During the decade that Thurl Bailey played power forward for the Jazz, he was a leader both on and off the court. His unselfish demeanor and his understated playing style made him a natural team captain.
But now he’s a one-man show. He doesn’t have four other go-to guys when he’s giving a corporate speech, performing his music for an auditorium full of fans or assisting an executive in updating his wardrobe. But Big T can handle the pressure because he has a solid playing ground. He learned life’s lessons from basketball, and one is … basketball isn’t that important but family is.
In fact, during the interview, his phone rang several times. Each time he would say, “Let me just see if it’s my wife.” It wasn’t, and we continued chatting about his Christmas memories, clothing line and playing church basketball.
The phone rang again.
This time it was Sindi, and he took the call. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, as they say. Family comes first — followed by religion, music, basketball, fashion and public speaking.
Yes, Thurl’s life is full of diversity — and surprisingly, he says diversity is one thing he loves about living in Utah. Nearly a year ago, he left Salt Lake Valley to move to Highland. This will be the Baileys’ first holiday season in their home. Thurl met with Utah Valley Magazine in his new family room, and here is a portion of the conversation.
After a successful professional basketball career, Thurl’s new gameplan for life includes starting a clothing line, creating four CDs of his music, doing more than 100 public speaking engagements a year, and being home as often as possible in Highland with his three young children and wife, Sindi. This will be their first Christmas since moving to Utah County.
UV: What makes you feel the Christmas spirit?
Thurl: I love it when it is getting close to Christmas, and it hasn’t snowed yet. And you are hoping that the first snow gets timed just right. I remember listening to Christmas music by Nat King Cole on my parents’ turntable. But now as an adult, Christmas is about sitting in the background watching Christmas happen around the kids.
UV: Do you have a Christmas present you are hoping for this year?
Thurl: Sindi and I have gotten to the point where we try to focus on others. We usually promise that we’re not going to spoil each other. But some years she has broken that, so then I wonder, “Should I break it? Is she going to break it this year?” We’ve even talked about signing a contract that says we won’t get big gifts for each other.
UV: What are some of your Christmas traditions?
Thurl: One of my favorite traditions is the Christmas village my wife sets out every year. It has grown into a huge display. She starts putting it out in early November, and you just want to jump right in and be a part of the village. Another tradition is that I always put the star up, and I don’t need the ladder!
UV: What were your Christmases like growing up?
Thurl: We didn’t have a lot of money, but I remember we had a silver Christmas tree that I loved. We would put the aluminum sticks in it. Then when I married Sindi, Christmas took on a whole new meaning. I didn’t know we needed three trees in the house. We’ll have the in-laws here or we’ll go down there (Richfield) the day after Christmas. We gather all the grandkids and do the nativity scene. I like to do things I didn’t do as a kid. We have brought two cultures together.
UV: What Christmas gift do you remember as a child?
Thurl: I got a hobby horse that I ran into the ground. The last time I got on it, I broke the springs. I was getting older — my feet were touching the ground. I cried my eyes out when the springs broke.
UV: Your favorite Christmas song?
Thurl: Probably “Grown Up Christmas List.” I did it on my CD, and I dedicated it to the families and victims of 9/11. My daughter and I also did “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” when she was 6 years old. That was a special one. I’m working on another Christmas album.
UV: Will you be busy with concerts this Christmas season?
Thurl: I was really busy two Christmases ago, and I decided I would only do two or three concerts at Christmas this year.
UV: How busy of a schedule do you keep?
Thurl: I’m busier now than I was when I was playing basketball. I am involved in many different things. I have created a clothing line. A lot of executives don’t have time to go out and shop, but they like to dress nicely. We cater to those types of people. I also put on “Dress for Success” seminars. For example, RC Willey hired me to speak to their employees. If you are a sales person, the first impression is very important.
UV: I’m sure first impressions are different for someone like you because you are so recognizable.
Thurl: Actually a lot of kids never saw me play. But sometimes they’ve seen me in “One Smooth Stone.” It’s always nice when a little kid summons up enough courage to walk over to me and say, “Aren’t you Goliath?” or “Are you Thurl Bailey?” I love that.
UV: My daughter saw you at the football game where our sons played each other. She had watched “One Smooth Stone” on the way to the game, so I pointed you out. But I couldn’t get her to talk to you.
