Thurl Bailey didn't come to Utah looking for religion. He came because he was drafted by the Utah Jazz as the seventh pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. He was just happy to play anywhere, but it was there that he was first introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And growing up in a Baptist home laid the groundwork for his spiritual journey later in life and his future relationship with Jesus Christ.
Read more about Thurl Bailey's initial experience with Latter-day Saint culture as a professional athlete, his conversion story, and his wife's patience as he investigated the Church, in the excerpt below. You can also listen to the full episode in the player below or by clicking here. Read a full transcript of the episode here.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: After playing for North Carolina State, you were drafted by the Utah Jazz. And you've said previously that your conversion to the Church really began when you came to Utah. What was your experience like coming to a state full of people that belonged to a religion that you didn't know a ton about? And how would you say that your time with the Jazz kind of jumped started your conversion?
Thurl Bailey: Well, to be honest with you, when I first came to Utah, it wasn't really about religion, it was about being around a ton of white people. I mean, culturally, I wasn't used to that.
Morgan Jones: Right.
Thurl Bailey: Right, I grew up in a predominantly all-African American neighborhood and city for the most part. And culturally, there are things that we're all used to, and when we are taken out of that and we're put into a different culture, whether it's religious, or whether it's racial, or what have you, it's a shock to your system, right?
And I was excited about being in the NBA, no question about that. I didn't care where I went. But growing–being born in that civil rights era–and this is where I know that my parents teaching and educating us as kids really came in handy, because even though that culture part was a little shocking to me, it didn't take long.
I, when I landed, I knew I was caught–I was captured by the beauty of the place, first of all. And there was a part of me that–I tell this, it's kind of funny, but it's true–when I would drive to practice, right, I'd see this Black guy at the bus stop pretty much at the same time every day. I would drive and I waved to him, we made this connection, right, this cultural connection. And he waved back and after a while, I said, "So I'll see you tomorrow," right. Because it wasn't very often I'd get to see someone who looked like me.
But honestly, Morgan, I got really comfortable right away, because it was about the people to me. My mom and dad taught me that too. And some would think, well, you grew up in a very difficult time, you know, where the cops were siccing dogs on your dad and other Black people when they were fighting for civil rights. But my parents didn't come home with that. They didn't teach that to us. They taught us to be respectful to people and to love people regardless of where they were from.
And so as other kids grew up angry, and maybe some even revengeful, I grew up in a household that you know, we didn't really see color first, right? We saw what was here, what was in the heart. And I realized that when I got here, people were so nice. And then part of me was like, "Well, they're just being nice to me because I'm a Jazz player." And I realized that that wasn't the case.
And then I really started to understand the culture here. The LDS culture. The things I had heard about LDS people weren't very nice, growing up in D.C. I heard that they thought Black people had tails and just some really weird stuff. And so you have that part of what you've heard, stored in a place somewhere. And when I first got here and I met most of the people that I met were LDS, right? And they weren't afraid to let me know that, right. They were proud of it.
And it wasn't like I was trying to be converted off the plane by people. It was just their way, it was just a niceness. It was something that I really invited and I enjoyed it when I got here. So that was really my first introduction to the LDS culture, it wasn't a huge transition for me to learn more. Matter of fact, when I go to these Jazz events, people would give me gifts and I'd go home and I'd unwrap them and I ended up with 50 or 60 Book of Mormons in my, in my library. And you know, you have that many, you get curious and you, you grab one and you start reading it and try to understand the culture that you're in.
Morgan Jones: Yeah. And Thurl, you ended up marrying a member of the Church before ever joining. You have said that your wife went through absolute hell when she decided to marry you. Talk to me a little bit about that.
Thurl Bailey: I always get emotional when I talk about it. Well, first of all, my wife, Sindi, of almost 30 years now, her and I, we, uh . . . when you think about the odds, right? An African American Baptist athlete from Washington DC that side of the track meets an LDS, white basketball player from this side of the track, and how does that happen? How does that work? A lot of people, most people, didn't think it could. And particularly people that were close to us.
