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Thurl Bailey’s wonderful life

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Thurl Bailey is retired from professional basketball, but that doesn't mean he's slowed down. Just try to keep up with him.

There's his singing career, with concert appearances and CDs to his credit. There are his various business interests, everything from corporate speaking to literally spreading fertilizer. There is his foundation and his work with various charities.

There are the dozens of "firesides" he does for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are his broadcasting duties, providing TV color commentary for Utah Jazz and University of Utah basketball games. And there is his young family — a wife and four children.

Is he busy? "You have no idea," he says.

His Web site says it all: "Invitational speaker, pro athlete, celebrity and entertainer. You get it all with Thurl Bailey."

And Bailey couldn't be happier. Sitting in his large house overlooking the south end of Salt Lake Valley, he is cuddled on a couch with his wife, Sindi, while children race through the halls.

"Every day I feel so fortunate to be where I am in my life," he says. "And it's not over. I feel like the story has more to tell. I've got a great life. There's no question about it. I am where I want to be."

He is nothing if not grateful. After all, this is a man who has compiled a list of all the people he wants to contact and thank for what they have done for him in his life. It is a life he never could have imagined. Who knew this 6-foot-11 African-American from the East Coast, who grew up in a violent household in a tough neighborhood, would wind up converting to the LDS Church, marrying a white woman and settling in Salt Lake City.

Does he ever marvel at where life has taken him? "Every day," he says.

But chances are he's on the move while he's thinking about it. Bailey, who ended his professional basketball career with an encore season in 2001, has continued life at a fast-break pace. He works quietly behind the scenes doing good deeds in the community, just as the late Jim Valvano foresaw years ago. Even before Bailey was drafted by the Utah Jazz nearly two decades ago, Valvano, Bailey's coach at North Carolina State, urged the Jazz to use their first pick on him.

"Don't think of Thurl as just a player," he said. "As a person he will be good for the team and the community."

Bailey has a foundation called Big TLC, which raises money for various charities. That includes his own basketball camp, which he does gratis. He contacts various charities and organizations to identify kids who could benefit from attending the camp but can't afford it, and admits them free.

He participates in read-to-achieve programs in schools. He gives motivational talks at schools throughout the state and beyond. He works with various charities — among them, Make-A-Wish, DARE, the Happy Factory.

Bailey's manager, Wayne Scholes, estimates that his client gave 150 speeches last year at graduations, hospitals, colleges, high schools, grade schools and churches.

"I'm proud of Thurl," says former Jazz coach and president Frank Layden. "He's done well, and it's not about making money. He's doing things with his life."

When Bailey hired Scholes to be his manager, one of the first things he told him was, "We don't need to make money off everything. There are people out there we need to work with who don't have a budget."

But Bailey does have a business side. He is a member of a national speakers bureau, giving motivational speeches (and sometimes a brief concert) to corporations. He is chairman of three different companies — Big T Productions, Fertile Earth (which has a patent pending on a fertilizer that works through sprinkler systems), and FourLeaf Films (a film production company) — and he sits on the boards of several others.

Then there is his musical side. Bailey was invited to perform with the Utah Symphony three times. He and his smooth, smoky baritone also performed at Thanksgiving Point last year as a promotion for the release of his third CD.

"I always wanted to be more than a basketball player," he says.

His community work and music have attracted audiences, but his biggest demand is to speak to LDS groups about his conversion to the Mormon faith and about his marriage. He receives about two dozen requests a week for fireside appearances, according to Scholes.

"The conversion and our marriage — everyone asks about that," says Sindi.

They are used to the stares (or glares) that come with mixed marriages, but sometimes it turns uglier. One day they were in a Las Vegas mall, and Thurl left his family sitting at a table to order an Orange Julius drink. While he was gone, a black woman approached Sindi from behind and kicked her chair so hard that Sindi almost flopped onto the floor. "I hate you!" the woman shouted.

When Thurl returned, he noticed the mood had changed. "What's wrong?" he asked. Nothing, Sindi said. Then their son, Brendan, spoke up. Pointing to a woman sitting across the way with her friends, he said. "Daddy, why does that woman hate us?" He proceeded to tell his father what had happened. Bailey's blood boiled.

He approached the women and asked if one of them had kicked his wife's chair. They denied it at first, but eventually one of the women confessed — "Yeah, I did it. What you gonna do about it?"

Bailey, keeping his famous cool, said, "I just want to know why. I don't care what you think." Getting nowhere, Bailey returned to his family, but, unsatisfied with the exchange, he approached the woman again. "One of these days if you do something like that, someone might have a gun. So just feel lucky this is just a drink." He dumped the Orange Julius on the woman's head.