Thurl: Next time tell her to come over. I’ve learned it only takes a few seconds to affect someone in a positive way. I try to make kids feel comfortable with me.
UV: What motivates you to be so generous with your time?
Thurl: I’ve been fortunate to be where I am and experience what I’ve experienced. This state has been awesome to me. Some people may call it giving back. I just call it being myself. I’m just being the boy my momma taught me to be.
UV: What’s the most common question people ask you?
Thurl: People ask me if I miss basketball. I’m still close enough to it with the commentating I do for the Jazz. I still have a voice in the basketball community.
UV: And for the past year you’ve been part of the Utah County community.
Thurl: And we are loving it. We really had to think about moving to Utah County. When we bought our house in Holladay, we didn’t have kids. It was on a hill and didn’t have a huge yard. By the time the kids started coming and wanting to ride bikes, it was difficult. There weren’t a lot of kids on our street. We decided to give the kids a place to spread out.
UV: What do you love about Utah?
Thurl: I love the diversity — and it’s becoming more diverse. When I first came here in 1983, I may have seen one or two African-Americans a day, and they were always the same ones.
UV: Have you noticed any other changes in Utah in the past decade?
Thurl: As far as restaurants, Salt Lake has gotten better. After living in Italy and eating the finest foods … it doesn’t get better than that. Eating in Italy is an event. It’s like going to a Jazz game. Sindi and I enjoy a good evening at a restaurant.
UV: You and your wife seem to have a great relationship.
Thurl: I got lucky on that one. She grew up on a farm, and she’s not afraid to work. She planted 18 trees in our yard.
UV: And she’s an athlete, too.
Thurl: Yes, she played basketball for UVSC. If you ask her what kind of basketball player she was, she’ll say, “I was a good basketball player.” She is confident.
UV: What do you enjoy doing together?
Thurl: One thing we do is we’ll pick a book — a lot of times she’ll buy it on CD and play it in the car. We’ll both start and finish the book and then talk about it. It’s been fun for us. We did that with “Da Vinci Code,” and then saw the movie, which was very close. I also love the classic spy novel.
UV: What role has she played in your success?
Thurl: It’s amazing when you find that companion who just gets you right away. We’re very competitive with each other. But she’s been very instrumental in the organizational part of my life. I just like to do things — I don’t like to worry about how, when or where to put things.
UV: Does she come hear you speak?
Thurl: She’s had her fill of that. She schedules it, and I go do it.
UV: If she is in the audience, does it make you more nervous?
Thurl: She’s nervous! I’ll pick on her and sing right to her. She doesn’t like that. When we got married, I sang to her. She has a tough side she tries to uphold, but I try to break it down as often as I can.
UV: Do you play basketball with Sindi?
Thurl: She doesn’t like playing with me anymore … or it might be the other way around! But the game of basketball brought Sindi and I together.
UV: Obviously sports are a big part of your family life. Your son beat my son in football!
Thurl: We’ve had a pretty good season. My son ran a touchdown back off a kickoff. That was amazing. I also love to see my daughter do the backstroke and then come out of the pool and wait for everybody else to finish. That’s what it’s all about for me.
UV: Have you coached your kids’ teams?
Thurl: Yes, I’ve coached Junior Jazz.
UV: I bet every kid wants to be on your team!
Thurl: We have a blast. We may not win every game, but everybody gets to participate. It creates lifelong friendships. Those kids my daughter swims with, they are going to grow up as friends, regardless of what religion and color they are. They are going to learn from sports how to tolerate others. And then they will teach their parents.
UV: What were your parents like?
Thurl: My mom is the anchor. Southern black women are strong willed. My dad was injured when I was young, and my mom nursed him back to health and took care of the family. My dad was the quiet, get-the-job-done type. He never missed a basketball game — even when I was 300 miles away in college.
UV: Were you competitive growing up?
Thurl: In junior high, I was a tall, lanky out-of-place kid who didn’t play sports. But I saw Dr. J play on TV, and I wanted to be like him. I was 6-foot-4 in the seventh grade and 6-foot-7 in the eighth grade. But the coaches told me I wasn’t cut out to play basketball. My last year of junior high, I was 6-foot-9, and I tried out again. I wasn’t very good, but that coach sat me down and said, “I see potential in you.” I only averaged three seconds per game that year. I went in for the jump ball and then got taken out. But I didn’t care. I went on to play high school ball, and then at North Carolina State I won a national championship (looks down at his championship ring). Winning the national championship was amazing. We were as underdog as underdog can get. The championship game had one of the greatest endings — a lot of people say it’s in the top five for them.
