Jay Bilas hasn’t had a quiet March in more than two decades.
An ESPN college basketball analyst known as one of the sport’s leading voices, Bilas has been a part of March Madness in some capacity since the mid-1980s. This weekend, he’s at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., analyzing NCAA tournament games in the studio.
Now, he’s thrown in a book tour.
Monday, he’ll be at Park Road Books in Charlotte, and Tuesday he’ll be at The Regulator bookstore in Durham signing copies of his book, “Toughness,” which hit shelves this month.
Besides being a television analyst and author, Bilas, 49, is also a dad, actor, lawyer, former Duke basketball player, former coach, NCAA reformist and acclaimed Twitter personality.
None of this is work to Bilas.
“I probably should think about this more, but I don’t define myself by what I do,” he said earlier this month, sitting in the back of a Starbucks in Charlotte, where he lives. “I guess when I was a lawyer was the only time I felt like I had a real job.”
He has a history of taking on work he never imagined he would do.
“I tried the acting thing, but I never thought for one second that I would do that for a living. When I was practicing law, I didn’t think the broadcast thing would happen,” he said.
Bilas also didn’t expect to author a 254-page hardcover book when he wrote an article for ESPN.com about what toughness really meant. It has nothing to do with size, strength or athleticism, he wrote, but is about a disciplined, team-oriented concept that makes everyone better.
The reaction he received from those who read the article in 2009 was overwhelming, he says. He got calls from coaches, players and others urging him to expand.
“I wrote the article because I believed in it and thought it was important. But it made you feel good that something you thought was important, others thought was important,” he said. “It went beyond sports. I wanted to do something that was not just about basketball or sports.
“I’m glad I did it just for me. But if somebody else takes a piece of it and is able to use it, that’d be great, that’d be a bonus.”
He says toughness is not shown when a player thumps his chest after a 3-pointer, but when a player has the ability to refocus after a bad play and move on to the next one – a concept he learned at Duke under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
As a 6-foot-8 forward at Duke in the mid-1980s, Bilas went from the star of his high school team to a role player with the Blue Devils. He scored more than 1,000 points in his career, but he played second fiddle to his teammates, some of whom were All-Americans.
“I kiddingly said to Jay the other day that we didn’t ever talk about him in the game plan of the scouting report because of (Johnny) Dawkins and (Mark) Alarie and those guys were a little more the focal point of their offense,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who was an assistant on Dean Smith’s staff in the ’80s.
“He came in with just as much fanfare as those other guys and he made sacrifices to try and help his team win.”
Toughness, as defined by Bilas, includes stepping out of one’s comfort zone and trying new things. For the most part, that’s what his life has been.
He played an alien police officer in a 1990 Dolph Lundgren film called “I Come in Peace” about an extraterrestrial drug lord who overdoses unsuspecting earthlings with heroin and extracts their endorphins to be used as an illegal drug on his home planet.
When told a reporter watched the entire movie, Bilas said, “I’m sorry.”
Bilas was also an assistant coach on two national championship teams at Duke and eventually graduated from Duke Law and became an attorney at Charlotte’s Moore and Van Allen PLLC.
But that career eventually wore on him. For nearly eight years Bilas, who is still counsels at the firm, would regularly come home after his two kids went to sleep and would leave before they woke up.
“If you outwork the other guy, you’re more likely to get a better result,” said Ben Hawfield, who was the managing partner at the firm when Bilas was hired. “Commercial litigation is an intense career. It requires a lot of effort, and Jay made that effort. And he’s still working hard and on the go all during the season.”
Before Twitter, Bilas was usually only seen or heard during college basketball season. Now, he’s feeding links and jokes every day to nearly half a million followers.
Star on Twitter
Bilas has become a must-follow in sports media since he joined the site. The same dry sense of humor he uses around his friends on the golf course – he’s a 6-handicap – is translated into quoting rap lyrics and knocking the NCAA on Twitter.
But for all the fun he has and insight he gives, he almost never signed on.
“My wife said I should take advantage of this, but I didn’t want to because I thought Twitter was like one big bathroom wall,” he said. “And she said, ‘You sound like a guy who’s fighting the cell phone. Like, what are you just going to stick with your rotary phone?’ ”
Despite all his followers, Bilas didn’t follow anyone to begin with because he couldn’t figure out how.
Perhaps his best-known Twitter schtick is tweeting out hip-hop artist Young Jeezy lyrics in the morning about how hard the streets are, followed always by his own phrase “I gotta go to work.”
