Rapping With Jay Bilas
College basketball’s best analyst talks about his acting career and his new book.
by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
Jay Bilas has always been a favorite of ours. Anyone who can diagram a way to stop the pick-and-roll, recite the lyrics to a Young Jeezy Song, and enjoys going on the record with his complaints about the NCAA, well, to us here at SLAM, that’s pretty much as good as it gets.
But those traits are all ones that you already know Bilas possesses. What you may not about Bilas, though, is that before he was one of the faces of college basketball, and before he was a lawyer, he was a professional actor. A thespian, if you will. But then Duke came along, and ESPN after that, and suddenly there was no time left for him to devote to the art of pretending. That is, until Dove Men+Care came along and gave Bilas another chance to get back to his roots (see above). How did he like the experience? SLAMonline spoke to Bilas recently about this, his acting career, the definition of “toughness” and more.
SLAM: Did you ever think you’d be selling soap to men?
Jay Bilas: No, but you know, it’s kind of funny, when I got connected with Dove already I knew so much about it because both my son and I have been using the body wash since it came out. Kirk Herbstreit and Tom Izzo…I was using Dove before either of them ever got involved.
SLAM: In terms of being in front of a camera for something scripted, according to your Wikipedia page you were in a Dolph Lundgren movie called I Come in Peace. Is that true?
JB: Yes I was.
SLAM: What was the movie and the role?
JB: It was in the late ’80s, probably 1987, ’88, and it came out in 1989 I think. (The film was released in 1990—Ed.) Dolph Lundgren starred in it—that was right after he did that Rocky movie where he played Drago—and this guy named Brian Benben—who had an HBO series called Dream On—was in it, and Michael J. Pollard, who was in Bonnie and Clyde was in it, too. It was really cool. I played an alien cop, which was pretty weird.
SLAM: How does that happen? How did you end up playing an alien cop in a Dolph Lundgren movie?
JB: You know, when I was playing pro ball oversees…you know I grew up in L.A. and I was back home, and a guy that I knew who worked in the front office of the Lakers called me and said, “Hey, listen, down in San Pedro they’re going to be shooting a commercial and they’re looking for a 6-8 white guy, and I thought of you.” So I figured, Wow, this is great, I may have an inside track for this. And I went down to the audition and there were like 50 guys who looked just like me at the audition, but I actually wound up getting the part.
So during the filming I’m talking to one of the camera guys who knew who I was because he was a huge basketball fan, and he was telling me that I should join the union, the Screen Actors Guild, so that I could get more jobs. And you know, the pay of that commercial was really good—I got paid every time the commercial played. So all of a sudden these checks are coming in the mail and it was great.
So after that, I got a theatrical agent, who sent me on more reads for commercials, and I got a couple more, and he asked if I had ever done any acting. I told him high school, for the school play, but I didn’t really count that as acting. So he said, “Why don’t you go on this audition, see if you like the process. If you like the process, I’ll send you on some more of them.” Well, I went, and I ended up getting the part in this thing. I didn’t know if it was a walk-on part or what. But I was one of the top-four billed guys in the movie.
SLAM: So if I was to go watch this movie, I’d be able to spot you easily? Or you were just kind of hanging out in the background?
JB: Oh, no, you’ll find me easily. You can even go online and pull it up right now. It’s all over YouTube and the Internet. I was an alien cop chasing an alien drug dealer who came from a different planet to earth, and he was dealing human endorphins. So I chased him down, but I ultimately wound up dying—my head exploded in the back of a car. It’s a real tear-jerking scene. I was crying over it because it meant no sequel.
SLAM: And that was it for the acting career? Did you consider pursuing acting as a full-time career?
JB: I mean, a little bit. But right after that I got a coaching job at Duke and got accepted to law school, so I kind of just took a different path. You know basketball is more my thing than that was, but, you know, it was a blast. And every once and a while the movie plays on TV or HBO or something like that and I’ll get a call from one of my friends in the middle of the night telling me my movie is on. Oddly enough, those films have kind of a cult following. At odd times, I’ll get recognized and someone will be like, “Weren’t you in that movie Come in Peace?”
SLAM: On a different note, you wrote a book called Toughness. What exactly is the book about? I feel like “toughness” is one of those words that’s thrown around a lot, but no one really ever says what it is.
JB: Well, about three, four years ago I wrote an article for ESPN.com called “Defining Toughness in College Hoops.” I grew up in the game and my coaches always preached toughness, but they never defined; you just kind of learned it through osmosis and examples of toughness. So when I wrote this article, I was really surprised, and gratified by the responses that I got. I got feedback and people calling me and writing from all over the world, from grade school coaches and players, male and female, all the way up to the NBA and international teams. You know, it really resonated with people, especially with players, and I realized that the subject really struck a nerve with people, and it’s got applications beyond basketball. It’s really a life skills thing. You know, we’re not born tough, but everyone wants to be tough. To be mentally tough, to persevere, to be able to concentrate through difficult situations.
I talked to all these friends of mine, whether it was Mia Hamm or Doris Burke—who I’ve worked with who’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met—or Jon Gruden and Curtis Strange, and Steve Kerr was really influential with me and we talked about dealing with fear. He said, “People say I’m clutch, I can’t tell you how many times I failed when taking a big shot.” He said that he was always afraid to fail, but that being scared helped him prepare, and the will to prepare is a big part of toughness. He also wasn’t afraid to miss. You have to be tough enough in those moments to stand up there, take the shot and accept the repercussions and that you may miss, and once you think like that, it kind of frees you up to act without letting your fear overtake you. It’s essentially getting out of your own way. So basically the book is whole bunch of stories—like Steve Kerr talking about his shooting routine—from both on and off the court, and field, that I think really resonate with people.
SLAM: So, specifically related to basketball what would you say toughness is?
JB: Well, it’s a lot of things. It can start from your preparation, to your ability to concentrate through stretches in preparation, to concentrating when you’re in the game and staying in the moment. When I was a Duke coach, Coach K used to talk about the concept of “the next play”—are you confident enough to move on from the last play. Positive or negative. I think golfers call it “staying in the moment,” but I refer to it as concentration. Are you concentrating on what you’re doing while you’re doing it? And are you able to move on to the next play so that you can make the next play and stay in that moment? So when you’re facing a tough defensive team, are you tough enough to be able to run your offense when it’s difficult. To set a good screen, to move the ball from side to side, to not take a quick shot, or a challenged shot, but instead work to get the best one. All that requires toughness, too. It’s not just getting the stops. It can be, in order to stop a run…sometimes great teams are going to be able to score against your defense, but can you stop their run by scoring yourself. When the ball’s on the floor, are you going to bend over for it, or dive on it? Are you willing to lay your body on the line to take a charge? Things like that. And then there are other instances where it’s about being tough enough to say no.
SLAM: So it sounds like you’re saying that a team full of undersized skinny guys can be tough, even if that’s not what most people would associate with the word?
JB: No question, I think that’s a great way to put it. It’s not about being a bully, or being the biggest or the strongest—some of the toughest people I know aren’t the biggest and the strongest—and it doesn’t have anything to do with gender, either. It has to do with your mental approach, and your physical toughness is derived—in my judgment—from your mental toughness. And that’s a skill, something you can improve. I don’t think we’re born tough; no one comes out of the womb eating nails and being able to climb Kilimanjaro. Stuff like that is a learned behavior. So, yeah, maybe some have the capacity to be tougher than others…and another thing: Nobody is tough alone. So if you’re hanging around other people and willing to do tough and difficult things, I think that can inspire you as well.