Jay Bilas at Elon Law: Empathy is key to leadership

The nationally acclaimed ESPN college basketball commentator and graduate of Duke Law visited Elon University School of Law for the final installment of the 2015-16 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.

ESPN commentator Jay Bilas
Jay Bilas is known as one of the best college basketball commentators in the business, a man whose reputation is built on a fastidious approach to researching the game and the people he covers. He’s a multiple-time Emmy nominee for “Best Studio Analyst” and was twice named “Best Game Analyst” by Sports Illustrated.

But on Monday night at Elon University School of Law, the 6-foot-8-inch Bilas, a Duke basketball standout from the mid 1980s and a highly respected ESPN analyst, didn’t talk about his own professional accolades. “We get a lot of credit in broadcasting, but we’re not the stars,” Bilas said. “The stars are the people who are behind the camera. You should see what they do. It’s incredible … a team effort.”

Teamwork. Accountability. Responsibility. Humility. All are hallmarks of good leadership, Bilas explained during the final installment of Elon Law’s 2015-16 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. All have also been a part of his lifetime successes both on and off the court.

But the most important component of leadership?


“I do think empathizing with those you are working with is really important,” he said, praising Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski for the way he models leadership. “And how you phrase things is important. People take important cues from that.”

Hundreds of people filled the Elon Law library on April 18, 2016, for a lecture that capped Bilas’ nearly daylong visit to Elon Law’s downtown Greensboro campus where he met with students, faculty, administrators, influential Triad legal leaders and friends of the university.

“Luck” and “time” were common threads that ran through his many conversations. “So often today, when people are deemed a success, you talk about the reason you’re successful,” Bilas said. “One of the things I think about a lot is how lucky I’ve been. Whatever I’ve done and have been a part of that’s good, there’s been a fair amount of luck to it.”

Jay Bilas delivers the April 18, 2016, Elon Law Distinguished Leadership Lecture presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation
Turning to the Elon University men’s basketball team who attended the lecture, Bilas reminded them of their own fortunes. “You’re pretty darn lucky to be where you are,” he said. “That attitude is really helpful. To understand, ‘it’s not me.’ It’s more than that.”

Success is also only possible when you focus on your current task, Bilas said. People frequently dwell on past success and past mistakes to the detriment of the present. He quoted his own father, who told Bilas that “you can’t get to the top of that ladder in one step. But you can get to the bottom in one step, so pay attention.”

High character is necessary to be a good leader, Bilas added. People have to believe in you “and not just say they believe in you.”

“You’ve got to be an expert in your field. You have to be credible with the people you’re dealing with in every context,” he said. “And you’ve got to allow for the people around you to be good at what they do, too.”

Bilas, an outspoken critic of certain NCAA rules, reiterated his calls for fairness in collegiate athletics. Sports account for billions of dollars in revenue to colleges and universities each year, he said. The figures will only grow. And athletes are the only class of students restricted from earning compensation for their talents outside of scholarships.

Lifting restrictions might also motivate some of the top student-athletes to consider staying in college rather than leaving after only a year or two. Bilas said that if athletes are told college is good for them – and he believes it is, even if they don’t complete a degree – then what can be done to incentivize players to remain on campus instead of leaving for professional sports?

“I don’t advocate that players should be paid. I advocate that the restrictions on providing an athlete more than a scholarship should be removed,” Bilas said. “I like money. Money is a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with it. But if everybody else is making it, I believe an athlete should be able to, too.”

Senior Associate Dean Alan Woodlief Jr. introduced Bilas on Monday night. A longtime fan and alumnus of UNC Chapel Hill, Woodlief described watching Bilas and Krzyzewski set the foundation for what would be a powerhouse college basketball dynasty.

Jay Bilas visited Elon University School of Law on April 18, 2016.
“I forgive him for that,” Woodlief quipped to audience laughter, “because he has shown himself to be an objective and accurate observer of basketball itself.”

Bilas joined ESPN as a college basketball analyst in 1995 and today serves as a game and studio analyst and courtside color commentator, working more than 40 games a season and co-hosting ESPN’s popular road show, College GameDay. He also is a regular contributor to SportsCenter, ESPN.com and ESPNews.

He graduated from Duke University with a degree in political science in 1986 and from Duke Law School in 1992. He has been a litigation attorney with the Charlotte, North Carolina, firm of Moore & Van Allen, PLLC since 1992. He serves on the National Board of the Coaches vs. Cancer Organization and the Board of Advisors of the John R. Wooden Award, the Chip Hilton Award, the Duke Brain Tumor Center and Duke Children’s Hospital.

In addition to his Emmy awards and honors from Sports Illustrated, Bilas has received the “Best Column of the Year” award from the US Basketball Writers Association and the “Distinguished Young Alumni Award” from Duke Law School. He had played men’s basketball at Duke from 1982-86, ranking among Duke’s all-time career field-goal percentage leaders.

A 1986 NBA draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks, Bilas played professionally in Italy and Spain before returning to Duke as an assistant coach on Krzyzewski’s staff from 1990-92. The Blue Devils made three NCAA Championship Game appearances during his tenure as a coach, winning the championship in ‘91 and ‘92.  

In 2013, Bilas released his book “Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court.”

Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman: "We're building a law school that is singular in its commitment to improving legal education in the 21st century."
The Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation is an integral part of Elon Law’s commitment to learning, lawyering and leadership. Endowed through a generous gift from The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty.

Guests were welcomed to the Monday program by Luke Bierman, dean of Elon Law, who joked that “it’s not often that I feel I’m one of the shorter people in the room.” He then shared how Elon Law brings speakers like Bilas to campus as part of an innovative approach to legal education that integrates traditional classroom instruction with highly experiential full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of professional preparation.

“We’re building a law school that is singular in its commitment to improving legal education in the 21st century,” he said. “And we are providing leadership among American law schools by reinventing the paradigm by which lawyers will remain relevant.”