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Saturday, May 18, 2024

ESPN’s Jay Bilas recalls leadership lessons learned in two courts

The question was a simple one: Do you know where to sit? ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas says he still gets emotional when thinking about that moment early in his career while working as an attorney, not as a broadcaster or basketball player.

He recalled arriving at his Charlotte office at 6 that morning for the 9:30 hearing in federal court. It was a big day, his first time handling a court hearing solo. Another attorney who was one year his senior at the Moore & Van Allen firm stopped by his office to check on him. He thought he’d done everything possible to prepare, but her question about where he should sit in court stumped him.

ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas spoke Oct. 25, 2023, at the Charlotte campus of Elon University.

“Had she not done that, I would have stumbled my way through it, and hopefully not thrown up all over myself and made a fool of myself. Her understanding of someone going through something that she’s already been through was extraordinarily helpful, and to this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a colleague do something so nice for me.

“She thought outside of herself and helped someone else, and that’s what all of this is about,” said Bilas. Leaders, he added, must have empathy. “If you don’t understand what any of your colleagues are going through, how can you be of any help to them?”

He was speaking to Elon University alumni, current students doing internships at the Charlotte campus and prospective students of the flex law school Elon hopes to open in Charlotte in the fall of 2024.

Bilas has had an interesting career – both on the basketball court and in the courtroom. One of his more famous legal cases involved defending the late Philip Morris, a Charlotte costume designer and supplier in a trademark dispute with the makers of Barney. Bilas famously subpoenaed the purple dinosaur into federal court.

Here are a couple of takeaways from his talk and the lessons in leadership he gained from both coach Mike Krzyzewski, while Bilas was a four-year starter at Duke, and from Ben Hawfield, a former managing partner at Moore & Van Allen.

Motivation vs. inspiration

Bilas arrived at Duke University from California as one of the best high school players in the country in 1982 and didn’t need motivation to play well. But he found lifelong inspiration from his legendary coach.

“Coach K never emphasized winning for winning’s sake,” said Bilas. “He always talked about being worthy of winning. If we were worthy of winning, we’d win. That would be a byproduct of doing things right all the time. It was a daily standard that we strived to meet.”

At Duke, that meant doing the work in practice, not getting bored. He recalled early on in his career at ESPN his former college coach let him sit in on a team meeting. Duke had a talented team of future NBA stars – Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams included – and they talked about goals for the coming year. The team offered up the common expectations – winning an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, staying undefeated at home, winning the Final Four.

“And at the end of it all, Coach K said, ‘Those are all great things and worthy of our attention. But those are not goals. Those are destinations. Our goal needs to be to get closer and better as a team everyday. If we do that, we’ll reach our destinations.’”

Bilas said that statement has remained tremendously inspirational to him throughout his life.

Feeling valued

Bilas credits Hawfield’s leadership with causing him to join Moore & Van Allen, where he remains listed as of counsel but is no longer actively practicing law. Hawfield was a Morehead scholar at UNC Chapel Hill and No. 1 in his law class at Stanford University, Bilas said, but he also understood what was important to people.

In a law firm, the end of the year is compensation time, said Bilas. He recalled talking to Hawfield about how difficult it would be as a leader in the firm to handle “knock down, drag out” meetings where different attorneys would be fighting for their shares of the profits. 

“He said something really interesting to me, he said, ‘You know, the compensation issue is not what you think. Really what people want to know is that they’re valued and that you think they’re doing a good job,’” Bilas recalled.

In his own career as a broadcaster, he said, that statement has held true and is worth remembering.

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