Thurl Bailey: “Change won’t come with violent acts. I’ve had more racist assaults in the USA than anywhere else”

Former Utah Jazz forward discusses with TalkBasket.net the incidents that followed George Floyd's murder and his experience of handling racial discrimination

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last week has brought thousands of U.S. citizens on the streets, protesting police brutality and racial discrimination.

While in many cities throughout America, riots broke out causing police forces to intervene, protests taking place in Salt Lake City over the last days have been mostly peaceful, according to local reports. Maybe that has something to do with Salt Lake’s and Utah’s population being predominantly white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As an article on the Undefeated succinctly emphasizes: “Of the 30 NBA teams, there isn’t a market that seems less conducive to an African-American player than Salt Lake City, the home of the two-time Western Conference champion Jazz”. It is true that the franchise has little history of signing prominent free agents since arriving to Salt Lake from New Orleans in 1980. Most of their notable players were selected in the NBA Draft, including Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone. However, the lack of black residents did not discourage a considerable part of NBA talent from playing with the Jazz or even growing roots there.

One of the most telling examples is embodied in Thurl Bailey, the now retired NBAer who works as a Jazz TV analyst, motivational speaker, singer and businessman. The former North Carolina State star arrived in Salt Lake City in 1983, after being selected with the No.7 pick that year by the Jazz. Bailey grew up in Bladensburg, Maryland and in 1963, at the tender age of two, his parents left him and his siblings with a babysitter so that they could hear Martin Luther King speak on the National Mall. That helped the 59-year-old create strong memories of how segregation worked in U.S. schools, but also made him realize King’s impact on society.

Since his puberty, Bailey devoted ample time to community service and even became the first black student to be elected president in Bladensburg high school. He won the NBA’s 1988-89 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, which recognizes NBA players’ contributions in community services. Over the last 36 years, he has directed basketball camps for young people, combining lessons about life and basketball.

Despite becoming a valuable unit on the Jazz roster, Thurl had to deal with racial prejudice in the realm of his personal life. His second wife, Sindi Southwick, is a white Mormon woman from Salt Lake City. Him being a Baptist and her being a Mormon was not the only issue the two had to sort out. Southwick’s family disowned her for marrying a black man (in 1994), but eventually Bailey’s in-laws came to accept their daughter’s choice.

The 1983 NCAA champ played eight full seasons with the Utah Jazz during his career, from 1983 through 1991, averaging 14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. After three years at Minnesota, the next stop was Europe. It was in Italy where Bailey decided to become a Mormon, during the 1995-96 season and while his wife was back in Utah.

In October 2017, the retired player showed his support to a youngster in Utah, who had been subjected to racial slurs as he walked home from school. The boy’s basketball coach organized an anti-racist, anti-bullying walk, in which Bailey participated.

TalkBasket.net reached out to him for an interview on the recent developments in the States and Thurl Bailey referred to the always pertinent and thorny issue of racism on and off the basketball courts. He commends NBA players Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon for protesting peacefully, remembers incidents of discrimination during his time as an athlete in the NBA and overseas and underlines that political activism -or the lack of it- is a choice athletes are responsible for.

Q: Normally, my first question would be about the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, but over the last week another issue has been making headlines: the George Floyd case. How are things in the States right now?

Α: Not so good. Even in Salt Lake City, there were riots and people showing their anger. Mr Floyd should still be alive today. It’s about accountability, recruiting the right people. There are bad people everywhere. On the other side, there’s other ways to protest and use your voice. Destroying cities, burning things and flipping over cars I don’t believe will get your message across. I don’t think violence answers violence and I hope that if people come to their senses and voice their displeasure, hopefully change will come in that way. But it won’t come with violent acts. I know that for sure.

Q: Do you think that we should expect the riots to escalate?

A: I don’t necessarily see the rioting and violence to stop. I know it hasn’t in certain cities. Here in Salt Lake there’s curfews that have been started.

Q: Do you think that the real question is about police abuse of power or about racial discrimination?

A: I think there’s some of all of that involved. There’s always been discrimination on the racial and other levels. Right when I think that things are starting get better, something like this happens, which proves that we have a long way to go. Abuse of power is another issue. It has to do with accountability and with people at the top making sure that those who are hired and recruited live up to the standards they preach: to protect and serve. I have a brother who just retired after almost 30 years from the police force here. He’s a great cop, although he is surrounded by a few bad apples here and there. All in all, police are doing their job, but there’s a select few that step outside those lines. It’s devastating for the force and for us as citizens.

Q: Are you content with the way the Trump administration is handling the situation?

A: Whenever I decide to talk about politics, I do it at the voting booth. I use my right to make a statement who I want in office. He’s our President and good or bad, he’s in office. Do I agree with everything he’s done? No, but I think he’s done some good things. That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have handled other things differently. It’s also about what we can do as citizens. We have to our part to make sure that things happen the way we want. Everywhere in the world, people are struggling and leaders need to be held accountable.

Q: One of your occupations includes giving keynote speeches and blending motivation with entertainment. How would you address children and adults who are angry and vent their frustration for whatever inequality they see in society?