“Someone had tweeted me that I don’t listen to Jeezy and asked me to tweet some lyrics, so I did,” Bilas said. “And then I hit him something, and then hit him with another. The last one I hit him with I actually had to leave to go to work. And it’s taken off, I guess.”
The lyrics turn into 140-character missives aimed at the NCAA when Bilas does go to work.
Bilas was part of the NCAA’s long-range planning committee in the mid-’80s, working as a student advocate with the governing body of collegiate athletics. Since then he’s seen what he says have been miscarriages of justice against student-athletes in the penalty enforcement process.
The most recent gaffe, he says, came last month when the association fired its head of enforcement when an investigator had a convicted felon’s attorney use subpoena power to glean information on a case against the University of Miami. The NCAA removed ill-gotten information from its report, but the stain on the oft-criticized governing body and its president, Mark Emmert, remained.
“The enforcement process is in ways corrupt, and it’s been proven. And they proved it,” Bilas said. “When Mark Emmert says the most unfortunate thing is this adds fuel to the critics, no, it proves what the critics have been saying all these years.
“I think it was appropriate for Emmert to step down, and I think it is appropriate that if I were in charge, to ask him to step down. And if he didn’t, I would fire him.”
Bilas, whom Hall of Fame coach Williams called “a great ambassador for the game,” believes the NCAA rule book could be dramatically abridged while allowing schools to make their own decisions on who they will admit under what credentials.
He says the NCAA should be set up to regulate games on the court and field rather than pretending to be about education.
“He’s somebody who has put his arms around the entire game, not just watching the game on the court,” Krzyzewski said. “He understands what goes on behind the scenes and has been very, very good about keeping track of the legislative process that impacts our game in such a high degree.”
Since joining ESPN in 1995, Bilas has become one the network’s leading voices in college basketball . He began by calling a Charleston Southern game. Now, he regularly provides color for the biggest college basketball game of the weekend on the network .
As Bilas tried to find his voice as an analyst, long-time ESPN announcer Dick Vitale could tell Bilas had staying power.
“I’ve watched guys come and go in over 34 years of doing this,” Vitale said. “Initially they make a good splash, but they don’t last because they’re not consistent enough. They find out in our business, consistency is important. The key is he’s prepared, and he has the skill to communicate his thoughts in a concise manner.”
Bilas joined ESPN’s pregame road show “College GameDay” in 2005, and on the show before the March 9 game between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, Bilas quipped to former Duke point guard and national player of the year Jay Williams that UNC fans only like him because he wasn’t very good.
“I think he’s been fair to everybody, us included,” Roy Williams said. “He knows the game and studies the game and talks to the coaches and doesn’t just have his opinion not based on anything but facts. Sometimes people have opinions based on nothing, but that’s not Jay.”
But all of that preparation and work keeps him on the road and away from his family for a good portion of the week during the season. He wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby with his wife, Wendy, this spring, but she said no.
She would always tell him their two babies are temporary, and soon the Bilases will be empty-nesters with plenty of time to go to the Kentucky Derby.
Tori, 18, has been accepted to Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest, and she’s waiting to hear from Stanford before making her college decision. Anthony is a sophomore at Charlotte Latin who just finished his first season on the varsity team.
Bilas’ dad never missed one of his high school games, but because of his job, Jay misses many of Anthony’s.
He’s still a basketball dad, taking his turn to operate the clock. At games he doesn’t cheer – a habit developed from years of announcing, not rooting. When asked if he remembers the last time he stood and clapped at a game, Bilas looks up and to the right trying to remember. Nothing.
What’s next for Bilas?
Ultimately, he said it will be the grueling travel schedule that forces him out of this job – the weekend stays in Bristol, Conn., at ESPN’s headquarters to do studio work , or the six-month-long college basketball season that sends him everywhere but home each weekend.
“I’m not a big fan of keeping my toiletries in a plastic bag,” he said. “When you travel a lot, you don’t want to go (vacation) anywhere. I have all these frequent flyer miles and I don’t want to go anywhere.”
Because of his successes, Bilas is often asked what’s next. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Bilas should be considered for Big East Conference commissioner. Others have thrown his name out as a possible replacement for Emmert atop the NCAA.
Truth is, Bilas says, he doesn’t know.
“I’m not looking at this saying, ‘I want to do this next’ or ‘I have an ambition to do that,’ ” he said. “Maybe I should have one, but I don’t.
“Maybe I’ll feel differently when my kids are gone, but I really, really like my job.”