Dime Q&A: Jay Bilas On The Secrets Behind His Success

Once again, Dove Men+Care is coming through in March Madness with some hilarious commercials featuring some of basketball’s greatest personalities. Last year, we saw ads featuring people like Steve Nash, Tom Izzo and Shaquille O’Neal. This year, you’ve probably already seen the commercials with Dwyane Wade… and Jay Bilas.

Jay Bilas has turned the term “talking head” into something else entirely. Whether it’s his vast knowledge of the college game that puts other analysts to shame, or his love of Young Jeezy, Bilas resonates with much of the fanbase. How’d that happen? We caught up with him during his filming of his new commercial with Dove Men+Care to talk about it.

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Dime: What is more difficult: being on a commercial set talking about being in your own skin or being in your own skin at ESPN?
Jay Bilas: Probably talking about it. The Dove Men+Care Campaign is what I am working with them on is really about how guys like me can maintain what matters most; it is like a real moment’s campaign. So for me I can talk about basketball all day long, but when you talk about how you balance your family, your work life, basketball, and I am also an attorney. I have a law office even though I don’t practice like I used to, trying to balance everything is what everybody tries to do their best possible job of. I am no different than anyone else in that regard.

Dime: How tough is it to juggle two to three or three to four lives like that?
JB: It used to be harder, but I have gotten a lot tougher about just saying no, frankly. The one that helped me do that was my wife. A few years ago, I have always been the kind of guy that I wanted to say yes to my friends in basketball, they would say ‘hey can you come and speak at this clinic’ or ‘come host this coaches verses cancer event’ or appear at this, and my answer was always yes. I always wanted to please and do what people wanted. A few years ago my wife took me aside and she was really straight up about it. She said look I am really proud of the fact that you have been in demand and your first instinct is to say yes to people, but just remember one thing, every time you say yes to somebody you are really saying no to us. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I needed to prioritize things and maintain what mattered most to me and that was my family first. So I started doing a better job of toughening up and saying no and by doing that I was saying yes to my family. I wrote this book on toughness and one of the chapters in it was saying no. Bob Knight said one thing to me, he said you know the word “no” is used by tough people. He said to think about all the times that saying no has gotten you into trouble and I really thought about it. He said you may miss out on an opportunity by saying no, but you will never get in trouble. The word that gets you in trouble is “yes.” I wish someone would have put that to me when I was 16, my parents did a good job of training me, but that really resonated.

Dime: Would you say that is the hardest part of the job and for someone in your position?
JB: I think that is probably true for everybody, whether it is something at work for a colleague or a friend. You tend to think sometimes, well I will do this because this is important and my family will understand, but after a while they don’t. It gets tough to explain. I think the way my wife put it, that was profound and that really hit me. I don’t want to say I changed everything I did, but I was more aware of what was important and maintaining what was important every day.

Dime: Your style is very direct and obviously you have the knowledge to back that up, how did you come up with the character we see on TV every night?
JB: When anyone first gets into this job I think you worry about how things are going to be received. I have always tried to maintain that my job is to say the right thing at the right time, in the right tone. The thing that I probably get wrong more often than anything is the last part. Sometimes you can say the exact right thing, but with the wrong tone is taken the wrong way. Or perceived the wrong way. I’ve never pulled any punches as far as I say what I think and what I expect and from the people that I work with and the people that I talk about, if they don’t agree, then say so. And tell me why, because I always want to test what I say against someone that will say I don’t agree with you and here is why. If I decide, you know what, you are right, then I will fix it and I will be better for it. I like to think I am prepared. I research things, I watch, and I make a judgment. I’d like to think there is a good basis for the judgment, but reasonable minds can disagree and if somebody differs I like to hear them say it rather then get all about it.

Dime: Where do you see yourself in the vacuum that is the world of college basketball analysis and who are some of your peers that you respect the most?
JB: Wow, I have never really measured where I see myself. I have always tried to do the job how I see it and as I see fit. I watch a ton of tape, I use Synergy, I watch DVD’s that I get of practices, and I watch everything I can get my hands and slow it down. I really enjoy it. I was an assistant coach at Duke for years, now when I look at teams you can really appreciate what they do rather than thinking about ways you can stop it. When I watch a teams’ offense or defense I don’t have to try and beat it, I can just appreciate it for what it is. As far as the people I respect in the business, I have always been a huge admirer and there is nobody in the business I respect more than Bill Raftery. I have the honor of working with him and he is one of my close friends. I learn something from him every time I am with him, not only about the game, but how you treat the game. With Bill, I think a lot of us can say we love the game and I know I am not alone in that, but Bill is unique in the fact that I think he loves the game and loves the people in the game. That is first for him, the people in the game. I am obviously a big admirer of Dick Vitale and have been since I was a player. I am a gigantic fan and admirer of Doris Burke. There is no one better, she knows the game like no other, she is prepared, and she is the best teammate you can possibly have. She goes seamlessly from one role to the other. I don’t think anyone else in the business that fills as many roles as she does. One game she is the lead analyst for the NBA, then she is a sideline reporter for college, then she is the lead analyst for a college men’s game, and then a lead analyst for college women’s game, and then back in the NBA on the sideline. It is ridiculous. She never complains and whatever role she is in she is a star in that role. She is phenomenal and I have never worked with anyone quite like her.

