game one of the boys from the opposing team approached Bilas, held out some worn papers and asked him to autograph them. It was the toughness article.

Toughness: From Article To Book

Many articles, like cat videos, go viral and then disappear just as quickly. But that didn’t happen with Bilas’s toughness article. To be sure, his article is about toughness in basketball. Full stop. Bilas’s wife, Wendy, however, saw the concept having relevance beyond the hardwood. She suggested that Bilas expand the article into a book. Bilas’s self-deprecating description, to the idea that he could, somehow, possibly write a book, was not feigned.

But it happened. Bilas’s broadcast agent steered him to a literary agent which led to a trip to New York. There, over the course of one day, Bilas listened as five publishers made pitches for the rights to his as yet unwritten book. He essentially had a publishing deal upon arriving back home. Toughness hit the shelves in March 2013. It made the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Of the 134 reviews on Amazon, 100 are five stars out of five and 23 are four stars.

A 250-odd page book, whose purpose is to define one word, might seem a strange concept. But not to Coverage Opinions readers for sure. We’ve all seen courts conclude that an insurer could have prevented its policy from being ambiguous by simply providing a 250 page definition of a term. [And some policyholders would argue that that still wasn’t enough.]

What is Toughness?

In his article that served as a pre-cursor to his book, Bilas defined toughness, on the basketball court, like this: “Toughness isn’t just about being physical. It is far more than that. It is mental and physical discipline under pressure, to do the right thing every time.”

The sub-title of Toughness is “Developing true strength on and off the court.” It’s the “off the court” part that no doubt played an important role in Bilas getting the book deal. So how does Bilas make the conversion from teaching toughness on the court to all other aspects of life? Mainly with basketball stories. But not all. He also draws upon lessons learned from his very supportive parents while growing up in California. Toughness, which Bilas maintains is a learned skill, is defined in chapters that focus on individual aspects of it, such as trust, preparation, courage, persistence, commitment, and so on.

But even though Bilas looks to basketball, to teach toughness off the basketball court, it works. Very well in fact. That’s because Bilas’s lessons on toughness are taught through stories – his own experiences and interactions with teammates, other athletes and hugely successful coaches. We all see great motivational sayings on signs and think to ourselves – Wow, that’s brilliant. I am now going to live the rest of my life based on that. And then five minutes after passing the mall kiosk we have forgotten what the saying was.

But by using memorable stories to teach toughness, Bilas’s efforts don’t suffer this same fate. Good stories are easy to remember. This means that the lessons they offer are also easy to retain. To give just one example. Bilas discusses former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards and that his toughness flowed from the preparation that he put into his physical fitness. Edwards took confidence from his preparation and knowing that it would enable him to play at the same speed on the first play as the last. [Edwards will forever be known and loved by Philadelphia Eagles’s fans for The Miracle at the Meadowlands.]

From the Edwards story Bilas observes this: “Edwards is right. How many players start practice with the intention or goal of simply “getting through” practice? Instead of “getting through” a workout, players need to “get from” a workout – to get the most from it, and the most from themselves. No player ever got better by just getting through something. True toughness is competing through the end of a practice or workout after having prepared yourself mentally to compete. That is a key mind-set of the toughest players."

This story stuck with me. The first thing I think about when arriving at the gym is what time I should leave. But now I’ve stopped wearing a watch while working out and cover the digital readout on the treadmill so I have no idea how long I’ve been on it. I’m now trying to "get from" a workout and not simply through it.

Defining Toughness For A Lawyer

When a lawyer writes an entire book defining toughness there is one question that of course must be asked: What is toughness for a lawyer? Bilas doesn’t need any time to think about his answer. It is having the willingness to prepare he told me. Bilas recounts in Toughness that he once heard legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight say that everyone has a will to win but not everyone has a will to prepare to win.

