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Q&A: ESPN analyst Jay Bilas speaks on the UNC-Duke rivalry, his favorite moments

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Jay Bilas interviewing former Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Photo courtesy of Jay Bilas.

Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst and former Duke Blue Devil, has become a leading voice in the world of college basketball. Bilas has been with ESPN since 1995 and has now played in, coached and played a broadcast role in countless UNC-Duke men’s basketball games. 

Daily Tar Heel Assistant Sports Editor Shelby Swanson called Bilas in late January to discuss his fondest rivalry memories.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: You were a four-year starter for Coach K from 1982 to 1986, what are some of your favorite memories from the UNC-Duke rivalry as a player?

Jay Bilas: The programs were in different places when I got to Duke in 1982. Carolina had just won the national championship, and Duke was trying to build toward being able to compete with that.

You had spectacular talent on Carolina’s side, and it was probably 1984 where we felt like we were competitively equal. We played three games that year, including a double-overtime loss at Carmichael (Arena) toward the end of the year. 

After the game, Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) came in the locker room and we were distraught. He basically said, ‘We’re going to play them again and when we do, we’re going to win.’ In the ACC Tournament the next week, oddly, we did play them again and we did win. It signaled, O.K., this is on. Every game was really intense and really high-level. At that time, I think the Duke fans had a little bit of an inferiority complex and felt like they were looked down upon by Carolina fans. From then on, the fan bases went after each other. 

DTH: When you were at Duke, you all often competed against UNC in pickup games. You’ve talked in the past about, in particular, playing against Michael Jordan in some pickup games in Woollen Gym. Do you have any anecdotes from that? 

JB: Jordan was superhuman. Everyone else was just ridiculously good. 

We would go over to Chapel Hill for a few days, and they would come over to Durham for a few days. It wasn’t something we did every day, it was something we did for a few days every spring and fall. It was always fun. It was heated, but it was fun. It seemed like those were the most intense pickup games we ever played in.

DTH: As a player, can you describe the feeling of getting on the bus and driving to Chapel Hill? 

JB: The air is heavier when that game’s around. There’s more anticipation leading up to it, there’s more attention and both buildings were oddly hotter for that one game. Cameron (Indoor Stadium) was like a sweatbox for that game.

It was just a different atmosphere, and a different (level) of attention — national attention. All rivalries are big deals to the participants. Like I don’t think Duke/Carolina in intensity, it may not differ — in the game itself and to the players — from Xavier/Cincinnati or Auburn/Alabama. 

But I don’t think any other, at least basketball rivalry, captures the national attention as that one does. The game always delivers. It’s always a spirited, big deal. I don’t know how to explain it… it’s just got meaning beyond other rivalries and other games. There’s imagination and attention captured by it that’s hard to put into words and hard to explain. You just have to feel it.

DTH: The 1982 recruiting class that you were a part of still ranks as one of the highest-scoring classes in college basketball history. How important do you see that 1982 class in building up the rivalry between Duke and UNC? 

JB: It was nice to be there at the beginning of Coach K, and it’s nice to get a compliment about that, but the Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley years were pretty important. With Shane Battier and all of these guys that continued that stuff and took it to a higher level, there’s a lot of credit that needs to be doled out.

That’s kind of the cool thing about (the rivalry), is all the great teams and all the great players, a number of which have been national player of the year, hall-of-famers and record-setters. If you sit and try to say, "Alright, give an all-time starting five for each team," look at who you’re leaving off. You’re leaving off players that would be the greatest player in another school’s history. That’s pretty impressive.

DTH: You served as an assistant coach under Coach K from 1990 to 1992, did that give you a different perspective on the rivalry?

JB: I think the longer you’re involved in it, the more respect you have for the rivalry and for the opponent. That’s the thing that I think gets lost, is how much respect the (Duke) players had for the Carolina program. You wanted to win, and you wanted to win with everything you had. When you won, you felt good because it said something really good about you and no other game made you feel that way, or at least not to that level.

I think (the early 1990s) was a time period where you could tell there was a shift in how the fans viewed the rivalry. In the 1992 season, No. 1 Duke came into the Dean Dome, and North Carolina won the game. The Carolina fans stormed the floor. I was the grad assistant that year, and was walking off the floor with one of my former teammates who was an assistant at the time, Tommy Amaker. We looked back and looked at each other like, "Can you believe that? What is this?" That was something that maybe the Duke fans did after a win over Carolina. We’d never seen that before at North Carolina. It showed that, O.K., not only is this a fair fight, but this isn’t an expected win for their fans. That raised the stakes of our rivalry and made it more intense.

DTH: This is one of the few times that neither Duke nor North Carolina is a ranked team in the matchup. What would you say to fans who maybe aren’t as excited about this game given the relative standings of the two teams?  

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JB: I’m not really good at reasoning with fans. They can think whatever they want. I’m sure this time last year, Carolina fans weren’t particularly excited about their prospects, and look at what happened. 

With North Carolina and Duke, when they play each other, you have to look at the past history. It delivers every time. To me, it doesn’t need to be hyped. You just have to say that they’re playing and it immediately gets me interested. Of course, there’s going to be an added dimension when it’s No. 1 vs. No. 2, but it just adds to something that’s already at a high level.

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.