Few people can count the range and number of world-class accomplishments that Thurl Bailey can. He was an NBA first-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz and led North Carolina State in both scoring and rebounding in the season they won the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball National Championship − one of the most historic championship runs in basketball history. Add to that, his success as an inspirational speaker, singer, songwriter, broadcaster, and film actor, and you get the feeling Thurl has an understanding of what it takes to be successful in any endeavor.
According to Thurl, you don’t have these special moments in life without the influence of parents, coaches, teammates, friends, and others. Thurl attributes his sustained and consistent success, in part, to learning from all these people and his collective experiences and to then “decide who you want to be and how you want to treat people.”
Despite all the accomplishments of Thurl Bailey, it is who “he is” that speaks louder than what he has done. Thurl Bailey has a clarity of mind and purpose. His presence reflects a calm confidence not only in himself but in the potential of everyone else.
At an early age, Thurl learned important lessons from “parents that loved me” about what mattered in life. “My family was from North Carolina, where my ancestors were brought there on slave ships.” Seeking more opportunities for their family, his parents moved from the tobacco fields of North Carolina to a suburb of Washington, D.C., just before Thurl was born.
Thurl remembers the turbulent times of growing up in the ‘60s near D.C. He said, “The Civil Rights movement was alive and well. My parents didn’t hide the reality of the violence and the protests. They educated us, and I learned how to live. They taught us virtues and how to treat people with respect even though we experienced racism and segregation and even though at times we were required to drink from ‘colored only’ drinking fountains, restricted to only eating around the back at restaurants or able to worship only at certain churches.”
Thurl’s Mom emphasized learning and that a good education would be “the way out and up.” Thurl remembers, “She was adamant about grades − C is average − and she didn’t tolerate just getting by. She would tell us that she wasn’t raising average kids.” Thurl listened. He chose to try and be the best he could be and he realized it kept him focused and away from trouble. “I learned that effort and commitment to be my best was like a muscle − the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Then it blossoms. It became a habit.”
These important lessons in his early life shaped the man Thurl Bailey became. In addition to being a 6-foot-11 athlete (that will never hurt your basketball career), he developed the mindset to not only compete at the highest level but he learned how to succeed − consistently. He developed this mindset over his life at critical moments when he had opportunities to learn, when he chose to listen, and then when he took action. Thurl shared a handful of meaningful experiences that are rooted in principles that can be useful to anyone who wants to achieve the highest level of success and develop their leadership.
Vision − Vision provides the path and drive to stay focused in the face of adversity. This lesson came most powerfully from his college basketball coach, Jim Valvano. In 1980, when “Coach V” came to North Carolina State, he told his players that he had a dream that they would win the National Championship. He wanted them to travel forward in time and live in that moment of the championship game so they could experience how it would feel. Coach Valvano had the team practice cutting down the nets “as if” they were champions. “Some days, we would spend most of a two-hour practice cutting down the nets and celebrating as if we had just won the National Championship,” said Thurl. It was that vision that willed the team through adversity in the season and resulted in one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history when North Carolina State scored the last eight points to beat the highly favored University of Houston. The ending of the final game is one of the most famous in college basketball history, with a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles, off an air ball from 30 feet out by Dereck Whittenburg. Then Coach V led the team in cutting down the nets with the scissors they had used in practice years before.
Trust and Teamwork − In 1980, Jim Valvano arrived at NC State as the new head coach. He hadn’t recruited Thurl or the other members of the team. There was no trust, only skepticism from the players of their new coach. “But we learned that trust and teamwork are a prerequisite for world-class performance,” Thurl said. “Coach V knew it. He created it. It was part of his vision and leadership. We would have to continually work out the differences. Coach V created unity. It was his vision for a championship that superseded our differences.” Coach Valvano, in a speech 10 years after the championship of 1983 said that the team had taught him to hope, dream, and love. The team continues to get together every year for a reunion despite the passing of Coach Valvano and Lorenzo Charles.