"I hear the comments," says Bailey of life in a mixed marriage. "I hear the black women say, 'There's another one gone.' I've been treated well in Utah, but it's a colorless thing when you're a celebrity. I've talked to people who are in racially mixed marriages in Utah. Some of them e-mail me — and they're not welcomed."

It was a tough sell from the start for the Baileys. She was white, he was black. She was Mormon, he was Baptist. She was 19, he was 28.

Sindi Southwick, 6 feet tall, was a basketball player at Utah Valley State College when they met in 1989. She had recently had a marriage annulled after six months. Bailey was separated from his wife and would soon be divorced. Sindi, like one of her brothers, was working at Bailey's basketball camps. They dated casually for the next couple of years, then exclusively for a couple of years before they married in 1994.

Their backgrounds couldn't have been more different. Sindi didn't even know a single black person when she was growing up in Richfield, Utah, where her family owned a farm that raised hay, corn and beef. The only girl in a loving family of four children, she was a boot-and-Wrangler-wearing cowgirl and tomboy. She chased cattle on a horse and participated in track, basketball, softball and volleyball. (She still holds the school high jump record of 5-foot-4.)

She was used to climbing on a horse in the wee hours to drive cattle up to the summer range. Sindi's family was staunch Mormon — all three of her brothers served church missions, and her father, John, a rancher and the high school basketball coach, was the local bishop.

Bailey grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., one of five kids. His father, Carl, was crushed by a brick wall on a construction site when Thurl was a baby and slipped into a coma. He recovered, but the family went on welfare. His mother, Retha, scrubbed floors for a dollar an hour and worked the graveyard shift at a hospital. The marriage was a stormy one. When Thurl took Sindi to his childhood home, he showed her a bullet hole in the wall. "That's where my mom tried to shoot at my dad." The Bailey children themselves called police to their home for domestic disturbances, with Carl being hauled off in handcuffs.

"We were always fed, always had gifts under the tree at Christmas," says Thurl. "She was a great mom. She was always home. That's why she worked graveyard."

Thurl was a straight-laced athlete-musician-scholar who was bused to a white high school as part of the federally mandated busing program. He had no trouble fitting into a white world. He was affable, articulate, soft-spoken and smart. As his high school coach, Ernie Welch, recalls, Bailey crossed all lines, racially and socially. "He had no groups," said Welch. "He was all groups."

Then, as now, Bailey filled his calendar with activities. He became the school's first black student body president. He also became captain of the basketball team, an all-Metro D.C. basketball player, a member of the National Honor Society, winner of the highest academic award in the county and homecoming king. He sang in two choirs, played three instruments in the marching band, won the faculty award for overall excellence and was a member of the Drama Club, the yearbook staff, the school newspaper staff, the flag-raising club, the cafeteria club and the broadcasting club, and won the school's top awards for journalism and broadcasting. At Boys State he was voted governor by his peers. Later, at North Carolina State, he performed in school theater productions

He was always so busy with activities that he never had time for sports. He didn't try out for the basketball team until the seventh grade, and then he was cut during tryouts. He was cut again in eighth grade. Of course, he went on to become an All-American, helping NC State win the national championship and later becoming the Jazz's fifth-leading scorer of all time.

Most people don't know that Bailey was actually the captain of the Jazz for years, not his more famous teammates. During his nine years with the Jazz, the organization learned that Bailey was the one they could depend on. "When we asked the players if someone would volunteer for community work or a school appearance, Thurl always had his hand up," recalls Layden. Similarly, Jazz vice president David Allred recalls a time when a Jazz player called to say he wouldn't fulfill a speaking obligation 15 minutes before he was due to speak to 2,000 school kids waiting in a gymnasium.

Says Allred, "I called Thurl, and he said, 'I'll be there in 10 minutes.' He was our go-to guy."

In short, Bailey was a man anyone's parents would arrange for their daughter to meet — if not for the color of his skin.

Predictably, when word reached the Southwicks that Sindi was dating Bailey, nobody was happy about it. He was a different race, a different faith. When Sindi finally told the family the news in person, "they all lashed out at me. It was at a time when Magic (Johnson) revealed he had AIDS, and I think they thought all NBA players were like that."

She was given an ultimatum: Choose him or us. Her mother, Sue, refused to speak to her. "If I called her, she hung up," recalls Sindi. She could call her dad, but only when he was at the high school. Thurl sent Sue numerous letters, telling her about himself and his feelings for her daughter. Once he drove to Richfield to meet the family, but they wouldn't let him in the house. He turned around and drove home.

"We couldn't even wear a Jazz hat at home," says Sindi.

They were married in 1994. Her parents came to the wedding (his didn't), but they were stoic and silent. When the couple had their first baby in June of 1995, relations thawed quickly.

"It's sad, because that was not her," says Sindi of her mother. "She's such a great person. Thurl just loves her. In my opinion, she was embarrassed. She was probably hurt, disappointed."

