NEW YORK – Twelve minutes before tip-off of the Seton Hall-Providence Big East tournament game Tuesday, Rick Pitino snaked through press row at Madison Square Garden. Sneaking behind ESPN announcers Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery, the Louisville coach spread his arms wide, as if hugging Tony Soprano, and grabbed the pair by their outside shoulders, shaking them with a surprise hello and a hearty laugh. After a minute of chit-chat, Pitino took a seat beside me diagonally behind the announcers, and we exchanged brief pleasantries.
Moments later, Raftery got up to chat with Pitino, and pulled him in close to do what he does best – tell a joke.
“Hey Rick, you gotta see this big piece of machinery under the table,” Raftery says, pulling up the apron to reveal a large, tower-like computer structure that unfortunately was located right where he was sitting. “They only had the table ready for two. So Bilas told me, ‘you’ve finally got something big between your legs!’”
Raftery cracks up. Pitino slaps the table in laughter. Bilas, wearing headphones, turns around and with a play of mischief in his eyes, flashes a huge grin while shaking his shoulders, proud of his zinger.
“The way I grew up, and with the friends I grew up with, if we’re not giving each other a hard time, we probably don’t like the guy very much,” Bilas, 48, told me earlier in the day. “My best friends, all we do is beat each other up. If someone says something nice to the other, there’s probably been a death in the family.”
ESPN invited me to spend the day with Bilas, their outspoken and assertive college basketball analyst, as he prepared for the Big East Tournament. Bilas has quickly risen to the pinnacle in his profession – thanks in part to a surprisingly hilarious twitter account – and is a more intrepid version of ESPN’s top college football analyst, Kirk Herbstreit.
“I think Jay’s the best sportscaster in the business,” Pitino told me, waving his hand in a chopping motion to emphasize his point. “In the last 25 years, he’s the best. He’s an ex-coach, a lawyer, and he’s glib, which is just great.”
1:35 pm: Jay Bilas ambles into a very informal ESPN production meeting, held in a tiny 21st floor room of the Eventi hotel on the West Side of New York City, a few minutes late. Six colleagues – three of whom are seated on the floor – surround a wooden table. Sean McDonough can be heard on a cell phone that sits in the middle of the table. Bilas takes his spot leaning against a doorway, hands in his pockets. Producer Bo Garrett, an ESPN veteran, leads the meeting.
1:48 pm: There’s a knock on the door and in saunters Bill Raftery in a plaid button-down, black pants and penny loafers. He makes a point to shake everyone’s hand, and as he’s doing that, Sean McDonough starts in on him for his tardiness. “How was that 3-martini lunch, Bill?” Laughter filled the room.
Raftery, who was laughing too, didn’t miss a beat and shot back, “I was attending the great announcers conference. It’s obvious you didn’t get the call.”
There was more laughter from everyone, including McDonough.
“These guys are tremendous together, and they know each other so well that they play off one another on the air,” Garrett told me in the hall after the meeting. “It’s really important for a broadcast team to have that camaraderie, that trust in one another. “
Bilas and Raftery briefly describe to the group each of the four teams they’d be seeing that night – Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova and Rutgers – and toss out a quick breakdown of what to expect, including input they received from the coaches. Bilas was without a pen and paper and his phone was in his pocket; Raftery had copious notes, most of them written in tiny print. Occasionally, he’s leafing through them while making a point. In between jokes about late-night drinking – “my phone rang at 2:47 am. Then, of course we met up for a drink” – he scribbles down notes. (Later, I asked Raftery where he went for a drink at 2:47 am, but he said while the phone call was real, he was joking about the boozing.)
2:31: Bilas is back in his hotel room breaking down film of Providence. He is watching video on his laptop from Synergy Sports, which has spliced together every Providence offensive possession against zone defenses this season. For an intellectually ravenous hoops junkie like Bilas – “I don’t look at myself as a broadcaster, I look at myself as, ‘I like basketball’” – he is completely in his element.
Bilas, with his semi-rimless glasses dangling in one hand, would watch a play, rewind it, take notes, and watch it a third time.
His intricate attention to detail seemed a bit excessive – we’re talking about Providence, a mediocre team and who national viewers probably didn’t care about because the Friars had no shot at the NCAA tournament. Bilas said his work habits were instilled early on by his parents, and later by Coach K.