Dime: There seems to be an arms race if you want to call it that between CBS and ESPN for college basketball, what do you think about that and where are you guys at in your opinion?
JB: ESPN is more of the workhorse with the coverage and CBS has the (NCAA) Tournament. We think we do a great job and I know CBS does a great job because I was able to work there for a few years when ESPN traded me over there, but I think together we do a good job of covering the game and bringing it to the fans. I am bias, but I think college basketball is the best game, because of all the different styles. The players’ turn over all the time so it is always fresh and there is newness to it every year. To me there is nothing better than that and the tournament. I know football says every game counts, but I feel every game counts more so in basketball than that. They have two teams and it is about to go to four that play for the National Championship. We’ve got 64 and that is pretty good. The Butlers and the VCUs of the world are on equal footing for the National Championship with Kentucky, UCLA, and all that.

Dime: How did you get to where you are and did you ever envision this for yourself?
JB: Last part first. I never thought about that, I just wanted to be a part of the game. I always thought I would stay in coaching, when Coach K offered me a job as his graduate assistant from 1990-1992 on was on his staff as a GA and I thought I would stay in it. I got married and my wife and I moved to Charlotte and went to law school and I did all that. It just didn’t feel like coaching was the best thing for us to raise a family, we didn’t want to move around and all that. I started doing radio games while studying law and I thought it was fun. It was a chance for me to see my friends, go to games, and study the game. One thing led to another and I did some TV, then it became a full-time job. I had to leave my law practice aside and I am still with my firm, but I am what they call “of counsel” so I am all basketball now. I spend about every waking moment on basketball and it is a pretty good gig. I am lucky. I am not breaking rocks for a living. I go to practices with the very best coaches in the country and they let me in.

Dime: What was the process, education, classes, training, or etc. that was required to make the transition?
JB: I had to figure out what the best way for me to prepare was. You know, how I would scout the teams that I had coming up and how I would gather information so when I did the game it balanced to become a clinic on how I want to do all of the things I wanted to do with the game. That is still a constant learning process. I prepare myself and react to what I see.

Dime: Let’s be Freudian for a moment here. As Jay Bilas the analyst in 2013, who was Jay Bilas the player in the 1980s?
JB: I was a role player and proud of it. When I came into college I was a top 40 recruit as kind of a forward that could step away and shoot it, but when I got to Duke I had to play center. I played out of position essentially for four years. I played with the same team and the same guys all four years, which is kind of unusual. Usually you have some juniors and seniors that move on and you kind of move up and your role changes and expands, but our teams stayed in the same roles for all four years. It was a little bit of a different existence, but I played hard, I was a good defender, but I was not the quickest cat out there. What I lacked in height I made up for in a lack of quickness. I was a small, undersized center, but a defender/rebounder that could score occasionally. I was a good player and I played with some great players.

Dime: Your specific Duke team produced a litany of basketball minds, not necessarily great NBA players, but basketball minds.
JB: When we got there North Carolina was the defending champions with Jordan, Perkins, Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty. Then there was N.C. State that won it my freshman year and we didn’t get to the National Championship until my senior year where we went from starting all freshmen my freshman year to starting all seniors my senior year. You know, ACC Champions and some kind of a top season. I got a chance to learn from what is known as the best coach in the game and I got to play with smart players. I think Mark Alarie‘s number should be retired. He finished his career as the No. 3 scorer after playing the majority of his minutes with No. 1 (Johnny Dawkins), which is extraordinary. Tommy Amaker is one of the smartest point guards I have ever seen really, a great defender, and a great leader. David (Henderson) is a tough son of a gun. If you locked us all in a room and only one of us could come out I bet you it would be him. If he had gone anywhere else he would be considered one of the great players, but he sacrificed and was tremendous for us. He was our third-leading scorer and if you put him anywhere else he would have been there leading scorer.

Dime: After being a part of his early years, are you at all surprised at the success of Coach Krzyzewski?
JB: I knew he was going to be great, but I couldn’t have imagined him becoming the all-time leader in wins. I’d like to say that, but it is tough. He is incredible.

Who are your favorite announcers/analysts?

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