This season, Karl Malone is everywhere. The Jazz forward is pictured on the Sports Ilustrated cover, interviewed after the CBS national TV game, featured in game-day newspaper stories in almost every city the team visits and listed among the All-Star voting leaders.
While Malone soaks up the attention, The Other Forward is quietly, maybe even surprisingly, playing very consistent basketball. After years of launching those funny-looking outside shots, he's added a variety of moves and made himsef a Top 20 NBA scorer.Thurl Bailey, Year VI, is the model the Jazz have waited for.
Overshadowed by Malone and still waiting for a new contract, Bailey has kept a low profile this season. The sixth-man role is old news, and he's often overlooked just because he's so much steadier than before.
His timing, for publicity's sake, is also a little off. When he made 15 of 17 shots for 33 points, including a late drive for a three-point play at New York, the Knicks regained the lead and the talked-about play was Malone's last-second miss. The same thing happened in the legendary Game 5 of the Jazz-Lakers series last May, when Michael Cooper's winning jumper matched Bailey's shot.
More than anything, though, Bailey's consistency has made him less noticeable this season. Having always jumped into and out of shooting slumps, he's had exactly zero truly bad games.
This, from the shooter who once gave you a 3-of-20 night.
"He does it every night now," says Malone. "It's like we expect it out of him now."
Having joined Malone last year as one of the league's best fast-break finishers, Bailey came back this season with a post-up game - highlighted by a jump hook, to go with his turnaround jumper. "He's worked very hard to make himself better all the time," says Coach Jerry Sloan.
"It's not anywhere near Kareem's sky hook, but it goes in," Bailey says of his new shot.
"Other teams are working so hard to stop those guys that it's forced them to find new weapons," John Stockton notes.
Bailey still casts from way outside, but his inside work has improved his game. Even on his worst shooting night, 4 of 14 at Golden State last month, he made 12 of 15 free throws to finish with 20 points.
With injuries and drug trouble knocking 1988 winner Roy Tarpley of Dallas out of the running, Bailey is the leading NBA Sixth Man Award candidate. His 20.8 average makes him the top off-the-bench scorer, although others follow closely - Phoenix's Eddie Johnson, Seattle's Xavier McDaniel, Denver's Walter Davis and Indiana's Wayman Tisdale.
Bailey claims not to crave the award or any Malone-style recognition that would accompany it. "If I was a person with a serious ego, that would probably devastate me," he says. "I'd want to be traded to a team where I could be more visible or a superstar - but I'm not that kind of person."
Says teammate Mark Eaton of Bailey's low profile, "That would affect a lot of guys. Thurl's a first-class guy; he goes out and does his job and never complains."
What Bailey would willingly accept is more money from the Jazz. He's working for $600,000 in the third year of a six-year contract; the Jazz have offered a new deal and want Bailey's answer. Thurl would be 31 when his current contract runs out, and he just about has to sign something now if he wants extended big-money years in the league.
"You should try to get out of the game what you can financially," notes Bailey, who says he'll make up his mind soon.
Without naming names, Jazz general manager David Checketts said last season, "We do have some jealousy about contracts."
The obvious candidate for a little resentment was Bailey, toward Malone. The Mailman had vaulted ahead of Bailey on the pay scale after two seasons.
So how's the Bailey-Malone relationship these days? Better than ever, they say.
Bailey: "We've become closer than before."
Malone: "We probably got off to a wrong start in understanding each other; I didn't understand Thurl and he didn't understand me. This year, we're closer than we've ever been . . ."
Of course, Malone's contract figures had to help Bailey and Stockton, even if Bob Woolf, Bailey's attorney, said, "I would expect in all that fairness that Thurl and John would not be paid as much."
Just something in the ballpark.
And as long as the process lasts, Bailey's value just keeps going up. A new contract would prove that his worth to the Jazz is higher than ever, although Bailey says, "I know that's the case anyway, because of how I'm working and contributing to this ballclub."
Even if nobody else notices.