From his first day at Duke University four years ago, Jay Bilas, the former Rolling Hills High School basketball star, was immediately the center of attention.
"Are you one of the new basketball players?" a Blue Devils fan, with awe in his eyes, asked the 6-8, 225-pound center who was at a shopping mall buying linens for his dorm room.
In Los Angeles, seeing a celebrity is not unusual. But the star treatment was unusual for Bilas. And despite an 11-17 finish that season, Bilas' new-found fame grew.
"I can't go anywhere without being recognized," Bilas said.
That's especially true now as Duke, 36-2 and top-rated in the nation, prepares for its Final Four game against the University of Kansas on Saturday in Dallas.
He's the 5th Man
But his fame is restricted to the city limits of Durham, N. C. Outside, Bilas is considered the chink in the Duke armor.
The Blue Devils, whose 36 victories tied the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. single-season mark set by Kentucky in 1948, are loaded with talent.
Forwards Mark Alarie and David Henderson and All-American guard Johnny Dawkins, all of whom arrived at Duke in 1982 with Bilas, grab most of the headlines. And Tommy Amaker, a junior point guard, and Dawkins are recognized as one of the best back courts in college basketball history.
So what's left for Bilas, the fifth starter who averages 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game?
When analysts break out their calculators and statistics to compare Duke against other teams, the Blue Devils invariably lose the center spot. And that consensus irritates Bilas.
Big Against Navy
"On paper, I always lose my match-ups," he said. "But the game isn't played on paper."
In the East Regional final, Bilas led a 49-29 rebounding surge with 10 to sink Navy and its big man, 6-11 David Robinson, 71-50.
During his high school days, Bilas was seldom on the short end of an analyst's comparison. He averaged more than 20 points a game en route to a career total of 1,302 and, as a senior, was named by Street & Smith magazine to its honorable mention All-American team.
In his senior season he was the shortest of the front-line players. Dave Butler, now a senior at Cal, was 6-9, and brother Greg Butler, now a sophomore at Stanford, was 6-10. But at Duke, Bilas is the tallest starter, although a 6-8 pivot man is usually deemed a weakness.
Not only is he short for a center in major college basketball, but he said he isn't physically imposing either.
"Patrick Ewing is so big and strong and he could make a scary look and intimidate you," Bilas said. "I can't do that. I'm a California boy. I'm kind of laid back."
That laid-back nature doesn't mean Bilas isn't an intense competitor.
In the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament four years ago, Virginia was trouncing Duke. The final score, 109-66, was the worst defeat ever of a team in an ACC tournament.
Despite the score, Bilas continued to go all out against the Cavaliers' All-Everything center, Ralph Sampson.
"I got into a little beef with Ralph," Bilas said. "He thought I was playing dirty or something. But I was just playing as hard as all hell trying to win, even though we had no chance."
Lost Tooth, Kept Playing
Earlier in his freshman year, Bilas, who started 24 of 28 games, continued to play against George Mason even after losing a tooth.
"It really hurt and I asked myself, 'What am I doing playing this game?' "
The answer, of course, is that he wants to be a winner. And Bilas has learned what he has to do for Duke to win: crash the offensive and defensive boards and play tenacious defense and leave the bulk of scoring responsibilities to Dawkins and Alarie.
In other words, Bilas does the blue-collar work, a job he doesn't mind.
"If we were all fighting over who'd shoot it, we'd never win," he said. "There's only one ball and I'm the type of player who'll do whatever is necessary to win."
Praised by Alarie
Alarie, Bilas' roommate, said that if Bilas was just two inches taller he wouldn't have to bear the label as Duke's weak link.
"He does a great job on the boards and is a good defensive player," Alarie said. "If he was 6-10, people would say he's a very good complementary player instead of criticizing him.
"He's accepted the role of being less of an offensive weapon. Certain players have to accept certain roles if a team is going to win, and we have a lot of respect for him for doing that."
Bilas, a political science major, has scored 1,051 points and grabbed 776 rebounds in his four-year career. This season he is the team's leading rebounder per minute played.
Bilas said he probably could have been a big scorer elsewhere but is proud of what he and his teammates have accomplished.
"I've gotten recognition as being part of a good group. I feel fortunate just to be with these guys."