It’s necessary toughness that’s the real issue here.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas will have to rise and fire long before sunrise Saturday morning to join a collection of bleary eyed UCLA fans at Pauley Pavilion, brought in to supply the background atmosphere for a “College GameDay” studio show that started at 7 a.m.
Top that off with Bilas circling back to a courtside seat to break down the Bruins’ game against Arizona some 12 hours later for ESPN’s coverage.
Then again, Bilas knows tough. He’s used 254 pages to write his own definition of it in a book, “Toughness: Developing True Strength on and off the Court” ($26.95, New American Library), which comes out Tuesday.
Before the Duke grad out of the old Rolling Hills High does Saturday’s game, we shot him a few tough-minded questions about what he’s trying to accomplish with this book which, by our definition, shouldn’t ever be issued down the road in soft-cover:
Q: The book, with the forward written by your former coach Mike Krzyzewski, was the result of the tremendous reaction to a column you did for ESPN.com four years ago and has since been copied and issued and reissued by coaches and players. What sparked that initial dissertation in trying to define “toughness”?
A: I don’t remember exactly what happened, it was something I saw in a basketball game where a player did something more bullying than tough, and it was described as “Boy, what a tough player.” I thought right away: That’s not what it means. I wrote the story in no time – it hardly felt like work, just bang. No one asked me to write it, I just submitted it. Not even expecting it to go up. But when it did I couldn’t believe the responses – to this day, they tell me about it. Coaches, front-office people, service men, pilots. Hundreds of them, from all walks of life. Players who told me before they couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t make their team, but after reading it, understood the word better, and became a starter.
Q: “Toughness,” as you explain, is more an umbrella term that has many subsets – responsibility, resiliency, ownership, concentration, maturity – and all of them can be learned skills. What’s the toughest part in having people relearn the concept?
A: It’s about breaking it down and thinking about what goes into it. I didn’t necessarily think about when I was growing up or started playing for Coach K how important something like concentration was. That requires toughness. It’s not just enough showing up every day, it’s showing up ready to achieve and fully prepare mentally and physically for that day. You have to be mentally tough enough for that task, and then move onto the next play. But it’s not just moving to the next play in a game or next shot on a golf course, but when something you’re doing is over, it’s that ability to move to move onto the next thing. I learned that from my parents. My dad would tell me it’s OK to make a game the most important thing, but when it’s over, then your homework has to be the most important. Even putting time aside to be with friends has to be important.
So much of the stories I used are about things that happened in my life and where I’ve fallen short. Failing doesn’t make you a failure. Not getting up after failure makes you a failure, or not addressing it and getting better from it. All of us have challenges to face in your daily life, your work life, your family life and the toughness you have is in how you meet those, not that somehow the really tough people don’t see things as a challenge.
Q: Thinking about that word, “challenge,” and how maybe people don’t give themselves enough challenges in their lives. The drive in life seems to make everything easier, be more comfortable. How do you flip that?
A: It’s something I’ve heard Coach K call “pushing your limits” or “stepping out of your comfort zone.” It happened when I was a kid thanks to my mom. She challenged me to not just be a basketball player, so she encouraged me to do things like ballroom dancing, get in drama classes. Were it not for that, I don’t think I’d have chosen the path I did or have any success in it. Those were valuable things to find out – you can do things that are more difficult that you’d have imagined, and later in life when facing something that looked daunting, I felt like I’d been there before.
I was pushed beyond a barrier and reached a new height because I pushed past something I thought I couldn’t do. Usually with someone pushing me to do that. No one has to be tough by themselves.
Q: There’s a need for motivation to be tough. Some maybe aren’t wired for it. You profess that you can learn the skills. Isn’t that a tough thing to imagine, that you can learn to be tough?
A: I don’t remember thinking about it until I was in college, that it was a trait I wanted to have, if that makes any sense. Nobody preached it to me to “toughen up.” It’s like the idea of being a great teammate. I learned that from Coach K. I think a lot about growing up and playing Little League or grade-school basketball, I don’t think, even though I had good coaches, there was a lot of talk about “here’s what it means to be a great teammate.” It wasn’t broken down. It’s the same thing with toughness. We talk about it and hear about it all the time – this team needs to be tougher. So what does it mean?
Q: Maybe when you’re younger you can rely more on talent to carry you, until you get to a point when you’re in college and there’s all this collection of talent, and now you’re forced to figure out a new way to mesh.