UV: What life’s lessons did basketball teach you?
Thurl: Sports in general teaches us how to prepare as a team, whether that team is a family or the partners in your office. Basketball also taught me to rely on other people and not think I know everything. Nobody does. Sometimes kids today are struggling and they know they need help but they don’t want to ask. The right people around you can make you better. Michael Jordan was the epitome of that. He expected his teammates to bring their best game every night, and he brought his.
I’ve also taught my kids that if they really want something in athletics, they have to work for it. Nothing is going to be handed to them because their last name is Bailey and their dad’s name is Thurl.
UV: Tell me about a highlight from your basketball career.
Thurl: One of the greatest moments was when Dr. J came up to me and welcomed me into the league. I used to idolize him on my black and white TV set, and now I was playing against him.
UV: Is it difficult for athletes after they leave the NBA to find their place?
Thurl: I planned for it. I knew I wanted to get more into my music and speaking. But you just never get that feeling again that you had in the locker room. That’s what I miss. I don’t miss the two-a-days and having to stay in shape. When I left, I knew I’d be friends with Karl and John forever, but you never get the same camaraderie back. The morning I woke up and didn’t have to go to practice, I thought, “What am I going to do today?” And then I’m walking around, and I bump into my wife who says, “Don’t you have something to do?” That was my signal. Basketball was great for me, but I always knew there would be bigger and better things. Whether I’m there or not, I’m not sure. But there are great things happening in my life.
UV: A lot of your life now seems to be centered around your conversion to the LDS faith. How did that come about?
Thurl: I went to Italy to play basketball, and at first I went without Sindi. I actually called the missionaries. It was mostly because I couldn’t speak to anybody. My teammates were trying to teach me Italian, and I found out they were teaching me bad words. I was so happy to see the missionaries and to talk to people in English. After meeting with the missionaries and mission president, I decided to be baptized. It was an emotional experience when I called my wife and told her. I was baptized Dec. 31, 1995.
UV: I enjoyed watching the video “Thurl, Forward With New Power” you loaned me that tells the story of your life and conversion. Do you feel you have become a representative for the LDS Church?
Thurl: I hope that I am by the way I live. I don’t know that I intentionally try to wear that title on my sleeve.
UV: Do you get asked to sing in church?
Thurl: Yes, and it’s not like doing a concert. Church is a little more nervewracking and emotional. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because you’ve got a bigger audience (looks upward). You know why you are singing and what it’s about.
UV: Do you play church basketball?
Thurl: I tried to play once and only once. I learned that a lot of guys want to go home with a great story about how they blocked Thurl’s shot or scored on Thurl — at any cost.
UV: Sounds dangerous.
Thurl: Careers have been ended on the church basketball court. But I was in the movie “Church Ball,” and that was fun.
UV: In your different careers, you have always been in front of audiences — with basketball, music, speaking or films. You must have put aside nerves long ago.
Thurl: Actually, right before the jump ball I always had nerves. Then once the clock started, I would fall into a groove. It’s the same with speaking — I’m nervous right before I start.
UV: When did you become passionate about public speaking?
Thurl: I studied communications at N.C. State. And then with my occupation as a professional athlete, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with that. You go out and speak at schools.
UV: Are many of your speaking engagements church-related?
Thurl: At first they were. But now I do less. My wife shook me one day and said, “You are killing yourself. You can’t say yes to everything and everybody.” I was doing a fireside almost every Sunday. A lot of them were musical firesides.
UV: What are your plans with music?
Thurl: I’m writing the music for my fifth CD, and I’m trying to decide what direction to go musically.
UV: I loved the songs in “One Smooth Stone” where you play Goliath. How did you become involved with the Liken the Scriptures movie?
Thurl: Aaron Edson, who wrote the music, contacted Sindi and told her what the project was all about. Sindi told me she thought it sounded fun.
UV: What did you think of the finished product?
Thurl: The message in it was awesome. They tie the story into present day and tell it through a kid’s imagination. My part had some humor, which I enjoyed. My 2-year-old sings my songs. He sings, “Everybody wants to be like me!”
UV: Who wouldn’t want to be like you? Congratulations on your basketball, music and speaking success. And I hope you have a Merry Christmas!
Thurl: Thank you.