Everything about Thurl Bailey is big: his 6-foot-11 frame, his hopes and dreams - and especially his heart.
The Pro Basketball Writers Association has named Bailey the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award winner. He was one of three NBA players nominated for the honor. The writers present it to recognize a player's outstanding contribution to community service.Awards don't matter to Bailey. In fact, Dave Allred, Jazz public relations executive, said even he doesn't know what Bailey's up to most of the time.
"He doesn't tell me - or anyone else. In a word, he's the greatest, he really is. He's never let us down; he's a class act all the way and I always know I can count on Thurl. It all comes straight from his heart," Allred said.
"It" is a deep commitment to community service. Bailey has a reputation as one of the most accessible, giving individuals in pro basketball. Or out of it.
"Giving to the community is something I've always done," Bailey said. "I haven't kept a record of it, and I haven't figured on getting any accolades."
He can be seen in a number of commercials, including one for the Ronald McDonald House, a home away from home for the families of sick children hospitalized in the Salt Lake area. During filming of that ad, he became friends with a 12-year-old cystic fibrosis victim. She died while he was on the road with the team, and he's still mourning for her.
He also does commercials promoting literacy.
"With literacy, I'm as involved as my time permits. These things are important. It's important that my little boy grows up with good reading skills, interested in books."
Bailey said he always loved books. In high school and college (where he started in political science with "thoughts of going to law school" and then switched to broadcast communication), he earned high grades, despite the fact that he was always busy.
Other examples of his community spirit?
He donates money for each basket he makes to the Society for the Prevention of Blindness. During a game with the Lakers, his eye was scratched and for a frightening moment he thought he was blind and his career finished. He has worn safety goggles in every game since.
He's helped promote awareness that the people of Ouelessebougou need help. He was the "drop off" point for donated blankets and coats for the homeless. He got so involved in an anti-drug campaign after his friend Len Bias died that he "covered about every school in the country. Finally we got smart and made a video." He's been involved with the Guadalupe School and also hopes to establish a program for minority kids who can't afford to go to summer camp.
How does he make time for all of it?
"Sometimes I don't know, either. I get caught up in it," he said. "It's hard not to say yes to everyone."
The bottom line, he said, is simple: "Really and truly, life is short and I look at it that I have a special gift. I was blessed with the physical ability to play basketball and that has brought nice things. But it's not something I take for granted. If there are simple things I can do, like sign an autograph and make someone smile, I'm going to do it every time."
Yup. A big man.