When the NBA’s All-Star Game finally came to Utah in 1993, Thurl Bailey couldn’t stay away. For a little over eight seasons, the goggles-sporting, athletic big man contributed to a Utah Jazz franchise that blossomed into a contender. Getting traded to the lowly Timberwolves in November 1991 may have been business, but it hurt. He was close to his teammates; Salt Lake City, an unlikely destination for a Black kid born in Washington, D.C., was home.

In 1999, Bailey returned to the Jazz after a stint playing in Europe. At his first home game, the fans greeted No. 41 with a standing ovation as he emerged from the tunnel. That wonderful last season made Bailey want to stay.

The All-Star Game’s return to Salt Lake City in February finds Bailey, the team’s longtime analyst, as an unofficial ambassador for the Jazz. He was part of the campaign to bring the game to the city, and his importance to the organization is such that in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the franchise sought his advice on how to handle the incident that shone a spotlight on America’s systemic racism.    



“It’s not about having a team full of Black players and thinking you’re diverse,” he said. “You have to get people of color in the front office and leadership positions they’ve never been in before. You’ve got to create programs that invite diversity, that are all-inclusive.

“I think in recent years, the Jazz have done a really good job of doing that. There’s always work to do. When you look around at what some of the other organizations were or are doing, are you following that standard?”

Bailey recognizes the improvement. After all, it’s his driving force.

He was a behemoth at 12 years old, an awkward 6-foot-4. A basketball career was not a certainty, especially when he was cut twice from the Bladensburg Junior High School team.

“When that rejection happens, it can send you a different way,” Bailey said. “I could join a gang. I could get into drugs. A lot of my friends were doing that.” He pushed past the devastation to find answers. “I went on this search: is this what I really wanted? My parents always taught me to ask the right questions to the right people. They encouraged me to try again. “

The third time was a charm, as Bailey bawled when he saw his name on the final roster. Two days later, Coach Cole called Bailey into his office for a life-changing conversation.

“If you want to be a good player, you have a lot of work to do,” he recalled the new coach saying. “But if you’re willing to commit, I’ll come in one hour before we practice as a team to work with you. And after we get done, I’ll stay an hour after.”

Why would he do that?

“Son,” the coach said. “I see potential in you that you don’t even see.”

That philosophy guides Bailey’s interactions to this day.

Salt Lake City was a culture shock, but Bailey, the seventh overall pick of the 1983 NBA Draft, adapted. To start with, the self-described “late bloomer” was happy to be in the league. There were teammates — Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton, Karl Malone — who would become his second family. And travel allowed opportunities for culture.

“Utah was about the people to me,” he stated. “I was welcomed with open arms.”

Good people were around. But to truly make an impact where he lived, Bailey had to try harder.  

“Every community in some way, shape, or form is about kids, whether it’s Black kids, white kids,” he said. “Even though Utah didn’t really have a Black community per se, there was a need for what I brought with me as far as my experience to add to that community. That’s why I had basketball camps and went out to find underprivileged people and people who looked like me and invited them to my camp. You try to put yourself in the best position possible to make a difference.”

It worked. Bailey won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for community service in the 1988-89 season, one of his many philanthropic accolades. 

By his fifth year, after he signed his second contract, Salt Lake City felt like home. But it would be at a spot thousands of miles away that set up Bailey for his life after basketball.

It had become routine. Bailey would drive from Como, Italy, where he was living, to Lugano, Switzerland, on his days off. He’d get to the border, pull up to the checkpoint, roll down his window, and answer three questions: “Where did you come from? What’s your destination? What’s your purpose?”

But one day, deep into his international career and close to the end of his playing career, those questions hit harder.

Bailey loved acting and music, and he loved communicating with people.

“I started to put pencil to paper and start planning my life out if I couldn’t play basketball anymore,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to coach. What assets did I have, and how can I use them?”

At North Carolina State, Bailey studied television and radio. Broadcasting was a natural fit, but that didn’t make a career change any less daunting coming from the “ideal world” of professional sports. But, he had nothing to fear.

“The journey is amazing,” he said. “You’ve taken everything that you’ve come from and done in your life, and you’re moving forward with it. It’s had its ups and downs, but even the downs are a part of it. What I call the ‘pit moments’ — if you don’t learn from them, you don’t move on.

“It’s been a great, great journey, and it continues for me. I’ve gone through a lot that I’m using now to teach other people.”

Which is why he is starting The New Messenger, where he’ll teach retired athletes and coaches how to tell their stories to audiences.

“Stories are one of the most valuable assets we have,” Bailey, an inspirational speaker, said.

He says there’s a huge need for the voices of former players and coaches, even if people are skeptical. It’ll be up to Thurl Bailey to get them to see their potential, a job for which he has spent a lifetime preparing.