And you know, the shorter version is that we met through a basketball camp, Jazz basketball camp. We both were working the camp in the summer, and I ended up having my own camp, so she was playing basketball at what was then UVCC, which is now UVU. And so I went down to UVU to hire some of the athletes to come and work my branded basketball camp, and she was one of them. And she just stood out right away, she stood out as very confident. Very good player, very good teacher, a basketball and a people person.
And so I don't remember totally how it went down, I know that we had a challenge or something and I won the challenge. So my–her side of the bet was that she had to buy me dinner. And my side was that if she had won then I would have raised her salary for the camp. And so, long story short, I'm down in Richfield, Utah. And it's interesting when I say that, wherever I am, somebody knows somebody from there, right. And it's not that big, I'm like, how do you know, Richfield Utah? But that's where she was from and I drove down and didn't make it inside the house.
Her parents decided that I wasn't welcome in the house. And I think at the time, they thought that we were, you know, serious or dating and we were at a friendship level at that time. And so I went down and, and never made in the house.
So I took the drive all the way back, really without getting to see her that night, and to go to dinner. But her parents, you know, they were afraid because I was Black. That was a whole different ball of wax for the family and trouble and it was a double whammy because I wasn't LDS. But it was in that order, which was very troublesome for me.
I didn't really understand it, because that's not how I was raised, right? I just told you about all the civil rights stuff that was going on. And in my life, a lot of Black people felt like they had a reason to hate white people. That's not what we were taught. And so when I got back up to Salt Lake, Sindi and I got together, and we got to know each other better and talked about this stuff that we're talking about now, about the racial issue, and I said, "Well, if you can get me in the house, let me meet them. I think they'll like me," right? And so that never happened.
And let me say that, you know, I began to understand a little, because here's someone's daughter, right? And if I'm a parent, I want the best for my kids. And sometimes that means my best, right? Whatever those things are, and for them obviously it was marrying somebody within your race, maybe marry somebody within your religion.
So, Sindi was teaching me. She really was. She was teaching me about a lot of things that I didn't know, from that perspective. And throughout the course of that teaching and seeing each other, we fell in love with each other. And it came to the point where her family knew about it. And then she got called home on a Monday, I didn't know what family home evening was, and it was on a Monday night, but that wasn't a family home evening meeting, the family was there, but it was more of an intervention. And so she sat in the middle and everybody had their turn. And the bottom line was she had to, she had to make a choice.
The ultimatum was you choose us or you choose him. And she stood up. And she walked to the door, and . . . she said, "I choose him." And so as I recollect that, and, as I always think about it, I always think of how fortunate I was that she did choose me that day. And it was not a very easy choice for her, you know, she loved her family. And then in my eyes, I knew that, gosh . . . her family, she couldn't have a bad family, her parents couldn't be bad, because they raised her–look what they raised, right?
And so she was pretty much kicked out of the house for, I don't know, three or four years. No phone calls, no conversations, and, of course, we got married. I wasn't a member so it had to be a civil wedding. And I was called overseas, after a few, a bunch of years in the NBA and went over to Italy, and went to Greece first and then went to Italy.
And I was over there by myself actually, before she would come over, and I asked her if she could get me the name, the number of the LDS mission there. And the only reason I really asked was that I couldn't speak the language right away, and I knew that there were some missionaries there who could help teach me to do that.
But it turned into something totally different. I knew a lot about the Church, I'd had the discussions before, so I may have known more than those missionaries did. But to have them come into my home and befriend me and eat my food and then have some great conversation with me was amazing.
So yeah, I mean, there's a lot in that story, I'm sure, but suffice it to say that Sindi has been one of the most influential people in my entire life. And I've had a lot of influential people, from my parents to great teachers and coaches. But as far as how to, again, we talk about the lens, right, we talk about not seeing the color, but seeing through that and seeing the heart, and that's exactly what she did in my case, and I'm so grateful that she did that.