Bilas told me that even if he wasn’t always the smartest lawyer in the room, he had no doubt that he was the most prepared. He takes great pride in having twice been told by judges that he was as prepared for court as any lawyer that they had ever seen.

These days Bilas holds a Counsel title at his firm and no longer does any actual practicing. When he did he focused on commercial litigation and some securities and intellectual property work. No insurance work – but he tells me how much he disliked construction defect cases. Bilas says that he didn’t love being a lawyer. Yes, he enjoyed it. No, he didn’t dread it. But, he says: “I love basketball!”

The NCAA And Paying Student Athletes

Lately the NCAA is all over the news for the legal battles that it is facing on many fronts. The days of the NCAA governing by fiat may not be long for this world. At least not the same way as it has. The NCAA is facing legal challenges concerning at least such things as athletes’ rights to compensation for use of their likeness, the rights of athletes to engage in collective bargaining, help for athletes that have suffered concussions and limiting athletic scholarships to amounts below the full cost of attendance.

I ask Bilas what he makes of all this legal brouhaha. His conclusion is that the NCAA won’t make changes unless it is forced to do so. He figures that the NCAA knows that it won’t lose every case but won’t win every one either. In another interview on the subject Bilas stated that he’d prefer not to see the NCAA forced to make changes, but, rather, do so “because it’s the right thing.” “But the truth is they’re unwilling to do the right thing.”

What about the granddaddy of all NCAA student athlete issues -- paying athletes for their services beyond simply a scholarship. Bilas is a vocal, and recognized, advocate in support of student athlete compensation. His full views on the subject, covered extensively in web-accessible articles, are well-beyond the scope here. In general he advocates for a free market system – which he notes seems to work fine for everyone else.

Bilas scoffs at schools’ claims that they can’t afford to pay student athletes when they can pay coaches millions of dollars and build multi-million dollar facilities. Bilas doesn’t offer a time-table on student athlete compensation, but he tells me this: “No way this is going to stay the same.”

Going One-On-One With The Fourth Circuit

I asked Bilas about life as a celebrity. Even before his broadcasting career he had notoriety – having been a star player at Duke and serving as an assistant coach while attending Duke Law School. And as a lawyer, especially in North Carolina, surely people associated him with his basketball achievements. But Bilas pretty much dismisses this, telling me that, both as a law student and lawyer, he didn’t notice it too much. But since life as a broadcaster, especially ESPN, he gets noticed a lot. You can feel it when people are looking at you he says. But he has no problem with this. Bilas expressed a genuine joy at speaking with those who approach him and the opportunity that it creates to meet a lot of nice people.

But Bilas did share one story with me where his notoriety intersected with his law practice. There is a custom in the Fourth Circuit for the judges to come down from the bench after oral argument and greet the lawyers. After an argument one judge approached Bilas and said: “It’s a lot different than a basketball court.” The judge then told Bilas that he had attended the University of Maryland – a Duke rival. “Is that why you peppered me with questions?,” Bilas asked himself.

Looking Ahead

Given Bilas’s knowledge of the game, skills as a talent evaluator and law degree, he seems to have the ideal resume for an NBA general manager. I asked him if that is in his crystal ball. He says that he’s thought about it, and there have been some inquiries, but the timing has not been right. He also tells me that, from his work on the NBA draft, he has a true appreciation for just how hard that job is.

Bilas does, maybe, offer one hint about his future. He misses the “result” aspect of sports. As a broadcaster, he explains, he has “no skin in the game.” Who wins is not important he tells me. What’s important to a broadcaster is a compelling and close game.

On-Hold Music

My favorite part of the NCAA Tournament is the last act – the network’s emotional highlights film of the past two weeks with the song One Shining Moment serving as the audio backdrop. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. I know. It’s sappy. But toughness means not being afraid to show your soft side. I ask Bilas if the on-hold music on his office phone is One Shining Moment. He laughs. He liked the idea, but pointed out, and rightly so I’m sure, that he’d “probably get sued” if he did that.

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