Professional basketball player Thurl Bailey’s career had him traveling in Italy when three short, required questions from a border agent stopped him in his tracks, literally causing him to pull his car over and ponder the answers from a much larger, life perspective: “Where are you coming from?” “What is your purpose for being here today?” “Where are you going?” During Bank of Utah’s 2021 fall author events in Ogden, Salt Lake City, Provo and Logan, the Utah Jazz legend encouraged bank customers and friends to consider their own answers to those questions as they make their way through life and business, and to seek opportunities always, even through adversity.
Bailey brought the audience through his own journey to become a successful forward for the Jazz, an international basketball player, a singer and an author, inspiring others to take note of every moment, every detail and every experience along the way.
The beginning of every journey starts with something Bailey identifies as ”the call,” a specific moment when a passion is sparked. For him, the call came in the form of a soaring, basketball-dunking Julius Erving, also known as Dr. J. “We all have those moments, when something calls to us,” said Bailey. He distinctly remembered watching a basketball game with his father and seeing Dr. J flying over defenders. Bailey knew, at that very moment, at 12 years old, what his goal was, and he wouldn’t let anything stand in his way. That moment forever changed his life.
His father helped him nurture that calling. They weeded and cleaned a dirt patch in their yard — his dad’s method of building a “court” and building muscle strength — then they cut out the bottom of a trash can, nailed it to the side of their house and found an old, deflated basketball. Bailey only learned a few things from his father about the game, about as much as you would expect with a worn-out basketball; however, he had one distinct advantage. As a sixth grader, Bailey was more than 6 feet 3 inches tall.
Filled with excitement, Bailey went to his first tryout in junior high school. Towering over the other seventh graders, Bailey knew he wasn’t the most talented player on the court, but he had his height on his side. However, after one dribble it was evident that was all he had going for him. Bailey was cut after one day.
The following year only proved to be a repeat of his first tryout. Though he had grown a few more inches over the summer, his skills hadn’t, and he was once again cut. This failure, Bailey describes as “the pit,” the moment when, “You start to question the call and doubt yourself altogether.”
Bailey’s third year of tryouts was filled with doubts. The school had a new basketball coach and when the tryout poster went up outside the gym, he lacked the desire to try altogether. However, something pushed him through the doorway into the gym and for the first time in his life, he made the team and began his basketball career. “When I saw my name at the top of the team list, I was so excited and thought, ‘Wow, coach even thought of me first,’ until I realized the list was in alphabetical order,” Bailey said, laughing.
While playing for his junior high school team, Bailey learned an important lesson: If you want to grow, ask questions. By asking the right questions of the right people, such as his parents and coach, Bailey began to see significant growth in his shooting, rebounding, and overall basketball skills.
He also learned you have to work hard, to work your way up.
During his first season Bailey was his team’s go-to jump ball guy during tipoffs. Well over 6-feet-tall by ninth grade, he ensured his team got the ball every single time, but he only averaged seven seconds of playing time each game. Over the next few years, though, Bailey improved so much he became a college basketball recruit and eventually enrolled at NC State.
What began as a dream had transformed into a reality and, soon enough, would lead to the next step in his journey: “the discovery.”
By his second year of college basketball, Bailey discovered his true goal: a championship. Inspired by Coach Jimmy Valvano, Bailey learned the championship mindset. The first week of practice with Coach Valvano wasn’t spent running basketball drills, it was learning how to cut the net from the basketball rim to celebrate a win. The team even paraded around an empty court, yelling and screaming.
“It was awkward,” Thurl said, laughing at the memory, but it became something they did every week.
Though it seemed silly to practice celebrations, the weekly reminder of their goal was exactly what the team needed to gain a united and clear purpose. Over the course of several months, Bailey continued to work hard at basketball and celebrating wins, until it was the time for the National Championship tournament.
Every journey has a destination, a result or an end. In 1983, against all odds the number 16-ranked NC State Wolfpack made it to the National Collegiate Basketball Championship as the underdog against the University of Houston, and won. The team knew just how to celebrate, with Coach V even pulling out his own pair of golden scissors to cut the net.
Soon after, a new part of the journey would begin for Bailey. As the seventh pick in the 1983 NBA draft, Bailey continued his growth, using his history as a guide for success. His advice is to enjoy the journey, learn from it and, just like he did that day in Italy, use these questions as your score card:
- Where are you coming from?
- What is your purpose for being here today?
- Where are you going?
It has been more than 20 years since Bailey retired from the NBA, but his career has only led him to discovery after discovery on his journey. Today, he is focused on service and lifting up those around him, a pure purpose for bettering his community.
To take it full circle, his initial “call” came from Dr. J. Today, they have become close friends and enjoy playing golf together from time to time.
Bank of Utah is honored to learn from Bailey’s story. His experience and presentation inspires and motivates us to realize that championships are, indeed, within reach for each of us. For more information on Thurl Bailey’s book Team of Destiny, visit www.thurlbailey.com.