In the den of Jay Bilas’ Charlotte, N.C., home, framed pictures commemorate his collegiate basketball career at Duke, his days as a pro overseas and the critical reception of I Come in Peace, the 1990 sci-fi thriller that stars Dolph Lundgren but features Bilas in the role of Azeck, alien cop. (Los Angeles Times: I Come in Peace Should Go Away.) But that’s the past. Today, through his platform as an analyst at ESPN and a Twitter account with nearly 2 million followers, Bilas has emerged as a sort of conscience of college basketball. His is a singular voice that can both deftly break down game tactics for passionate fans and eviscerate the business model supporting the entire enterprise. He’s a fierce critic of amateurism, the NCAA policy that facilitates a free market for handsomely compensated coaches, administrators and TV executives–everyone involved in college basketball, it seems, except the players themselves.
So I’ve journeyed to Charlotte to ask Bilas whether he, who makes a living in the game, reporters who write about it, or anyone who watches college basketball or simply fills out an annual March Madness bracket in the office pool is complicit in supporting a business that, according to Bilas, is “just wrong to the point of immoral.”
Jay Bilas, can we make our tournament picks in peace?
Sure, he says. (Whew.) If you don’t like a law in America, after all, you don’t up and leave the country. You push for change. Bilas knows the skeptics’ line: Since you despise amateurism so much, why don’t you quit your job and do something else? “I find that reasoning to be nonsensical,” he says. “The fact that I differ in policy matters doesn’t mean I don’t love the endeavor. I love it, that’s why I opine on it. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t care.”
The 6-ft. 8-in. former center is a licensed attorney who, before becoming ESPN’s lead college-basketball analyst, once subpoenaed Barney the purple dinosaur in a costume copyright-infringement case. But over the past decade or so, Bilas, as much as any public figure, has pushed the case for paying players out of the halls of academia and into the mainstream. He called BS when high school officials in Alabama benched a star basketball player this season because she had deposited an accidental payment from USA Basketball and when the NCAA investigated former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for selling his autograph at the same time his jersey was being sold on its shopping website. On March 13, Bilas called out the NCAA via Twitter for its tepid two-sentence response to a sweeping college-admissions scandal; several coaches have been accused of accepting bribes to falsely present high school students as athletes in order to ensure their admission to elite universities. Admirers love his hammering. Critics tell him to shut up about this stuff already.
Not likely. On March 8, a federal judge in California found that the NCAA amateurism rules violate antitrust law. She ordered the NCAA to remove caps on compensation related to education for things like tutoring, computers and science equipment. The ruling, ostensibly a victory for the players, falls far short of imposing a free-market system in which college athletes can earn their full worth. In an environment in which multimedia rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament go for $8.8 billion and coaches can make north of $7 million per year, he believes school leaders will eventually have to do the right thing on their own and fairly compensate players. “The idea that the free market works for the entire world, save the athletes, is ludicrous to me,” says Bilas. “Absolutely ludicrous.”
Bilas, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, started sensing this economic imbalance in the mid-1980s, while playing at Duke. But he wasn’t about to speak up publicly. “You knew what got rewarded and what didn’t,” he says. “I wasn’t Norma Rae or anything.” When a former Duke player brought up the idea of boycotting the 1986 Final Four in Dallas, which Bilas and his teammates had reached in his senior season, his response was, “Why don’t we do it next year?”
After his Blue Devils lost to Louisville in that year’s national championship game, Bilas, now 55, played professionally in Italy for two seasons and in Spain for part of a third. He picked up the alien acting gig–sadly, Azeck’s head exploded–one offseason. Bilas soured on pro ball after his Spanish team fined him for missing practice time to take the LSAT and accepted both a spot in Duke’s law school and one on Mike Krzyzewski’s bench, as an assistant coach. He loved coaching but not the itinerant lifestyle, so he settled with his wife Wendy in Charlotte, where he joined a law firm. Soon came offers to call games on local radio, and he joined ESPN as a full-time analyst. He keeps his old office and pitches in on recruiting and business development, but “there’s going to be a point where they walk in and say, ‘Pack your sh-t and get out.'”
As a broadcaster, Bilas figured if he could call out players and coaches for messing up, why should NCAA leadership be off-limits? Wendy encouraged him to sign onto Twitter 10 years ago so he could prove he had more personality than your average geek watching hoops film all day. Bilas is like your bald, slightly hip, bright and upright bio teacher. He tweets rap lyrics from Young Jeezy, daily, before signing off with “I gotta go to work” (since, while once corresponding with a Twitter user, he ended the conversation by saying he actually did have to go to work). Bilas trades in self-deprecation–“You must have low standards,” he told a tickled crowd at a Charlotte fundraising benefit where he was the guest speaker. He’s a needler who can take being needled and, ever the lawyer, recognizes that words matter, not least his own. During the March 9 Duke–North Carolina game in Chapel Hill, he observed on air that the rebounding of North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson has improved “immeasurably.” He then chastised himself, off the air, at halftime. Rebounds, like most things in sports, are nothing if not quantified. “F-cking idiot,” he said backstage.
Bilas was present for the most momentous episode of the regular season: the foot of Duke superstar freshman Zion Williamson ripping through his Nike shoe, resulting in a knee sprain. If Zion’s back at full strength for the tournament, Bilas likes his alma mater’s chances. Zion’s too, of course. “As long as he stays healthy, he’s going to make a billion dollars,” Bilas says of the presumptive top pick in the NBA draft. A Cinderella player to watch: arguably the best shooter in college basketball, Wofford guard Fletcher Magee. “Sounds like he should be somebody’s butler,” Bilas deadpans.
Before wrapping up our talk in the den, I ask Bilas for some bracket tips, now that we don’t have to feel crappy about obsessing over March Madness and all. Earnestly, he suggests going to KenPom.com, a stats site for hoops wonks, and checking out every team’s offensive and defensive efficiency stats. Okaaay. Bilas recalibrates. Most Americans are allergic to KenPom.com and just want to finish the damn bracket before the deadline. Sensing this, he checks out of “Bilastrator” mode and comes out with a bit of sensible advice. “Go with the toughest mascot,” he says.
This appears in the March 25, 2019 issue of TIME.
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