Smug Duke basketball alum attracts hate but deserves thanks

Former Duke basketball player and assistant Jay Bilas (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
Former Duke basketball player and assistant Jay Bilas (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images) /

Some Duke basketball fans just view Jay Bilas as a know-it-all, but what he has done for both his alma mater and the game warrants sincere appreciation.

In Shakespeare’s legendary play Henry V, the title character King Henry V urges his men, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.” While I’m not facing the suicidal task of attacking the French blockade at Harfleur, my fledgling standing with Duke Basketball Twitter is about to go on it’s most daunting mission yet.

I’m going to make the case for Jay Bilas being the most important member of the Brotherhood, other than the GOAT Coach K himself, of course. I can feel the faces of my fellow Dukies melting right now. And I don’t want that. Allow me to explain myself. Then, we will go forward together.

First and foremost, ESPN’s premier analyst is influential. Think what you want of Jay, and people do, but his face and voice are known and out there. More than 4.3 million people peeped the first Zion vs. Carolina game last season, making it the most-watched weeknight college basketball game in ESPN history. We all tune in and listen, regardless, as ESPN is the airline that Zion and other stars fly for the majority of their college careers.

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ESPN has a known love affair with our beloved Duke Blue Devils, and the aforementioned numbers justify that union. While I maintain the network is, at heart, a UNC homer, the people want Duke, and ESPN likes money. With so much time spent covering the most popular kid at the party, it’s important to remember not to fall under the charm of the decadent Duke basketball party and do your job.

It’s perhaps that reason why Bilas seems so critical of Duke mid-broadcast. I’m certainly one who has gotten steamed at Jay for what seems like an overly harsh judgment on our favorite team, but when your job is to be critical and analyze, it would behoove you to do exactly that.

The mouths at ESPN have many faults, but they have maintained a level of professionalism during broadcasts. CBS/Turner commentators Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith can tout their school colors mid-show, but Bilas can’t afford to show favoritism in any way. And make no mistake, folks, Jay Bilas has an attachment to Durham.

From 1982 to 1986, Bilas helped Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, David Henderson, and Mark Alarie anchor the Duke basketball rotation and get Mike Krzyzewski to his first title game (damn you, Louisville).  After a few years playing pro ball overseas, Bilas joined Coach K’s staff as an assistant and then helped the Blue Devils go to three straight Final Fours from 1990 to 1992 and win two national titles.

The man is influential. The man has a personal attachment to Duke and a history of winning at Duke. The man is also a fighter for players’ rights and has a history of standing up for the young men he covers on a bi-weekly basis. In 2006, Bilas was one of the only people to stand up for the Duke lacrosse team; his words to the administration, via a letter to the editor of Duke Magazine, we’re sharp and succinct:

“President [Richard] Brodhead chose the path of political expediency. He failed to effectively counter the factually inaccurate and inappropriate statements about Duke and its students, failed to forcefully speak out against procedural irregularities and failed to take appropriate action in response to repeated attacks upon the due process rights of Duke’s students. That is unacceptable.”

I’m not commenting on that terrible situation. I’m merely suggesting that Bilas isn’t afraid to go against the grain and fight for what is lawful. Lawyers tend to do that, and I forgot to mention that while working as a Duke basketball assistant coach, Jay got his J.D. degree and became eligible to practice law. He has maintained a position at Charlotte law firm Moore & Van Allen since leaving Duke in 1992, although his duties as an ESPN analyst have cut into his time in the courtroom.

As a skilled and licensed orator, he has been one of the lead men in the battle for player pay. The NCAA must get a jolt of fear and annoyance every time Bilas is asked to give his take on the current goings-on. Jay is usually quick to read between the never-ending lines of the NCAA for simple-minded folks like me.

So far, we’ve got basketball knowledge, Duke advocacy, and litigation prowess. And if all that wasn’t enough, he’s one of the gatekeepers to the NBA. The Duke basketball program has become the ultimate college lobby to the NBA, and not only does Jay Bilas cover the kids while they grace Cameron Indoor Stadium, but he also covers the most important night of most of their lives at the NBA Draft.

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We “normals” don’t have NBA general managers on speed dial — Trajan Langdon is just another name in my phone — so we don’t know what city our favorite Blue Devils will call home in their first pro gigs. Bilas helps us understand how their skills translate into the wide ocean of talent that is professional basketball.

My final thought on why Jay Bilas is a man that should get more love among Dukies is a simple one. The man is hilarious and has a dry, sharp sense of humor that’s good for at least one chuckle per game. He can be smug and obnoxious about his basketball knowledge, I’ll grant you that. But I challenge all of my fellow Duke basketball addicts to think about how you would act if you had accomplished all he has professionally.

I know the aforementioned quick wit and dry humor are staples to my daily banter, and I recognize a master at work when I see one. I also know that if I did so much as get Coach K’s coffee for any of Duke’s title runs, I’d quickly turn into Joe Exotic, and everyone on the same hemisphere would know how essential I was to Duke’s success.

So I ask you beautiful Duke basketball heads to consider something. You may not like Jay Bilas, and I don’t blame you, but try to recognize how important the 57-year-old is going to be to the Blue Devils going forward. He didn’t just get coffee for Coach K. He helped bring titles. And I think that’s earned him a right to say what he wants.

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