“My first year at Duke, we were playing a team we were supposed to beat the hell out of,” Bilas recalled. “And Coach comes into the locker room and says, ‘this is the most important game on the schedule.’ And [I'm thinking], ‘we’ve got Carolina with Jordan and Perkins and Worthy coming up.’ And Coach says, ‘this is the most important game because we’re playing in it. If you want to play in the Championship, you’ve got to prepare for every game as if it were the Championship. When you get to the Championship, you’ll be ready.’ And that’s how I treat every game I broadcast.”
3:01: As Bilas and I drift into conversation, I noticed his screen saver came on. All the album covers from songs on his Ipod appeared, and the first one that caught my eye was Tupac (Greatest Hits). Which led to the obvious question – are the rap references on twitter shtick, or do you really listen to it?
“I listen to it now, and I started in high school,” he says, dating back to his days at Rolling Hills high school in California. “The Sugar Hill Gang was the first time I really heard hip-hop. I can still quote rapper’s delight word-for-word. Then at Duke, we listened to Run DMC and Doug E. Fresh in the locker room.”
“The Young Jeezy thing started with Draymond Green at Michigan State. [ESPN’s] Rece Davis asked him what was in his Ipod, Green said Young Jeezy, and then Hubert Davis started banging on me about it, saying that was probably what I had on my Ipod. My son doesn’t get the Young Jeezy thing. He thinks Kanye is better.”
Once Bilas discovers something on twitter that needles the masses, he runs with it. He doesn’t follow anyone … because it irks people that he doesn’t follow anyone (“I was trying to figure out how Twitter works, and people started complaining I wasn’t following anyone, so I made a joke about it, and I got a kick out of it.”). He tweets out a “gotta go to work” line every morning because if he doesn’t, friends might wonder if he’s OK (“I was on the West Coast one morning and I didn’t tweet anything, and I get a call from a friend wondering if I’m OK. Now, it’s a responsibility, it seems. God forbid I mistakenly tweet out the same lyric I did six months ago, somebody will call me on it.”).
3:52: Having been with Bilas for about four hours, two things become abundantly clear: 1) He’s extremely persuasive, but not in that overbearing, annoying way. 2) He’d love to be a college basketball coach.
He talks wistfully about his days as a graduate assistant coach at Duke (1990-1992) when, amazingly, he was part of a staff that went to three Final Fours and won two titles. While Bilas attended Duke Law School, he was a sponge around Coach Krzyzewski, doing everything the rest of the staff did “except recruiting.” Two other assistants – Tommy Amaker and Mike Brey – have gone on to find success as head coaches. It seemed like the logical path for Bilas, who was a 4-year starter at Duke in the 80s.
Ultimately, he said he and his wife came to the conclusion that the natural progression coaches make – moving to a city to be an assistant for a few years, then to another city, then maybe you can became a head coach at a mid-major somewhere – would be difficult on their young family. (Bilas now has two kids in high school in North Carolina; his son, 15, is a freshman who plays on the junior varsity basketball squad. Bilas has a demanding ESPN TV schedule and sounded a bit despondent when saying he only attended three of his son’s games this past season.)
When you hear Bilas reference “basketball people” on TV – usually when he’s lambasting the frequently-clueless NCAA selection committee – it sometimes feels like he’s talking about people similar to himself: Those who have been part of the sport as a player or coach on some level, and whose love for basketball borders on obsession. Bilas even said his wife is the one who suggested he get on twitter so “[people realize you have a] personality and you’re not diagramming plays all day long.”
Perhaps the most interesting nugget Bilas revealed on the subject of coaching was that he has had “a few” coaching offers in recent years, including one he came very close to accepting. When pressed on the topic, he said, “I probably shouldn’t have said that,” and refused to elaborate. To satiate his coaching desire, Bilas coaches some of the best high school players in the nation at the NIKE skills academy every summer.
4:19: Bilas is annoyed. The Pittsburgh-St. John’s game we had on in the room has turned into yet another defensive slugfest. “These 50-point games … that’s bad for the sport,” he said. “The biggest problem is how physical the game has gotten. Look at that. That’s a foul. That’s a foul. That’s a foul, too! Oh, they called that one,” he said to the screen, gesturing with his hand. “It’s gotten ridiculous.”
