Thurl Bailey:  A Man as Big as His Vision of Life
Text and photographs by Page Johnson 

Thurl Bailey is what my father used to call a tall drink of water…a very tall one.  At 6 feet, 11 inches, the former National Basketball Association (NBA) star is a commanding presence wherever he goes, but it is his spirit more than his physical size that fills a room. When Thurl speaks, it is with a calm resonance that conveys both the depth and the expanse of that spirit.

This was especially palpable on Sunday, February 13, when Thurl addressed an international crowd of over 500 at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center that included ambassadors and dignitaries from Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia.   The event was part of the Visitors’ Center celebration of Black History Month, a national event every February which honors the contributions of black individuals in all fields.   In story and song, Thurl recounted not only his experiences as a basketball player, but also his personal journey of finding the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Adults and kids of all ages listened–transfixed by Thurl’s size and bearing–but laughing and commiserating with him as he recalled his childhood efforts to learn basketball skills, try out for a team, and repeatedly face rejection.

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But for the youth in the audience, the evening with Thurl was more than an opportunity to hear a famous athlete give a pep talk about following dreams and never giving up.   It offered them insight into the life and mind of a popular sports star as he faced a growing emptiness in his life despite money and fame.  Thurl looked out into the eyes of young men and women of various faiths and cultures and told them that the Lord helped him exchange that emptiness with a growing spirituality, and that he had to learn to work as hard to find God as he did to learn basketball.   He then bore his testimony in song, confidently yet calmly proclaiming his relationship with a loving Heavenly Father.

Who is Thurl Bailey?

Why was this man able to make everyone feel at ease and so good just to be around him?  I had known about Thurl, the basketball forward who played for the Utah Jazz, but I really didn’t know much about Thurl the convert to the Church, or Thurl the songwriter who has released four CDs.   Just who was this African American who was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Landover, Maryland…who sang in his Baptist choir as a youth…who played professional basketball in the U.S., Greece, and Italy…who married a Mormon…and who accepted the covenant of baptism himself when he was baptized in Italy?   And why does he draw such large crowds of young people eager to hear his story?

To find out, I searched his website and listened to selections from his CDs: Faith in Your Heart, The Gift of Christmas, and I’m Not the Same.  I noted the unmistakable influence of R&B on his work, although the musical sound is uniquely his own:  the timber of his voice exudes a gentle power and his arrangements reveal both the serious and lighthearted side of his personality.  It became clear that this was a man not only of talent, but also of complexity.  Yet I thought I knew him and what to expect when my husband and I picked him up from his hotel to take him to the Visitors’ Center for his talk. 

But I was unprepared for Thurl’s humble yet approachable and genuine personality, or his towering smile, or his massive handshake that engulfed my hand up to the elbow.  He was so dignified, so calm, so nice.  Somehow he collapsed his huge torso into our car and we drove to the Visitors’ Center, at ease with him as if we were old friends.  He explained he had just returned from Hawaii where he had been one of the speakers to help raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network.  

Such events are a main part of his life now that he has retired from professional basketball; he gives lectures and motivational speeches to business and church groups, helps with fundraisers, and participates in community youth projects.  His favorite is his own non-profit youth basketball camp that he has run for 17 years, and most of the money from “Big T’s Basketball Camp” goes to charities like the Make a Wish Foundation.  In addition, Thurl is a broadcast analyst for the Utah Jazz and the University of Utah Men’s Basketball, and his numerous civic and musical awards include the 2000 Pearl Awards for Best Contemporary Recording and Best New Artist of the Year.  The NBA awarded him the Walter Kennedy Community Service Award and he even does a bit of acting, most recently as Goliath in a video scripture series for children. 

From Basketball to Baptism    

When we arrived at the Visitors’ Center, I saw for myself why Thurl has the reputation of being a courteous and generous man.  I asked him if he wanted to stand in the foyer and greet people before his talk, or to attend a reception downstairs in honor of a local black artist named Lou Stovall, whose works were displayed throughout the building.  “I’d rather not interrupt,” Thurl demurred, choosing instead to quietly visit a room with Black History displays.  He was unassuming and thoughtful as he walked around the room looking at memorabilia and art from both America and Ghana. 

But a man of that stature cannot go unnoticed for long.  Slowly, shyly, people started to approach him, and within minutes visitors and missionaries formed a line to have their pictures taken with Thurl Bailey.  As if he had all the time in the world, Thurl obliged by signing programs, posing with enchanted fans, and chatting up teenagers.   He didn’t talk about being a member of the Church; his testimony was in his demeanor and his sincere interest in others.

The one thing he did request was a moment alone before he had to speak, and Elder Christensen, the director of the Visitors’ Center, took him to one of the empty theaters.  I assumed Thurl needed a break because he was still so jetlagged from his recent trip.  Instead, I found him using the time to pray and ask for spiritual guidance.

As Thurl made his way to the stage, fans again stopped him for autographs while sister missionaries reached out to shake his hand.  Once on the podium, Thurl sat next to Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah), certainly a novel pairing for the tall senator who rarely gets to look up at someone else.  Elder Christensen welcomed the dignitaries in the room:  His Excellency Fritz K. Poku, Ambassador of Ghana; His Excellency Simbi Mubako, Ambassador of the Republic of Zimbabwe; His Excellency Kassahun Ayele, Ambassador of Ethiopia; and Mr. Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Minister-Counselor from the Embassy of Ghana.

Sen. Bennett spoke briefly about the newly dedicated Temple in Ghana and the Church’s commitment to make the people of Ghana a part of its “world-wide fellowship.”  He introduced Ambassador Poku, who pointed out numerous ways the world has been enlightened by the contributions of African Americans. 