A: That’s maybe the way it is, but that’s not the way it should be. I would have been so much better in every aspect of my life if I focused on the fundamentals of toughness earlier. It’s not about being a bully, or furrow your brow and not being nice to people. Some of the toughest people I know are the absolute nicest. Tough and nice are not mutually exclusive. It’s about going to work every day fully prepared, showing up and embracing your role but not being limited by it, of doing your job and helping a colleague do their job, being selfless in your service, and having your priorities straight. There are moments in your life when you think you’re being grateful and saying “yes” to all these invitations to come speak at a group, appear here, and you think you’re a real good guy helping this person out, but sometimes it takes your wife to remind you: When you’re saying “yes” to someone else, you’re saying “no” to us. That was a real moment for me, I had to look at myself in the mirror and realize I wasn’t tough enough to say “no.” You have to prioritize. Bob Knight once said: “Think about all the times that the word ‘no’ has ever got you in trouble. You may miss an opportunity, but you’ll never get in trouble.” That’s brilliant, and so true.
Q: There have been some instances in the college game recently where “toughness’ came up – one was when Cal coach Mike Montgomery was in a timeout in a game against USC, and he pushed a player, Allen Crabbe. And then Crabbe kind of retreated off the floor before he returned. And Montgomery issued an apology. In the scope of “toughness,” how did you process all that?
A: I thought it absolutely appropriate that Mike apologized because I thought it crossed a line of decorum that there was no reason for it. Crabbe didn’t respond positively to it. Ultimately, he wound up playing well at the end of the game. Their relationship is such that everything seems to be OK, but from what I could see in watching it, it wasn’t a positive exchange. You can have difficult things said between a coach and player, but it can be done with a positive result in mind. There has to be a level of trust that a coach can do something and a player has to react a certain way. That exchange didn’t meet those standards. I’d never seen Mike do that before, so you ask “why”?
Q: On the telecast, Marques Johnson seemed to convey that, from his point of view, Montgomery was trying to motivate Crabbe, someone who can be passive and perhaps needed to be shaken up to become tougher in that situation. He thought Crabbe maybe needed to be wakened up.
A: Reasonable minds can differ on it. I can accept Marques’ interpretation but I don’t agree with it. Mine would be it’s absolutely OK to challenge a player in an aggressive manner. But I don’t think laying hands on him was helpful. The contact, especially in today’s world where social moors have changed, put the player in a really tough spot. What do you do when a coach does that? You’re forced to decide if you’ve been challenged enough to respond physically. Wait a minute, this is a game. If it’s to a point where a player has to be motivated by physical contact, then maybe take him out and make the point another way. I don’t know other walks of life where it’d be acceptable, even in the military.
I can understand different perspectives on it. I’ve been an assistant coach, played for a lot of different coaches, and there’s a reason why you don’t see things like that often. The good news here is Mike is such a great coach and I happen to believe he’s a great person with so much credibility and trust, the first reaction is that’s not the person I know and I don’t agree with it, but it won’t change the way I view him. I don’t think he’d do it again.
Q: Ben Howland has had to have tough skin as a coach at UCLA – for all kinds of things. How tough do you believe it is to be a college coach in today’s landscape dealing with players who, for whatever reason, up and leave? Especially those who leave after one season for the NBA?
A: I think it’s far more difficult for teams and coaches to deal with pressure points than in the past. Twenty-five years ago, there were no cellphones or the Internet. Locker rooms were closed, so things said stayed there. If a player went back to his dorm and told his friends, “You wouldn’t believe what Coach K challenged me with today,” that was private, it didn’t get into the newspaper. They had a certain range. Now something in the locker room becomes public knowledge. A player tells a friend, it goes on a message board, the media reads it, then it’s in a press conference, then it’s in the media. And it’s a story. There are times in a locker room where you say things that not everyone understands the context of it. You have to adjust to that. With all criticism being immediate, it’s important to have a thick skin.
The way I’ve done it with my job – which is sometimes similar to a coach – when you say something and there’s a reaction to it on Twitter or talk radio, the first thing I ask myself is if the criticism is right, so I can address it and learn from it. But if it’s unreasonable, I just dismiss it. In a large measure, our jobs are about criticism. We dole it out, so you ought to be able to take it. I hope I’m tough enough to take it and address it the right way.
I had a teacher tell me there was a difference between caring what people think and worrying about what they think. Care about it, don’t worry about it.
Q: Can you apply the word “toughness” to this UCLA team?
A: I think so. In different measures with different players, and then a collective toughness they’ve had getting better during the course of the year in dealing with different things. Shabazz Muhammad has dealt with NCAA issues, injury, criticism, not reacting well to a game-winning shot. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good teammate. In that one instance he might have let something get to him. It’s hard being a player, especially now, when they have a defense on them, trying to do stop them from what they’re trying to accomplish. They’re young players who shouldn’t expect to be perfect, but they’re battling through it. A high profile player on a high profile team in Los Angeles is a difficult thing. Especially when you’re playing under all those (championship) banners (at Pauley Pavilion).
