February 1, 2012

By Paul Corliss

From being cut in junior high school, to emerging as the leading scorer for one of the most beloved college national championship teams in history. From scoring double-digits and serving as team captain for the Utah Jazz, to closing a storied career in Greece and Italy. Thurl Bailey has traveled far and wide through the world of basketball. Today Bailey remains a hoops sage, staying attached to the game – when he’s not spending quality time with his family – as a member of the NBRPA Board of Directors and working as a Jazz broadcast analyst.

“I don’t miss playing, I miss the camaraderie in the locker room,” said Bailey, now 50 and enjoying life with wife Sindi and his children. “I enjoy talking basketball, I enjoy analyzing basketball. Every player that made it to the NBA has a connection and is part of a brotherhood – even if we didn’t play together, we feel that connection.”

Standing 6-foot-11, Bailey – who averaged nearly 13 points per game in his 13-season NBA career – still looks like a basketball hero. But slam dunk dreams for this Maryland native, who idolized Julius Erving as a boy, began slowly.

“I was more into music and student government as a kid,” said Bailey, who played the trombone and tuba as a youngster and has had a successful recording career as a vocalist in adulthood after basketball. “I was cut twice in junior high, both in seventh and eighth grade.”

Standing more than 6-foot-7, Bailey finally started his march as a basketball player in ninth grade. He played junior varsity basketball as a 10th grader, and – in his words – finally “began to blossom” toward the end of his junior season at Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Md.

Success in high school led to scholarship offers from several prominent East Coast collegiate programs, but Bailey – whose parents were both from the state of North Carolina – had a special connection to the basketball team at North Carolina State.

“I sold raffle tickets to attend a basketball camp at North Carolina State (while in high school) and I think the coaching staff saw potential in me and kept tabs on me,” said Bailey, who built a bond with then-NC State coach Norm Sloan and his assistant, Ed Biedenbach. “I never forgot that and my folks never forgot that.”

Bailey signed on with Sloan’s Wolfpack as a high school senior, and played for the leader of NC State’s 1974 national championship squad during his freshman season of 1979-80. But when Sloan moved on to coach Florida, Bailey’s life would be forever changed with the hire of former Iona coach Jim Valvano.

With Bailey leading the way alongside fellow Maryland natives Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, Valvano built momentum at NC State and looked poised for a breakout in 1982-83 – his third season in Raleigh. But with Ralph Sampson still at Virginia and the dynamic duo of Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins leading defending national champion North Carolina, the ACC was an absolute bear of a conference.

Led by Bailey’s 16.7 points per game, the Wolfpack entered the ACC Tournament with a 17-10 record – firmly perched upon the NCAA Tournament bubble. But NC State rose to the occasion, and knocked off North Carolina and Virginia – ranked No. 5 and No. 2, respectively – en route to winning the ACC and punching a ticket to the Big Dance. Valvano, however, had loftier goals and wasn’t afraid to share them with Bailey and his teammates.

“We weren’t really on anyone’s (NCAA) radar, but Coach V was a great leader,” Bailey said. “When he talked about winning the national championship, we thought he was crazy. But Coach V was just masterful in getting us to sacrifice a little bit, and game after game, something unexpected happened. We ended up in Albuquerque (for the NCAA Final) playing against one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled.”

The Wolfpack of Bailey and Valvano made history at the Pit in Albuquerque on April 4, 1983 against the top-seeded Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Basketball fans know the fairytale ending well:

- With time expiring and the score tied at 52, Whittenburg attempts to win the game with a long-range jumper, but shoots a high-arching air ball
- Lorenzo Charles leaps in the air, grabs Whittenburg’s shot and slams it home – giving NC State at 54-52 win – as the buzzer sounds
- Valvano sprints down the court joyfully, arms flailing in celebration

Bailey, who led the Wolfpack with 15 points in that iconic NCAA Championship game, said he carries lessons with him from the magical 1983 tournament run with him every day in life.

“Once you experience the journey of becoming a champion, there is an application to everything you do,” he said. “You approach challenges with a half-full approach instead of half-empty. We took a lot of risks and believed in each other … these were life-long lessons.”

On the strength of his great tournament and career in Raleigh, Bailey was drafted No. 7 overall by the Utah Jazz. Bailey was solid from the get-go, averaging 12.4 points as a rookie in 1983-84. Playing alongside All-Star teammates John Stockton and Karl Malone, Bailey and the Jazz emerged as a force in the late 1980s. As a go-to Sixth Man, Bailey averaged almost 19 points a game from 1984 to 1990 and the Jazz mirrored his success by qualifying for the playoffs in each of those seeasons.

”I had a great run (in the NBA),” Bailey said. “When you play with arguably the greatest point guard and power forward in the game – when you run the break with (Stockton and Malone) – it’s a dream come true.”

The Jazz never quite got over the championship hump during Bailey’s initial run in Utah and he was eventually traded to Minnesota, where he played three seasons with the Timberwolves of the early 1990s. Bailey’s career wound down overseas from 1994 to 1998 in Greece and Italy, before he finished his playing days with one last stint in Utah during the 1998-99 season.

Bailey lost Valvano – who died of cancer in 1993 – along the way. But while the loss of a man he called a “father-figure” was crushing, Bailey points to the legacy Valvano has left behind in cancer research that impacts people to this day.

Also along the way, in his march through basketball, Bailey met his soul mate: A former basketball player from Utah Valley State named Sindi Southwick. The two married in 1994 and have three children, in addition to bailey’s three older children.

“I have a wonderful family,” Bailey said. “I read a quote that stated,’Fatherhood is not something that perfect men do, but It is something that perfects men.’ I really enjoy being a father and all the challenges that come with it.”

Indeed, no man is perfect. But Bailey’s life after basketball certainly seems happy and comfortable. Living in picturesque Utah, Bailey has family, music, faith (Bailey joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 17 years ago) and – with his involvement in the NBRPA and Utah Jazz national television broadcasts – basketball.

Asked about his life today, the reflective Bailey sums things up in simple terms: “In life today, I am enjoying the experiences and opportunities brought to me through my pro basketball career.”

For Thurl Bailey, life is all about the destination that came as a result of the basketball journey.