For Thurl Bailey, there was life after basketball before basketball.

"So many things to do growing up (in suburban D.C.)," he was saying today. "Basketball was just another interest. Along with music. And acting. Also politics."

Teen-age politics, but real enough.

"I decided to run for vice president of the student government in junior high," he said. "I told my mother about it and she hardly reacted. Never even smiled. I asked why and she said: 'How come you didn't run for president?' I told her I didn't think I could win, and she said that shouldn't be a factor.

"Next day, I changed, put in my bid for president.

"And won."

At North Carolina State, Bailey has been seen in "Of Mice and Men" and been heard climbing up and down the scales on tubas, trombones and baritones. Mostly, he has been maturing into a front-court stylist whose star as a pro may twinkle even brighter. Unless the NBA manages to strike itself out of business shortly.

The only people not excited about Bailey during the postseason tournaments have been bright and diligent pro scouts certain they were onto the steal of the draft.

He and State have ridden as dramatic a tide as any in sport to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. They meet the best 18-13 team in basketball, Utah, here in the West region semifinals Thursday at 9:10 p.m. EST. Virginia and Boston College chase each other in the second game at 11:30 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9).

"Cinderella against the Team of Destiny," State Coach Jim Valvano calls his matchup against the last surviving school from the mild West. "This is a grade B movie if ever there was one. Both teams have had some incredible games to get here."

Bailey's followup of his own tip of an off-target, long-range shot by Dereck Whittenburg in the last few seconds gave State what can only be called its fifth straight routine stunning victory, 71-70, over Nevada-Las Vegas in the round of 32 Sunday. It let the Wolfpack move here from Corvallis, Ore.

Their days have been overflowing with idle time.

"We have meetings to discuss when we'll have the next meeting," said Valvano, who also has mastered the Xs and Os of press-conference games. "We met at 9 o'clock once to discuss the 11 o'clock meal. We've met five times to watch films of us eating."

Breathing has him concerned.

"Don't know if it's the altitude (4,500 feet) or the travel or the partying," Valvano said, "but we've been very tired lately. If somebody (Thursday) says the altitude's getting to him, I'll yell: 'Bend down a bit. Crouch or something.' "

Seriously, he'll give a tuckered Bailey as much rest as possible.

"The whole season has taken its toll," Bailey admitted. "Against Vegas, every time I turned around I was holding up my hand to come out."

Often, Valvano would turn his head.

That you with your hand up, T? Sorry. Didn't notice.

Coaches don't get to strut their wit before a national audience by coddling their main men too much. So look for Bailey to be going after rebounds with his tongue dragging.

While he has not gotten a whole lot taller since Bladensburg High, the 6-foot-11 Bailey has grown enormously.

"Cut twice in junior high," he said. "Then I'd start, but get pulled after the center jump."

Bailey pulled himself up to a decent player by his junior year in high school. And when the first recruiting letter arrived, from Maryland's Lefty Driesell, energy that had been spread to so many activities was directed to basketball.

His senior basketball class was one of the most precocious ever. It included Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins and several others. Even a near-7-footer could get lost in those shadows. Bailey thought seriously about Maryland; Driesell thought seriously about Bailey, after Sampson and Bowie, and got none.

Bailey calls State "my second home." His mother was raised in Rocky Mount, N.C., and his father has roots in the state. He also has two aunts who live not far from the Raleigh campus.

Of his becoming a presence on the court, Bailey insists: "I don't see myself as others see me." Evidently, the actor in him projects a more confident attitude than actually exists.

From a 43 percent shooter who averaged 3.6 rebounds and 4.5 points as a freshman, Bailey has become a 50 percent shooter who averages nearly eight rebounds and 17 points. He and Sidney Lowe made first team all-ACC and first team all-tournament after State's upset of Virginia.

"Some of what I've been able to do has been others teaching me," he said. "Sometimes it's looked awkward. I've also gone, alone, to the playground near home and worked for hours."

In high school, Bailey was projected as a shot blocker with not much of a shot; in the pros, he is projected as a slightly skinny worker reasonably comfortable at three positions.

With so much time between games and so far from home, the Wolfpack is anxious for what Valvano calls "our next Lazarus act."

What might be an appropriate encore for a long-playing scene of large rallies in small amounts of time? Ask Valvano a simple question and you get . . .

"A play with four seconds left that involves the refs in some intricate picking patterns."