An excerpt from Jay Bilas' "Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court"
Whatever toughness I have been able to muster as an athlete, attorney, broadcaster, and person, I learned first by the example set by my mother and father…
Every day, my father always got up and went to work. I learned about his work ethic not from my father talking about it, but from watching him. Actually, I never really heard my father talk about how hard he worked, unless he was answering a question of mine. He didn’t talk about it; he just did it.
I never heard my dad complain about working, or about how difficult a particular job or task was. He would plan for a task and concentrate fully on that task until it was completed. And he would always do it right the first time. Then he would move on. He never sought congratulations or a pat on the back. He just went to work every day.
Whether the task was relatively simple or more difficult, my father always approached it with the same demeanor. He was disciplined and thoughtful about things, and never rushed or crazed about anything. He was never rattled by any issues that arose, met challenges head on, and always looked for the best solutions. Truthfully, he was everything I was not. As a boy, I was hot headed and impulsive. Later I learned to be more like my dad, but I’ve never been able to match him.
When I was a kid, I played Little League baseball. One day, I asked my dad to take me to the batting cages so I could get in a few swings against the pitching machines. I chose a cage that was too fast for me, but I wanted to hit against faster pitching. My dad didn’t say a word.
After watching me swing and miss, swing and hit weak grounders, and swing and foul off pitch after pitch, my dad said, “Just relax and meet the ball. You’re trying to kill it. Let the bat swing freely.”
I was so frustrated that I couldn’t hit get good wood on the ball. I thought he was getting on me, so like an idiot, I shot back at him, “If you think it’s so easy, you do it!”
Without saying a word, my dad walked into the cage, took the bat, and calmly dropped another quarter in the machine. Then, whack! whack! whack! He proceeded to hit hard line drive after hard line drive. I stood there stunned. Then he got out of the cage and said, “Just relax and hit the ball. You don’t have to swing so hard. Just see the ball and hit it, and let the bat do the work.” I never forgot that. He was so calm and matter-of-fact about it. The job was to see the ball and hit it. So he did just that. There was no need to make a big deal of it.
In his business, while my father had worked to make money, he was also forward-thinking and worked to make that money work for him. Early on after starting his television sales and repair business, he began buying commercial real estate properties in San Pedro. He did things step by step, and never got ahead of himself. First he started his own business, but he also bought the dirt underneath it. And he began buying other properties in the same area.
There were a few times I would be with my father at his TV shop, and when he would drive me home, he would stop and look at a local property for sale. He would consider what he would have to pay for the property, what would need to be done to make it profitable, and whether he wanted to take on the risk. He knew the area because he grew up there and worked there every day, and he knew what it took for a property to be successful for him. He told me about his general rule of “ten times gross” that he used to decide whether the property was worth pursuing further. If the building’s price was around ten times its annual gross rent, my father would really dig in and evaluate the risks involved. When I asked, he told me that there was nothing easy in real estate or any other investment, and he tried to fully think through every aspect of the investment before he made a decision.
When I was in high school, my dad looked into buying a building that had been an auto supply store. It was a big space that only seemed suited for a large retail operation. I remember my father looking into buying that building, even though many of his friends believed the building was a loser, and that he shouldn’t buy it.
But my dad saw something more than just one big retail space. He saw a building that could be turned into multiple retail spaces, and one that he believed was a steal. He didn’t particularly care what other people thought about the building. Rather, he focused on his own evaluation and the opportunities that he saw. He bought the building and immediately worked to partition it into seven small storefront business spaces. I was with him during a few days of construction when he worked partitioning the building, most of which he did and supervised himself. My dad took that one big retail space that sat empty for so long and quickly turned into seven smaller spaces that housed small businesses like a salon, a furniture repair shop, and even a small diner on the corner. My dad turned that “loser” into a net winner.
For a time, in part because my dad never bragged about anything, I thought my dad was just really smart in his business decisions, and had a magic eye that could see a winner at first glance. He was really smart, but his success was due to far more than that. His business successes didn’t just happen. I might have only been with him when he initially looked at a property and did some calculations on a napkin while we were having a bite to eat. What I didn’t see was how much work and thought went into that investment decision. For a time, I mistakenly thought my dad just took a quick look, did some math, and got a loan. He didn’t. He gathered every piece of information he needed to make the best possible decision. He was disciplined and thoughtful in his decisions.
With considerable skill, time and effort, my dad became a very successful businessman. But with all of the work he had to put in, he never once said he didn’t have time for me or my brother and sisters. He made time. My father never missed one of my high school games.
My dad essentially retired when I was in college. He still worked managing his properties, but his work was much easier than it had been all those years prior.
Of the many things I have admired about my dad, one stands out above all others: He is unfailingly honest and straightforward. If my father said he was going to do something, he did it. He was trustworthy, and you can count on his word. He didn’t give advice often, but when he did, you knew he had thought about it, and it was going to be right.
And he is the toughest person I have ever known. My dad is big and strong physically, but he is much stronger in character. From the time he was young, he worked hard to make his own way without help from anyone. He never once complained or expected credit. It was just what he did. When he was sick or hurt, my dad went to work. When he was faced with a difficult task, he performed that task to the best of his ability. He provided a home and a great life for his family.
My dad was the consistent daily example of toughness early in my life. Each day of my life, I have known my dad as trustworthy, fearless, persistent, disciplined, committed, concentrated, and resilient. My dad has always been the personification of the toughness I value, and the clear and simple stories of toughness I learned from him are the basis and foundation of this book.
I have often said that if I could be half the man my father is, I would be twice the man I ever thought I could be…
Before I ever dribbled a ball or heard a word from Coach K, I first learned from my parents that toughness is a skill, and it is something I could improve upon. From that solid foundation, others added to my understanding of toughness. Over the years, teachers, coaches, teammates and even opponents have taught me, sometimes against my will, what it takes to be tough, and showed me what I needed to do to be tougher. In my judgment, toughness is one of the most valuable and admirable attributes in any person.
I’m nowhere near as tough as my parents, and I am nowhere near as tough as I want to be. But, I am tougher than I used to be and, going forward, I know that I will be tougher than I am today.