Q: Muhammad, it’s assumed, is only there one year before going to the NBA, you wonder how much more valuable it would be to stay and learn more about toughness in a four-year lesson instead of leaving as a teenager. In today’s college basketball landscape, how possible is that?
A: It is possible but we live in a culture of skipping steps. When I was in college, you didn’t see players in a hurry to skip steps. That’s not because we were tougher or had our priorities in order on a higher plane. Not at all. What’s happened is a lot more money available. First picks way back when didn’t make this kind of money. They called it “hardship” because you had no money. Now, it’s so that you never have to work again after you’re done. You never saw your peers doing it back then, either. It was more extra-ordinary. Now the guys these guys played against in high school are already in the NBA. Some of them are doing very well. So why not me? That’s a hard thing to turn away from. With the way the media is, the longer a kid stays in school the more we pick at him. As a freshman what is potential may be as a sophomore people saying he hasn’t progressed very far.
(Indiana 7-foot sophomore center) Cody Zeller is a prime example. Now he’s taking heat because someone on his team may be ahead of him as a player of the year candidate, so he came back to school, and now he’s taking criticism for it. And he’s their leading scorer and rebounder. That’s where you need a certain amount of toughness to make the right decision for you. Shabazz has to be tough enough now to focus on what’s important now. The NBA will be there later if he chooses, so it’s a waste of his time and energy to think about that for one second. The best thing he can do for his future is play and win now. It’s the idea of concentrating what’s important now, not the next play. You have to be tough enough to turn a deaf ear to criticism. You have to be tough enough to keep your circle small and take care of what’s important first. That decision won’t be important until later.
Q: You’ve been tough on calling out things you think need addressing – tweets about the NCAA hierarchy, or the state of the game being tough to watch based on officiating. Do you get a sense that people might tune it out because it’s too tough to hear sometimes?
A: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I made a decision quite awhile ago, I want to say the right thing at the right time in the right tone for this job. More often than not, the third part is what I get wrong. The wrong tone may get in the way of the message I’m trying to deliver. If I’ve thought about it, why would I not say it? It’s my job to give my opinion. I don’t think my opinion is any more important than anyone else’s, it just happens to have a microphone in front of it. I get that. I know there were times early in my career where I’d think something but not say it, then talk with friends later and tell them, “This is really what I thought.” Why was I doing that? That’s dumb. These issues are big ones that are important. In regard to the NCAA matter, people got fired there. In my judgment, it was inappropriate. People in those jobs who should be accountable have not been held accountable. I pointed it out and I’m always open to a response. I talk to officials all the time and gave them my cell phone number and said, “If I say something you don’t like, or I got a rule interpretation wrong, or you didn’t like my tone, call me and tell me. I want to know and I’ll get better from it.” I do it with anybody. It tests what I think and said and if I’m wrong I want to know about it rather than someone talking privately about it.
Q: Does tone convey well in a limited tweet? Does it sound more off the cuff versus when you’re talking on TV?
A: I use Twitter more as a joke machine and had fun with it in creating a different persona, but also you can use it to get out a pointed comment. There are limitations but it can be powerful in being shorter, you’re not bogged down by an explanation. You get to the point quicker. I’m not naïve. I’ve made mistakes on Twitter but I’ve learned how to use it better. My wife got me onto it. I never wanted to do it. She was right, it’s a good way to communicate.
Q: Does it make it tougher or easier in everyday life when people find you went to Duke?
A: Both. The positive is, it’s like buying a stock and having it blow up for nothing you’ve done. The team I played on were very good and had a wonderful four years (a starter from 1982-86, with an appearance in the NCAA final as a senior), but the cumulative success over the years, there’s a glow hanging over it and a perception that you were better than you really were. (Writer’s note: Bilas has admitted he never even heard of Mike Krzyzewski when the Duke coach started to recruit him in 1981). I don’t dissuade anyone that notion. But there’s also that thought, “Jeez, another Duke guy on television.” I don’t have a problem with that. After all these years, I try to rely upon whatever credibility I built up. Everyone went to school somewhere. I don’t have problems with it on a day-to-day basis. Everyone once in a while people will come up and say, “I hate Duke, but I don’t hate you.” And it’s supposed to be a compliment.
The downside to this book is I can’t whine or complain much. If I have the sniffles feeling sorry for myself, my wife is like, “OK, Mr. Toughness.” I’ve got no shot now. My friends will have a copy in their golf bag and pull it out. I’ll have to toughen up even more.