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Draper Journal

Former Jazzman motivates students, teachers with his story

Jul 16, 2018 12:43PM ● By Julie Slama

Former Utah Jazz center, current musician and sports announcer Thurl Bailey gives motivational talk to Canyons School District students and teachers. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com 

The coach came up to him, crossed his arms and looked at the lanky 6'7" eighth-grader and said, “Son, give it up. You don’t have what it takes to be a basketball player. You’re wasting my time. I don’t have time to teach you to play. I’m looking for boys who can help me win a championship. Don’t try out next year.” 

If those words weren’t heart-breaking enough, it was the second time the middle school boy had faced being cut. 

“The first time I failed at something, it was painful, but it was my passion and the drive that made me try again — and again,” said the boy who ended up making the team the next year under a new coach. “The coach shook my hand, congratulated me and complimented me and every single one of us. I was crying when I saw my name on the list. I worked really hard to get on the team.” 

This was former Utah Jazz center Thurl Bailey’s message to Canyons School District students and teachers. He encouraged teachers to believe in their students — and for students to believe in themselves. 

“I am grateful that I had teachers and coaches who didn’t give up on me. They saw potential and believed in me and what they saw in me and what I was capable of,” he said. “That’s what I ask of you. Teachers, find those students who need your belief that they are capable of getting good grades and becoming more than they see. I had those who stuck with me. I am where I am because of people like you. They saw something and wouldn’t let me extinguish my goals and for that, I thank them and I thank you for what you’re doing to support these students.” 

Then, he turned to the students and gave them a mission. 

“Find something that will stick with you and become your passion. It takes hard work to be successful. Find the right people and ask the right questions. Then, when you are successful, use the platform, reach down and pick up others to see the view from where you are,” he said. 

Bailey has done just that. Not only does Bailey give motivational speeches, he also has been recognized by the NBA with the Citizenship Award, ran a leg of the Salt Lake Olympic torch relay and visited soldiers in Iraq in 2008. 

The late Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller once said, “Thurl has always been a person willing to give back.” 

Bailey credits his parents and knows “it’s about the journey” that has helped him to be successful. 

Bailey grew up in a poor section of Washington, D.C. during the Civil Rights era, and he would be bused into a desegregated school where everything was “foreign in a sense.” He was bullied and was a misfit amongst his peers. Yet, his parents had high hopes for him, Bailey said. 

“I didn’t like school, but my mom said, ‘Boy, I don’t ever want to see a C or below on a report card. Son, that’s average and I don’t raise average kids.’ So I knew I had to be successful and get a good education,” he said. 

“But I didn’t discover basketball until I saw my dad watching our old Zenith TV with an antenna and saw this guy with short shorts who looked cool flying up over two or three guys and was laying the ball in the hoop. My dad told me it was one of the greatest athletes of the world, Dr. J (Julius Erving). I asked him if doctors played professional basketball — that’s how little I knew, but it’s also when it clicked and I knew that was what I wanted to do.” 

Now, years later after practicing his Dr. J moves for hours in his driveway and failing to make his school team twice, Bailey was on the basketball team — but his hard work was just beginning. 

“I worked hard for years to make the team, but still the coach called me into his office and looked at me and said, ‘If you want to be a great basketball player, you have a lot more work to do. If you’re willing to commit — your grades, your time, your energy — then I’ll come an hour early and stay an hour late to help you. I see potential in you,’” Bailey said. 

So with Bailey practicing twice as much as his teammates, he started every game — to win the tip — and then would be substituted out for the rest of the game. 

“I averaged 2.3 seconds per game, but I got every possession and played every game,” said Bailey, who learned to play a few years earlier from his dad with a garbage can nailed to the side of his house. “It wasn’t until the next year that I realized my potential.” 

Bailey credits this coach with believing in him and helping him believe in himself. He earned a four-year scholarship to North Carolina State, where he won the NCAA basketball championship in 1983.

“Once you know someone believes in you, it’s an amazing feeling. And once you are on a championship team, then you’re a champion and that is a feeling that nobody can take away from you,” he said. “My career didn’t end with that championship. I was 6'11", 189 pounds — a tall but really skinny player. I didn’t know how long I’d last in the NBA, but the Jazz took a chance on me as the seventh pick.” 

Bailey got to play his idol, Dr. J of the Philadelphia 76ers, in one of his early rookie games. 

“He said, ‘Welcome to the NBA,’ and I was really excited that I was not only meeting him, but going up against him. I knew I had to play with confidence and I couldn’t quit. I had teachers and coaches who believed in me. I had worked hard. So that night, I held Dr. J to 47 points — there wasn’t a chance he was going to score 50 on me,” he said with a smile. “I got better and he got older, but he inspired me and coaches and teachers believed in me. It’s about the journey.” 

Canyons Board of Education member Steve Wrigley said Bailey gave an important message to students: “Never give up.” 

“I hope all our students find people who believe in them and their ability to accomplish some amazing things,” Wrigley said. “And I hope our teachers help motivate our students and realize how important they are in the lives of students. It only takes one teacher to mentor a student, or in Thurl’s case, one coach to believe in him and get him out of the ghetto and into the light. Teachers really can impact lives and change history.”