Clarity − Thurl Bailey not only learned the importance of clearly defining what he wanted to achieve (focus) but also who he would be to achieve it. With clarity, he has been able to act decisively, persist through adversity, and consistently perform at a world-class standard. He said, “I draw from the championship of 1983 every day. Once you’ve achieved that − a championship − you are always a champion. You seek that level in everything you do whether that’s in business, as a Dad, being a husband, or just a friend. You don’t go a day without thinking about where you can be.”
Gratitude − Thurl looks at most of his accomplishments and struggles as a journey and each experience as a gift. “Be grateful for the gifts life gives you,” he said. In gratitude, he takes action to make the most of these gifts and strives to pay it forward. When you are consistently grateful for your success, you are less likely to have your ego get in the way.
Perspective − Thurl values empathy and perspective. It is key to building trust and leadership. He said, “When I encounter a challenge or conflict, I try and evaluate first rather than react. I want to see it all. That means knowing that it can’t just be about me. I ask myself, ‘What is happening for that person? What don’t I know?’ ” In a press conference during the 1983 NCAA tournament before the UNLV game, UNLV star Sidney Green badmouthed Thurl, saying, “Bailey never showed me anything.” Thurl didn’t react and remembers, “I didn’t let it bother me. My teammates made more about (the quote) than I did. I played it cool because I knew how good Sidney Green was and that he could light you up. But I knew deep inside that I had to prove myself. … then I scored the winning basket over him.”
Ownership − We always have a choice and the opportunity to not allow our circumstances to define us or the outcomes we want. Thurl Bailey learned the power of intentionality and proactively making choices from his parents and then his coaches. The 1983 championship team personified persistence in the face of adversity, entering the 1983 NCAA tournament as a 6th seed in the West regional (23 teams seeded higher or equal in the tournament). Known as the Cardiac Kids, NC State somehow kept winning against all odds. Coach Valvano, who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer just 10 years after the championship, will be remembered for his immortal words, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up … and never stop fighting.” The team’s story was chronicled in “Survive and Advance,” an episode in the ESPN “30 for 30” series.
Bailey was drafted in the first round by the Utah Jazz in 1983. Utah was a new and different place for an African American from the south and Bailey wasn’t sure if Utah could be his home. He remembers, “Moving to a place where not very many people looked like me was a bit of an adjustment at first. However, that began to change when the focus became more about the ‘loving culture’ rather than the ‘ethnic culture.’ I always remembered what my mom and dad continued to teach, even during the turbulent racial unrest going on at that time where we were raised: ‘Don’t focus on the color of someone’s skin. Look past it and focus on where their heart is.’ ”
He has happily made Utah his home. He married his wife Sindi Southwick (from Richfield, Utah) almost 27 years ago, with whom he has three kids, BreElle, Brendan and Bryson. “Although basketball has taken us to many different lands, Utah has always been our home. I’m so grateful that years ago, Sindi focused on my heart and not the color of my skin and that this state embraced me as one of its own,” said Thurl.
As an executive coach and leadership adviser, I rarely come across people that can learn as much in success as they do from adversity and failure. In part, because as Microsoft founder Bill Gates noted, success is a lousy teacher because it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. However, with all his success, Bailey seems to have avoided the seduction of success. That is a key to his broad range and consistent success.
In describing what it was like to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship, Thurl described the experience as “a gift that was life-changing” rather than a trophy he conquered or achieved. Of course, it was an achievement and a dream to be a national champion but the victory has become secondary to what the journey of Jimmy V and the Cardiac Kids taught the world.
For Thurl Bailey, the greatest reward of his success is the platform it provides him to impact the lives of others. Thurl asks himself regularly what the unlikely championship run means for the school, for basketball fans, for the legacy of Coach Jimmy V and for all those who need inspiration to dream, hope, believe, and love those around you who are with you in the struggle. Daily, Thurl asks what gifts he can give others to inspire them to dream, hope, believe, and love. And then he calmly and confidently takes action.
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To learn more about Thurl Bailey, pick up your copy of his new book, Team of Destiny.