If Bilas were the czar of college basketball, as has been suggested, fixing the charge/block issue would be near the top of his list. He’d also like all shot clocks to be uniform (college, NBA, international), and he’d like to see one at the high school level, too. Bilas also doesn’t think timeouts should be called during live action. “I don’t know any other sport where you can do that.”
Then, he gets more radical – let’s eliminate free throws on common fouls. “The only game I know when you can score with no defense is basketball. There’s no other game that allows you free opportunities to score with no defense. If I foul you dribbling after the 7th foul, you shoot free throws. Why should you get free throws? I haven’t thought through every single scenario, but the 1-and-1 is a huge part of the game, and it’s probably underplayed by all of us.”
4:37: I bring the discussion back to his upbringing, which was decidedly white collar. No, literally – his parents made him wear collared shirts to high school, daily (often with sweaters). They only let him wear jeans on the weekends. “My parents felt like I should be presentable,” he said. Then, he recounts this story:
On his first attempt at the SATs, he scored well enough that he decided he didn’t want to take them again. His mother tried to make him by saying his SAT couldn’t get him into Harvard. Bilas thought about it, and decided instead of taking the SATs again he’d indulge a couple Ivy League schools and let them come to his house for visits. He had zero intent of matriculating to an Ivy League school, but he wanted to prove to his mom he could get into one. So the recruiters came – from Brown or Yale, he couldn’t recall – and Bilas asked them if his score qualified. It did. He didn’t take the SAT again.
5:23: Navigating the crowded sidewalks on the brisk walk from the Eventi Hotel to Madison Square Garden, we haven’t gone 50 feet when a fan walks next to Bilas and asks him what’s up. At 6-foot-7 Bilas is easy to spot (height is a family trait: His older brother is 6-foot-3, his two younger sisters are both 6-feet, his mom is 5-foot-6 and his dad stands 6-foot-7) and he’s got a genial demeanor and a welcoming personality. Thirty feet later, a young man in a puffy jacket walks by Raftery and shouts, “Onions!” a line the magnetically funny Raftery has become famous for. Raftery smiled politely and said that happens everywhere. Then, he made a joke about late-night drinking. (It is a common theme in his humor.)
6:08: Raftery, Bilas and McDonough are courtside of a mostly-empty MSG when Providence coach Ed Cooley approaches them. The quartet chat for awhile, and I’m standing a few feet away when the topic of zone defense comes up. Bilas rattled off the exact points he was making to me back at the hotel about what they’re doing wrong, and Cooley seemed to agree. “I just want them to take a shot! Drop kick one, I don’t care!” he said, and the group chuckled. Andy Katz, ESPN’s sideline reporter who has an icy relationship with Bilas, watched from about 10 feet away. While the two might have spoken at the Garden this week, I didn’t see them interact Tuesday. Bilas regrets his January tweet tweaking Katz.
“That was just a stupid mistake,” Bilas said. “I was trying to make a joke about ESPN and i shouldn’t have done that. It was intended as good-natured, but it didn’t come across that way, so I regretted that.”
7:33: The ESPN production truck is a dizzying miasma of cameras and whirlwind activity, all taking place in a dark, cramped trailer outside of the Garden. Director Chip Dean – he also does Monday Night Football for ESPN – sat in his chair in the front row like the conductor of an orchestra. In addition to occasionally pointing at cameras, he spoke to his crew with the machine gun staccato of someone operating an auction.
With an entire wall of TV screens – they’re big and small and contain many different camera angles, including some paused and some rewinding, I lost count around 40 – the trailer was probably the size of your family room, but seated about a dozen. It is a disorienting experience.
Seton Hall ran a perfect play and despite the hubbub in the truck, the voice of Bilas emerged: “Can we save that?” Quickly, one of the staffers re-wound the play and at the next deadball, the replay aired and Bilas told the audience how brilliant the play-call was by the Pirates.
It seemed like the kind of play Bilas would file away in his notes, and either employ the next time he’s at a basketball camp, or maybe in a few years when he’s back on the sidelines.