Since those days, Sue has written countless letters to her son-in-law apologizing, but Thurl says he never took it personally.

"It wasn't me," says Thurl. "It was the idea. I understood her mother. This was her daughter."

"Thurl never held a grudge," says Sindi. "He was amazing."

The Baileys have had two children together — BreElle, 7, and Brendan, 5. (Thurl also has two children by his previous marriage — Thurl Jr., 17, and TeVann, 12, who live in North Carolina with their mother.)

They have become close to Sindi's parents. The in-laws long ago warmed up to Thurl. Says Thurl, "I love that woman. She's the most awesome grandmother. I knew she was a great person. Look what she produced (Sindi). She just had to get to know me and get past the stereotypes."

They visit Richfield when they can. Sindi jumps on a horse early in the morning to help her father while her husband stays in bed. He catches up to them later on a four-wheeler.

"Thurl is terrible on a horse," says Sindi. "He could never ride. For one thing, his legs drag. We don't have stirrups long enough."

For the most part, the couple glides through life with only the occasional old ugliness surfacing. Once they were walking in public when Thurl overheard several black men make derogatory comments about their mixed marriage. Thurl stopped and told them, "If you're going to make those kind of comments, make sure you keep them to yourselves. And in case you want to know, I love her."

"She is absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me," says Bailey. "I am so fortunate to have found her."

With Sindi, of course, he found something else: a new faith. Bailey's conversion story sounds like a made-for-a-Mormon-fireside talk, which is exactly what it has become. The irony is that Bailey lived in Utah for eight years — but joined the LDS Church years later, while he was living in Italy.

His 16-year pro basketball career was winding to a close. He was fielding offers from NBA teams when he got an offer to play in Italy. All logic told him to refuse it. Going to Italy meant leaving behind his children from his first marriage, passing up fatter NBA contracts and taking a new baby to a foreign country. He went there anyway.

"I was at a place in my life where I knew something out of the ordinary needed to happen," he says. "I needed a change. I didn't like who I was becoming."

The divorce and later his succumbing to the temptations of NBA life had taken their toll on him. "It's there," he says of the temptations. "You don't even have to look for it. They know what room you stay in, they know how to get to you. . . . Going to Italy turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Would I have joined the church if I hadn't? I don't know."

From the outset of their marriage, Sindi had established that she would always attend her church and so would their children. "When we started dating, he knew I was Mormon," says Sindi. "I didn't drink, didn't have sex. I think he had a lot of respect for me because of that. He hadn't been around that before. For him it was kind of refreshing. I always knew he would join the church. I don't think I would've married him if I hadn't. But I never pushed it on him. I never gave ultimatums. He asked a lot of questions. I just taught him by example."

Bailey went to Italy several weeks ahead of his wife to make arrangements for a car and housing. While he was there, he arranged to meet LDS missionaries. After several discussions with the missionaries, he called Sindi in the United States. Expecting a call from Thurl, she picked up the phone and was greeted by silence. "Hello?" "Thurl?" Nothing. On the other end, Thurl was choked with emotion and couldn't talk. Finally, Sindi said, "You're going to be baptized, aren't you?"

He waited a month so Sindi's father could fly to Italy and baptize him on the last day of 1995.

"I knew Thurl was doing it for the right reasons," says Sindi.

In February 1997, the couple had their marriage solemnized in the LDS Church's Swiss temple. Bailey, the clerk of his Mormon ward, is now a popular fireside speaker. He used to do them every Sunday until Sindi intervened and cut them back to two per month to give him more time with his family. One recent fireside took four-plus hours.

"It was very emotional," he says. "I could not get out of there. I had come straight from the airport and I wanted to see my family. But I still have a responsibility. My baptism was so incredible. As to my purpose here, it is to use the talents I have to affect people in a positive way, whether it's through basketball, firesides, music. There's a need out there. People are looking for answers. . . . I don't know if I can help, but I'm willing to give it a shot."

Almost as soon as he was baptized, Bailey was asked to do a video about his life and conversion. It's called "THURL/Forward with New Power."

"I was asked 10 times, and I said no nine times," says Bailey. "I wasn't ready to put my life out there. But I was convinced that it could be a good missionary tool."

Bailey is intent on using his experiences in religion and race to influence people, even when he's instructing at his basketball camps. He relates several tearful experiences he has had with youths there, and when the camp ends he likes to note for them that blacks, whites and Hispanics have just spent a week playing basketball together. "Now when you go back to your circle of friends, remember. One of these days someone might be calling a kid a name because of race or religion. Can you handle the peer pressure and tell them what you've learned?"

Says Bailey, "I am a person with dreams and goals. There are a lot of things I want to achieve in my life."

E-MAIL: drob@desnews.com