Why former Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey says his son’s mission has put him ‘ahead of the game’ at Marquette University

In the last year, basketball players at Marquette University have begun to show greater interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

They aren’t actually investigating the Church, but they are learning about it from their only returned missionary teammate, Brendan Bailey.

“They have to write about certain topics and sometimes they choose to write about (the Church),” Bailey said with a grin. “So I help them.”

It’s been over a year since Bailey, the 6-foot-8 son of former Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey, returned from his two-year Latter-day Saint mission to Washington D.C. After a respectable freshman season, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the former American Fork High School star is expected to fill a major role for the Golden Eagles entering his sophomore year. 

“Brendo,” as his friends call him, is pumped about the prospects and grateful for the road that has brought him to this point. From growing up as “Big T’s” son, to recovering from a disappointing injury and taking two years away from the game he loves, to finding a college home in Milwaukee, Bailey has no regrets. 

“I’ve definitely seen the hand of the Lord in all I’ve done,” he said. 

DePaul guard Lyrik Shreiner (0) drives against Marquette forward Brendan Bailey (1) during a game last season in Chicago, Ill.
DePaul guard Lyrik Shreiner (0) drives against Marquette forward Brendan Bailey (1) during a game last season in Chicago, Ill. Credit: Matt Marton, Associated Press

Son of Thurl

After playing a role in North Carolina State’s legendary run to a national championship in 1983, Thurl “Big T” Bailey spent most of his NBA career with the Utah Jazz before playing a few seasons in Minnesota and going overseas. 

As a result, his son Brendan can’t recall a time when basketball wasn’t a big part of his life.

“I’ve loved it ever since I can remember,” Brendan said. “It’s always been a love and passion for me.”

Thurl never forced basketball upon Brendan or any of this children.

“People want him to follow in his dad’s footsteps, but every move he’s made has been his choice,” Thurl said. “But he, just like all my kids, once they decide to do something, they don’t go halfway on it. They dedicate themselves to it. Basketball and sports are never the most important thing in my kids’ lives, but it’s a major part of who they are and what they love to do.”

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Brendan credits his parents (his mother, Sindi, played basketball at Utah Valley State College) with teaching him the fundamentals of basketball and life. When his father passed along wisdom from his college coach, the late Jim Valvano, Brendan listened.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy to grow up in his father’s 6-foot-11 shadow. 

“I’ve loved it and hated it at the same time, especially growing up in the state of Utah. There was a lot of pressure for me to follow in his footsteps,” Brendan said. “But as I’ve become older, I’ve come to appreciate what being the son of a former NBA player has to offer. So I love my dad, and I’m thankful for everything he’s done for me.”

American Fork High

American Fork's Brendan Bailey dribbles up the court during a state playoff game against Brighton in 2014.
American Fork’s Brendan Bailey dribbles up the court during a state playoff game against Brighton in 2014. Credit: Deseret News Archives

Last year, Brendan Bailey sent a text with good news to his old high school basketball coach, Doug Meacham, now at Snow Canyon. 

Bailey had just set a new Marquette freshman record with 43 pull ups. 

Recalling the image of a tall but very thin high school freshman who could only manage three pull ups on the bar, Meacham replied with hearty congratulations.

“I didn’t know if a kid could get any skinnier as a freshman,” Meacham said. “Coming from where he was as a ninth grader, I thought that was pretty cool.” 

Spencer Johnson, Bailey’s high school teammate who recently committed to play for Brigham Young University, said Brendan patterned his game after NBA star Kevin Durant in part because of their similar tall, slender body types. 

It would take a few years for Bailey to mature physically, but he seemed to have all the other necessary skills, including a scorer’s mentality, mental toughness and a genuine love of playing the sport, Meacham said.

As he began to show promise at the high school level, Brendan caught the eye of Stan Johnson, then an assistant coach at Arizona State. 

Stan Johnson grew up in Taylorsville, played at Southern Utah and later worked as an assistant coach at the University of Utah. Johnson came to know Thurl Bailey while working at this summer basketball camps as a young man.  

“He was probably one of the monumental reasons I became a basketball player … and it’s kind of where I figured out I wanted to coach,” Johnson said. “That relationship runs deep.”

Brendan Bailey committed to play for the Sun Devils in 2014 but later decommitted after a coaching change.

Stan Johnson was hired at Marquette the following year, and after an official visit, Bailey accepted a scholarship from the Golden Eagles. He had also considered San Diego State, the University of Connecticut, Michigan and Gonzaga. 

Thurl Bailey was glad Brendan wasn’t recruited by NC State. He wanted his son to be able to pave his own path without added pressure. 

“I gave him my opinion, and he made the best choice for him,” Thurl Bailey said.

Mission decision

Once his college basketball future was secure, Brendan Bailey wrestled with the decision to serve a mission.

During a span of years where other Latter-day Saint players like Jabari Parker and Frank Jackson opted to play college ball and quickly moved on to the NBA, Bailey felt drawn to the mission field. 

Brendan Bailey, the son of former NBA player Thurl Bailey, is entering his sophomore at Marquette. He served a mission in Washington D.C. from 2016-2018.
Brendan Bailey, the son of former NBA player Thurl Bailey, is entering his sophomore at Marquette. He served a mission in Washington D.C. from 2016-2018. Credit: Marquette Basketball

Bailey always considered serving a mission but didn’t get serious about making a decision until his senior year as he continued to hear the question again and again from people: “Are you going to serve?”

The answer to go came after much “study and prayer,” he said.

