When he was at the Roanoke Times and Bill Millsaps was the boss at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, they were frequent traveling, drinking, dining, and golf companions. Mostly, they debated. "I never argued with any good friend as much as I did with Brill," Millsaps said. "Brill was often wrong but never in doubt." Once, certain he had Brill cornered, Millsaps pulled out the play-by-play of an epic North Carolina State-Maryland basketball game played two weeks earlier. "OK, Bill Brill, hoops genius," Millsaps said. "If you know so much, tell me how the last two minutes went." Without hesitation, without notes, and in exact sequence of events that happened 14 days before, Brill recited every basket, every foul, and every free throw of the game's last two minutes.
The performance left Millsaps speechless until he summoned the strength to say, "Brill, you are a sick individual."
Brill said, "That's the nicest thing you ever said to me."
Bill Brill was short. He made up for it with a beer-keg torso. He wore black-rimmed glasses that were in style when Buddy Holly went down in that plane. He smoked cigars, drank hard stuff two fingers deep, and spoke with the volume turned up. Brill came with so many stories that he could never get them all delivered in such a short life, only 79 years. Happily, he arranged for an overtime; a month before the cancer finally won, Brill wrote his own obituary. There he explained how a man born in Philadelphia and raised in Virginia went to college in North Carolina . . .
"His mother wanted him to ‘be a professional man' and he had accepted a scholarship to Cornell in the winter of 1948. February in Ithaca was -4 degrees Fahrenheit and when he arrived back in Virginia, he told his mother, ‘I don't know where I'm going to college, but I know where I'm not going to go.' He applied to Duke and was promptly accepted, academic standards not being what they are now. . . ."
Academic work often interfered with Brill's pursuit of higher learning at Duke. Three times he changed his majors before "getting his degree in Economics without ever understanding what it was." Everything he needed to know he learned working for the school's sports information office. He came to fully understand football, baseball, and basketball. So began love affairs with Duke and sportswriting.
"Upon graduation, with a GPA near the Mendoza line," Brill wrote of Brill, "he was hired sight-unseen in January, 1953, by the Covington Virginian as sports editor. The entire paper had four writers. It was hardly a bonanza. Bill rode a bike and lived with the chief of police. His take-home pay was $25.80. Room-and-board was $26.00. But he loved the job, learned to type on the go, and in six weeks almost had his salary doubled to $55.00 – on which he could afford an apartment with a roommate and a Chevy without a radio."
A move to Roanoke bumped Brill to $95 a week. More important, it lifted him into the big leagues of college basketball – near enough, anyway, that he could, and did, drive back to Durham. On his death, he had covered 125 of the last 126 Duke-North Carolina basketball games. He said he covered more NCAA Final Fours, 44, than any other writer.
"The best thing about working in Roanoke was that the sports section had the respect of its peers," Brill once wrote. "We had fewer people, less money and less space. Yet somehow we covered as many events as the big boys. Our guys might drive home at 3 a.m. because we couldn't afford to stay over in a motel, and I loved it, because they loved it, and they did it because they wanted to make the paper better. There was a time when the Roanoke Times covered the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the U.S. Open and the NCAA basketball final (before it became the Final Four)."
Though he is in four Halls of Fame, I doubt if even one notes Brill's major contribution to sportswriting's lexicon. Writers have always gathered for shop talk and refreshing elixirs in "hospitality" rooms. But after a set-to with an Atlantic Coast Conference official who failed to provide enough beer, Brill called them "hostility" rooms. For that alone, he should be in a fifth Hall. And if that isn't enough, there is the funniest, meanest, savviest lead ever written on a college basketball game – as remembered by John Feinstein, the best-selling author and a student at Brill's knee for 30 years.
It happened in 1991. Top-seed Southern Mississippi was heavily favored to beat eight-seed Louisville in the first round of the Metro Conference tournament. Brill was still angry that Louisville, with the help of a referee's questionable call, had beaten Duke in the 1986 national championship game. (Yes, still angry five years later, still disputing the call.) So when Southern Miss somehow contrived to lose to hated Louisville, Brill's resentment spilled over onto the losers. He wrote, "Never trust a team with a fat point guard." While it was true that the Southern Miss point guard was fat, Feinstein said, "Only Brill would have written it." As for savvy, think about it: Ever see a good team with a fat point guard?
Before there was "bracketology," there was Bill Brill on a luggage cart rolled into a hostility room after the ACC tournament championship game. "Mahatma Brill," one commissioner called him. On those nights, Brill, after a season's worth of serious study, would predict the field of 64 teams in the NCAA tournament. "Brill would announce each bracket," Feinstein wrote on his blog, "and – I swear I'm not making this up – people listened so carefully that a couple of times young writers started to call their offices to make travel plans before they were informed that even though Brill's bracket SHOULD be the real one, it wasn't."
After his 1993 retirement in Roanoke, Brill was a constant presence during Duke's long run of basketball success under Mike Krzyzewski. From the Brill obit by Brill: "He missed only one Duke Elite Eight after suffering a fall in a Jacksonville hotel after the first round game in 2010, but he saw every one of the Final Four games. . . .He wrote extensively about Duke basketball with three books . . .and was the lead columnist for the 18 ½ years of production for Blue Devil Weekly, where he missed just one issue."
Brill was cremated. He asked that his ashes be spread in Duke's basketball arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium; two dozen friends did that. Krzyzewski and Feinstein took their vials of ashes outside. They walked to the grassy area where students pitch tents in advance of big games, now known as Krzyzewskiville. "We walked over to the plaque which commemorates it," Feinstein said. "Mike said, ‘I think this is where Brill would most want to be.' So we did it there."
Feinstein kept a third of the ashes. The vial now sits on the mantel above his office fireplace. "God knows I'll always hear his voice," he said, "I might as well have him there watching me, too."