A: I’m hired to come in and hopefully inspire people. The best way anyone to do that is through their own stories and journey. We all have a lot in common. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t faced an adversity in their life. It would mean that they haven’t lived or haven’t tried to succeed. There’s always opportunities that you can create for yourself if you are surrounded by the right people. If you’re passionate about wanting to do something, then you can find that door to open and go through.

I grew up in Washington D.C. where not a lot of young people were making anything out of themselves. I was fortunate enough to have both my parents involved in my life, when a lot of kids didn’t have that. So, I took the opportunity, got a great education and didn’t squander it because I knew that at some point, I would need that education to communicate and help others. There’s a lot of young people struggling nowadays: with their identities, with addictions… The first thing I would say to them is to find help, people who can empathize with them and who have been on that journey as well.

Q: As a member of the Board of Directors of the NB Retired Players Association, I’d like your opinion on NBPA Vice Presidents Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon joining the peaceful protests in Atlanta. Will or would the NBRPA follow suit?

A: Obviously, if it has to do with any kind of a peaceful solution, the NBRPA would be a part of that. We encourage all of our members to use their voices and platforms in a peaceful way, in order to bring eyes to all issues. I commend those guys for using their platforms and names for a peaceful resolution.

Q: Were you ever discriminated against in the States or abroad? Did you ever have to deal with racist incidents?

A: Yeah, I did. I grew up during a racist time, in the 60s. Both my mom and dad were smart enough to teach us as kids what’s going on and how to react and treat people. I grew up right in the heart of the nation’s capital, where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. My parents were there and so that was an education for us as kids. It was also a point at which we had to make a choice as to how we would handle the discrimination. It really is a choice. What we could do is use our education and make something of ourselves, so that we could bring notoriety to certain social issues with a voice of reason that people would listen to.

When I played overseas, even if I didn’t speak the language in the country I was in, there were comments by fans that I knew were discriminatory. We’ve had some of that here in the NBA, where fans get outrageous. In Salt Lake City, a fan was taunting Russell Westbrook and there were some issues where fans were banned for life. So, it’s not something new and it won’t ease up anytime soon. I really hope that the next generation will help solve some of that and I think in some levels they have. But it’s still an ongoing issue, exacerbated by the incidents recently in Minneapolis.

Q: Do you recall if those racist assaults took place in Greece or Italy?

A: I can’t remember exactly what country it was. I traveled so much. I just know that it’s happened. Here, in the United States, it’s happened more than anywhere else. Sometimes I try to write it off as people being overly fanatic in sports and finding something that will throw off the opponent. But in the end, if you’re hauling racial slurs, you’re racist. It really doesn’t matter where you are, in the arena or at home teaching your kids.

Former North Carolina State player, Thurl Bailey, gives President Barack Obama a jersey and gift, Monday, May 9, 2016, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. 33 years after their 1983 Men’s National Basketball Championship, the president welcomes the North Carolina Wolfpack to the White House to honor their historic win. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Q: You were a 6-foot-11 African-American, who grew up in a violent household in a tough neighborhood and married a white woman, before settling in Salt Lake City. How did you overcome those setbacks in your childhood and adult life, coming from humble origins and eventually becoming who you are? I mean, did you ever have to convince yourself or others that your background or your skin color will not get in the way of achieving your goals in life?

A: That was a part of me growing up. My parents taught me that, giving us all the confidence we needed. They were the ones who struggled so we wouldn’t have to; they went to the protest and had to go to the back of restaurants to order their food, couldn’t sit down beside white people on the bus. They went through all of that stuff and fought the battle to make it better for us. Even though I grew up and faced some of that, I was taught to take the high road at times and stand up for what I believe in; to protect myself, but use my voice.

If you go back in history and look at discrimination in sports, there are a lot of great black athletes that paved the way for me to have an opportunity to play in the NBA. I can’t forget those trailblazers who fought and gave their lives. Guys like Oscar Robertson, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali paved the way for us to have equality and freedom.

Q: Did being on a mixed marriage make things more difficult for you?

A: Love is love, dude. Love shows no color to me. I’ve been married a couple of times. My first wife is African American and it had nothing to do with color that we broke up. It’s marriage and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When I met my second wife, I didn’t seek her out because she was white. We fell in love, like anybody else does. Other people see that in different ways, but it doesn’t really bother me or matter to me. What matters is that I have a loving wife and we have a loving family, which is still going strong after 26 years of marriage. We can’t worry about what other people say. We will be better as people when those kind of questions don’t need to be asked.

Q: Even before you were drafted by the Utah Jazz, Jim Valvano, coach at North Carolina State, urged the franchise to use their first pick on you, arguing that your personality would serve both the team and the community. What do you think he saw in you to make that statement?

A: He saw me and knew me. He was my college coach and it was his job to get to know each and every one of his players as athletes and individuals. My work, upbringing and personality spoke for themselves. The Utah Jazz were a small-market team looking for great players, who could also live and contribute to the community. When a team are looking for players like that, sometimes they will take a less talented player who may be a better person. I was very fortunate to be selected by the Utah Jazz and after 30something years I’m still living here in Salt Lake City.

Q: Do you think that athletes, not to mention those who are role models to many, should raise their voice or be politically active?

A: That’s their choice. I’m not going to tell another athlete what he should or shouldn’t do with his voice, something he’s worked hard for. I’m only responsible for me and those around me, but it’s always a choice.