Whenever he attends services at Mormon churches in Salt Lake City, Jazz reserve forward Thurl Bailey draws surprised glances. But Bailey, possibly the only 6'11" African-American of Mormon faith, doesn't mind. "As a kid I carried the sousaphone in my school marching band," he says in his smooth baritone. "Believe me, I'm used to being noticed."
In his second stint with the Jazz, Bailey, 38, has caught the attention of the Delta Center faithful—and not because he's the only Mormon on the roster. Nicknamed Father Time by his teammates, he is once again a contributor on what was, at week's end, the league's winningest team. He blocks shots, sets hard screens and plays steady help defense. "He does the little things that make the other guys successful," Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa says.
Coming off the bench is new for Bailey, who in his first stint with the Jazz, from 1983 to '91, was a high-scoring small forward with a lethal jump hook. A first-round draft pick out of North Carolina State, he played 665 games with Utah, averaging 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds and once, against the Nuggets in '88, scoring 41 points in a game. But by the beginning of Bailey's ninth season his game was in decline, and in November '91 he was traded to the Timberwolves for forward Tyrone Corbin. After three lackluster seasons in Minnesota, Bailey decided to leave the NBA for a higher-paying job with Panionis of the Greek league. He spent a season in Greece and then three in Italy as a starter.
In Europe, Bailey added about 20 pounds to his 232-pound frame, learned to play in the low post and developed a new appreciation for the NBA. He also found spiritual fulfillment in the Mormon faith. "One day it all just clicked," says Bailey, whose second wife, Sindi, whom he married in '94, is a Mormon. "I decided that this was the path I wanted to take."
Bailey decided last year that it was time to give the NBA another go. He turned down lucrative offers in Europe and targeted the Jazz. After he impressed Utah players during pickup games over the summer, he was invited to training camp by Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. In need of a big body to replace the departed Antoine Carr, the Jazz signed Bailey for the $1 million exception.
Through Sunday, Bailey was averaging a modest 4.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 13.6 minutes, but he has come on strong since returning on March 3 from a strained left quadriceps that sidelined him for two weeks. During an 88-87 victory over the Rockets on April 1, Bailey had 11 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots, and he helped shut down Hakeem Olajuwon in the fourth quarter. "He's done a good job," Sloan says. "He knows what we're trying to do, and people have to guard him. If they don't, he'll make baskets."
With his professional and spiritual life in order, Bailey has begun work on another dream. An aspiring singer, he has a CD due out in May entitled Faith in Your Heart, a collection of mostly original adult-contemporary songs. "Mostly they're love songs," Bailey says. "Kind of like Barry White, without all the begging."
Call him Father Time, the Jazz Singer or Thurl (as in Pearl) Bailey. In all his endeavors, Bailey stands out in a crowd.