“Once I decided, I was all in,” Bailey said. “When it came down to making the final decision, I knew it was the right thing to do and what I needed to do. That’s what the Lord needed and wanted me to do. That’s kind of hard to disagree with, you know. If the answer is a solid yes, you can’t really turn that down. And it was the best decision I ever made.”

Bailey’s determination to serve a mission impressed his teammates, Spencer Johnson said. 

“We were super proud of him. That was a big decision for him, especially since he signed with Marquette,” said Johnson, who served a mission in Italy before suiting up for Salt Lake Community College. “So the fact that he did go on a mission, that was huge.”

With the big mission decision behind him, the senior focused on leading American Fork to a state championship. But those hopes were dashed when Bailey broke his hand while blocking a shot in the last regular season game against Lehi. Without Bailey in the lineup, the Cavemen went on to lose in the quarterfinals to future BYU star Yoeli Childs and the Bingham Miners.

“It was an unbelievable block,” Meacham said. “But that was one of my saddest moments as a coach, to see the pain on his face. He knew it was broken. My heart just sunk.”

Despite the disheartening turn of events, Bailey said two years away from the game allowed his hand plenty of time to heal, he said.

Washington D.C.

Bailey was assigned to labor in the Washington D.C. area, including the community where his father was born and raised. 

“Oh that wasn’t by mistake,” Thurl Bailey said. “The Lord put him where he needed to be.” 

Brendan Bailey goes up for a dunk while dressed in missionary attire. Bailey, the son of former NBA player Thurl Bailey, served his mission in Washington D.C. from 2016 to 2018.
Brendan Bailey goes up for a dunk while dressed in missionary attire. Bailey, the son of former NBA player Thurl Bailey, served his mission in Washington D.C. from 2016 to 2018. Credit: Provided by the Bailey family

Along with personal growth and maturity, Brendan Bailey came away from his mission with a greater love and appreciation for his faith, his family and people in general, including everyone from the converts to the door-slammers. He also learned to play the ukulele.

His parents were proud.

“For him to dedicate himself to others for two years is something that should be commended. Anybody who is able to do that, in any walk of life, to serve other people and not be about you is a tremendous sacrifice in some ways, especially the position he was in,” Thurl Bailey said. “I don’t fault other players for not doing it. That’s their choice. But he decided to do it. It wasn’t an easy mission. It was difficult for him at times. But that says something about him to give his all. So to be in a place where I grew up, for me that was like icing on the cake.”       

The Golden Eagle

As a true freshman following his mission, Brendan Bailey started three games and played in all 34 overall, averaging 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in about 14 minutes per game. 

He checked into a game against Georgetown in mid-January when a teammate was injured and made plays to help the Golden Eagles win. 

Later in the season, Bailey was assigned to guard Murray State standout guard Ja Morant in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Although Morant, the second overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, recorded a triple-double in a big victory over Marquette, Meacham thought it was notable for the coach to ask a true freshman to defend such a talented player in a game of that magnitude.

This was the first time Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, as a head coach, has been part of a player serving a mission, although he’s experienced it with teammates and players on previous teams. The valuable lessons Bailey learned on his mission will also make a difference for him in his basketball journey, Wojciechowski said.

“Brendan’s going to be an important player for us,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s different than anybody else we have on our roster — his size, his versatility, his ability to play inside and out, his ability to guard multiple positions, is unique on our roster. We anticipate Brendan having a great season, and certainly the better he is, the better we’ll be.”

Xavier guard Paul Scruggs, left, shoots against Marquette forward Brendan Bailey in a game in the 2018-2019 season in Cincinnati.
Xavier guard Paul Scruggs, left, shoots against Marquette forward Brendan Bailey in a game in the 2018-2019 season in Cincinnati. Credit: John Minchillo, Associated Press

Stan Johnson echoed the head coach, saying that Bailey is vital to the program’s success this season. He added that family and friends back in Utah should be proud of how Bailey is representing the state.

“He represents his family, his church and the state of Utah out here at a high level. He’s more than a basketball player, who he is as a person, the things he stands for, how he carries himself, he’s everything we want our kids to be. … The state of Utah would be really, really proud to have one of theirs doing what he’s doing here.” 

While eager to carry on the Marquette tradition built by former Golden Eagle players like Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Wes Matthews, and possibly following them into the NBA one day, Bailey’s mission prepared him well for life at Marquette, both on and off the court. While the Latter-day Saint presence on campus is small, Bailey feels comfortable living his faith and values.  

Marquette forward Brendan Bailey goes up for a dunk during a game in Spain this past summer.
Marquette forward Brendan Bailey goes up for a dunk during a game in Spain this past summer. Credit: David Fajula, Marquette basketball

The biggest difference his father sees in “Brendo” since his mission is his overall maturity.

“They had never had a freshman come in with that kind aura, if you will, not being lost in your first year,” Thurl Bailey said. “I think it put him ahead of the game because now all he had to do was focus on school and basketball. He had a head start in building himself and the maturity that he was able to get from his mission.”     

When Bailey, a journalism major, gets homesick, he’s grateful that at least one teammate — Utah State transfer Kobe McEwen — can sympathize when he misses biting into a sweet pork burrito from Cafe Rio, one of his favorite restaurants in Utah, he said.

Back in Utah, the Bailey family, especially Thurl, continue to be Brendan’s biggest fans.

Seeing his children go through the process of personal growth and overcoming adversity to find success is a “father’s dream,” Thurl Bailey said.

“To be a dad is an amazing, amazing thing,” he said. “I’m just in awe sometimes because I see that he still hasn’t reached his potential yet. But he’s got some great opportunities ahead of him. … Watching him do what he loves, watching him fall and get back up and discovering what he’s made of. All these things are going to carry on beyond basketball.”