When Thurl rose to speak, he dwarfed everyone in the room.  He said later he felt humbled, however, to have the opportunity to speak before so many dignitaries and he hoped to visit their countries one day.  He then became a compelling storyteller, using candor and humor as he reminisced about basketball, his marriage, and his spiritual struggles.  He told how he tried to emulate his idol and one of the hottest stars of the 1970s, Julius Erving, known by fans as Dr. J.  As Thurl practiced hook shots and free throws, he’d become Dr. J, suddenly making the fast break down the court to score the big win in the final “nail-biting” seconds of an imaginary game. 

The reality, however, was that Thurl was still a lanky teenager whose skills didn’t keep pace with his growing height-He couldn’t even make his junior high school team.  No matter how hard he practiced and prepared, he was cut year after year.  In fact, his coach told him to give up basketball because he didn’t “have what it takes.” 

By ninth grade, however, a new coach saw something in Thurl’s efforts.  Potential he called it.  In fact, the coach was willing to work alone with Thurl one hour every day before and after practice.  That was the encouragement and personal attention Thurl needed to propel him into the fast lane of professional sports.   After finally making it onto his junior varsity team, he moved quickly to varsity where he became co-captain in his senior year.  From the hundreds of college recruitment letters, he chose North Carolina State, and he was on the team when they won a national championship.  In 1983, he was the 7th pick of the Utah Jazz in the first round of the NBA draft, and in his very first game, the man he was sent out to guard was his hero, Dr. J himself.  The potential that a caring coach saw and patiently developed in a willing young man was becoming a reality.

Uprooting to Salt Lake City, however, was a geographical and cultural eye-opener for Thurl, although he thought Mormons were “awesome.”  Before long, he discovered the unique phenomenon known as Church Basketball and he marveled at the tenacity with which Mormons play the game.   His new Mormon friends also kept giving him copies of the Book of Mormon, so he started to read it to get to know his neighbors better.  But he also wanted to know more about Jesus Christ, since he had always been “on a journey or search for the truth.”  He struggled to understand why the Priesthood in the LDS Church had been denied to blacks for so long, and it became a stumbling block that he could not get beyond.

During his years with the Utah Jazz, Thurl married Sindi Southwick, a Church member from Richfield, Utah, who had been one of the coaches at his youth basketball camp.  They are now the parents of three children: BreElle, 9, Brendan, 7, and Bryson, 1.  Thurl also has three other children from a previous marriage:  Chonelle, 22, Thurl, Jr., 19 and TeVaughn, 15.

Thurl was later traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he stayed for three years before joining a team in Athens, Greece.   That year in Europe was a difficult one for the family because they felt out of place in such a different culture, yet for reasons he himself couldn’t explain, Thurl felt compelled to join a struggling Italian team.  Though it ranked 18th  out of 18 teams at the time, he and his teammates took the championship the next year.

Yet Thurl believes that sports success wasn’t the reason he went to Italy.  Instead he says the Spirit guided him there to prepare him for the next part of his life. He and Sindi had just had their first baby, so she stayed in Utah while he got settled.  Alone in a new country with few friends who spoke English, he called home often and he began to take stock of his life.   As he crisscrossed country borders to play at sports events, border guards kept asking him the same three questions that sound familiar to Church members:  Where are you coming from, Why are you here, and Where are you going?

He thought about his new family and the purpose of families in general.  Sindi confirms that the birth of their daughter inspired her husband to search for ways he could improve their whole family life.   Once again, Thurl needed a coach, a personal teacher to train his heart and mind in spiritual things just as his boyhood coach had trained his body.  He admits that he was also so lonely that he was willing to talk to anyone that spoke English, but he finally asked Sindi to call the missionaries. 

Through the missionaries and the mission president of the Italy Milan Mission,Thurl found the teachers, friends, and inspiration he was looking for.   To his recurring question of why blacks had been denied the Priesthood until the Revelation of 1978 restored it to all worthy black males, President Halvor Clegg responded simply, “It wasn’t time.”   In those few words, Thurl could finally see wisdom.  It made sense to him as he considered the relative “readiness” of both whites and blacks to deal with change over the years.  This was the spiritual yet practical answer that Thurl had been seeking, and on December 31, 1995, his father-in-law baptized him into the Church.  He received the priesthood shortly afterward and currently serves as Elders’ Quorum President in the Hughs Canyon Ward in Holladay, Utah.

A Role Model That’s Real

Now that I’ve met him, it’s easy to see why Thurl Bailey is such a popular youth speaker.  Teenagers recognize the parallels in their own lives of being left out, lonely, or in need of someone to love and help them.  In his down-to-earth style, Thurl relates what he has learned about Gospel principles by telling his life story, and he sends a subtle message that he believes we should all become “coaches,” motivating those around us in word and deed.  He thanks his parents for instilling in him a desire to succeed, to be good and kind.  He honors his wife by recognizing her talents as a mother, a wife, an athlete, and a manager of his hectic schedule.  He tells the youth about “this thing called agency” that allows them to make choices even though they will make mistakes.   In fact, Thurl reminds them that Heavenly Father “tests us all the time.”  So say your prayers, he counsels, and don’t forget to say thank you. 

On this Sunday evening, Thurl spoke to an audience of wide-ranging faiths and cultures, of ambassadors, missionaries with investigators, and youngsters in jeans.  He raised his expressive hands and gave them this advice: “The thing you’re looking for is only as far as the edge of your bed.”  Then he sang his testimony, sharing his joy and gratitude to the Lord for staying beside him “all the while.”

Four boys from the Leesburg Ward, Ashburn Stake. Left to right: Cam Young, Devon Alcala, Thurl Bailey, Cameron Bird, Jamie Bird