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The Brotherhood

By Jay Bilas (1983-86)

Story by Duke Basketball | Devils Life September 16th, 2016

A few weeks ago, I came back to visit and was joined by a handful of former players who covered every decade of Coach K. What always stands out when we get together in those settings is how much we all feel a part of something that is far beyond the teams we played on.

When I was here as a player, I had my teammates. I’m not sure we thought of ourselves as a Brotherhood beyond the team that we played on. That’s something that’s been nurtured over the past 30-plus years since Coach K has been here. It’s been something that, as one of the oldest horses in the barn now, I have been able to see from the beginning. I have become good friends with guys who played 20 years after me. And I know all my teammates — the guys that I played with — feel the same way. You feel a part of something years after you wore the uniform. And so many of us are in close contact. That’s where The Brotherhood comes in. You know that when the phone rings and there is a player on the other end, you’re there to help. We’re there for each other.


When I walked down the aisle and got my Duke diploma in 1986, I wasn’t thinking, “What is my relationship with the basketball team going to be like in 30 years?” If I had thought about that, I would have never imagined that it would be what it is now. I would never have imagined that.

If you look at my time here as a player as an investment — of time and effort — the return on that investment is off the charts. I couldn’t have imagined that I would benefit like this, being around so many great people and having those relationships for my entire life. Everything good in my life that I value right now can be traced back to this place. I met my wife here and my career in basketball really started here. My decision to say “yes” to Coach K set up everything good in my life. I like to imagine I wouldn’t be selling pencils on the street if I had gone somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be like it is now. No way.


Duke has been good to me and I’ve always tried to give my best back to Duke. Giving back is an important principle Coach K has taught since I played here and probably before that. He teaches it and he lives it.

So, if Duke has ever called, absent something that I just couldn’t move… come hell or high water I was going to do it. I’ve done it for the university. If there is ever an opportunity for me to come and speak to a student group, I do that. I speak at the law school as often as I can. I come back if a professor asks if I can speak to a class. I do that whenever I can. It’s rare that I would ever say no to something like that. Whenever the basketball office calls, I’m at their service. I would do that at any time. It’s an honor for me. I enjoy being connected.

If Coach K and the coaching staff thinks it’s a good thing for the team that I come around — that’s a bonus for me. But I do it because I’m asked. I’m 52 years old now. I could not have imagined when I left here that my connection to this university and to this program would remain as strong now. It’s actually stronger than the day I left.


The Brotherhood is strong today for a few reasons. One, the class of person that has come through this program has been extraordinary. We have had so many great people. Obviously they’ve been great players, but they’ve also been men of great character, and who are willing to give of themselves outside of basketball. Then, the hub of everything has been Coach K. Grant Hill and I were just talking about this on that visit a few weeks ago. I’m 30 years from my graduation from Duke, and my coach is still in the same chair that he was in when I left here. That’s an extraordinary luxury for all of us. I think we have all remained closer than we would have been otherwise because of that. And, now that we have had that foundation of The Brotherhood established, it has a very great chance of carrying on forever.


The culture Coach has built runs deep. As a player, I learned that if I believed in Coach and really listened, I would have an amazing advantage. He’s been coaching me ever since. My ears remain wide open.

For example, I was on the air right after the 2015 championship, and Coach K was doing his postgame press conference. He said, “This has been my favorite team, this has been my favorite year.” I remember thinking about how players who have played for him through the years are processing that. Do they think, “Hey what about us. You know our year was great too!”


Well, I loved hearing that from Coach. I loved it. I was thinking what a great lesson that is for me. When I reach that age, I could have my best year. And that’s the kind of stuff that happens all the time with him. He’ll say something in a certain moment and you’re like, “Man that was profound. I wish I had known that years ago.” 

 One example of this was with USA Basketball and I happened to be in the room for a team meeting. He told the players on a night before an exhibition game, “Look, when you guys get back to your rooms, your uniforms are going to be in there. I want you to lay that uniform out on the bed and just look at it, and think about how cool this is.” He talked about how lucky all of them were. He said, “Remember the first time you got your high school uniform, the first time you got your college uniform, or your pro uniform, what that felt like.” Then he said something that I have reminded myself of almost every day that I’ve been able to do something in my job or otherwise. He said, “Don’t take special for granted.”


So, you start thinking about it. In my job, I would have killed to do Duke/Carolina when I first started out. Now when I go to do that game, I take it all in. I remind myself, “Hey this is pretty special, don’t take this for granted, enjoy this, treat it the way it should be treated, and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.” 

The players now are hearing that kind of thing every day. He’s at a level in his performance and his job that is just off the charts. Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum — they’re going to play for a better coach than I played for. And that’s great. Now, what I’ve got over them is he’s coached me longer. As long as I stay alive, he will have always coached me longer. None of us have cornered the market on love of this place, but I’ve loved it longer. The guys I’ve played — we’ve loved it longer. That’s the only thing we’ve got on the guys now. They love it just as much as we did, and they work like we worked. But we’ve loved it longer. That’s kind of a neat thing for the guys who played back in the 1980s.


When your playing career ends here, the love of the program continues on, but your role changes. My role is to provide support. What I hope the players now would understand is we’re here to support them. We’re incredibly proud of them and excited about their potential. It goes by quickly. And once it ends, you want to be there in support of the current guys and do what you can to better the opportunities for the guys that are playing now. I think that’s what all of us have tried to do. Your time as a player is short. But the responsibility and honor of The Brotherhood is forever.


We’re very excited about this year’s team. You want them to play for each other and Duke, without concern about what has come before them. When I played here, we were trying to do something for ourselves. We did talk about trying to put a foundation down that was going to last, but we wanted to win for us. That’s how it should be. And this group can do that.

These guys are men. They look like men, they’re built like men, and they play like men. Duke has a chance this year to do something that no team has done in a long, long time. They’ve got a chance to be historically good. There’s not a team out there that Duke cannot beat.


That’s got to be a nice feeling going into a year and getting into the starting blocks with that kind of ability level. I hate to sound like an old man, but when you come back and you get a chance to watch the players interact with one another and with others that are around, you see that it’s a really high character group of players also. All of them come up and they shake your hand. They’re very personable, and seem wise beyond their years. You feel a tremendous amount of pride in that.

Overall, this place is everything the current players need to be successful and then some. It’s all right here. This is the ultimate experience for a college basketball player who wants to develop as a young man on and off the court at the highest level, while chasing championships with a tremendous group of teammates. I think everyone in The Brotherhood should be really proud of that. The resources are there for the players. They’re completely supported in all areas. That’s all any athlete can ask for. These guys chose Duke to become champions and they have a very unique opportunity ahead of them. They’ve also got a Brotherhood of Duke Men who will be watching in support every step of the journey.