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Wayman Tisdale's powerful legacy


If you'll indulge a lapse into first person, one of the real highlights of my childhood came in the spring of 1984, my first year of middle school. The trials for the U.S. Olympic basketball team were being held in my town, Bloomington, Ind. Since Bob Knight was the coach, the tryouts were staged on his turf. So it was that the 70 or so invited players -- Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton among them -- rolled into town.

Most players were cut -- including, amazingly in retrospect, the latter three -- but those who made the Los Angeles Games roster spent three months marooned in Bloomington. (A college town in the summer carries a vibe not unlike a resort town after Labor Day.) This was before pros played in the Olympics and before college stars were full-blown celebrities. No entourages, money or even personal phones. The players stayed at glorified dorm rooms at the Student Union in the middle of campus. They ate in college cafeterias and were shuttled around town in red vans.

You can imagine what this was like for a sports-crazed kid. My friends and I would ride our bikes to the Union and hang out with the same players we'd seen on TV a few months earlier. These were future NBA stars, but they were either too bored or too nice to shoo us away. One day we would play video games with Chuck Person or Mullin; the next we would go bowling with Vern Fleming. Once we walked to the Chocolate Moose for milkshakes with Jordan. When the team practiced, we sometimes sneaked into Assembly Hall -- it was never locked, much less staffed with security -- and watched from the stands, ducking to get out of Knight's line of vision.

I vividly remember that there was only one jerk, Patrick Ewing, who wore a perpetual scowl and declared that he would sign no autographs. And I vividly remember that the nicest guy in the bunch was a guy from Oklahoma, Wayman Tisdale. He walked around with a blue-ribbon smile. It was like product placement for teeth. Even among this group of young athletes -- yet to become jaded by fame, their lives pregnant with promise -- Tisdale was the happiest and the go-luckiest. He sometimes wore a T-shirt with the word "TIS" in ironed-on lettering, not unlike the John Belushi "College" shirt from Animal House. In the lobby of the Union, Tisdale would wait patiently for the pay phone as Sam Perkins (who would later become one of his best friends) talked to his girlfriend. He sang out loud and was happy to sit and talk, once complaining to his audience of 13-year-olds that Knight had yelled at him like no other coach had. "He said I can't rebound!" He also told us not to worry about Ewing. "He doesn't talk to me much either."

I thought of Tisdale the other day -- and dug up this photo of him from a scrapbook (that's me on the right) -- when I received a screener of the documentary The Wayman Tisdale Story, which is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on NBA TV. It struck me that the supernatural coolness he showed a bunch of kids in 1984 never deserted him. And it struck me that he had a story that Basketball Nation should have told so much more thoroughly.

After helping the U.S. Olympic team win the gold medal in 1984, Tisdale went back to Oklahoma for his junior year, a career move that, of course, would be laughable today. He then turned pro and was drafted by the Indiana Pacers with the No. 2 pick, one spot after Ewing went to the Knicks. He played 12 NBA seasons, averaging 15.3 points per game. A lefty, he could play with his back to the basket or spot up, and score points in bunches. His career timing, though, was lousy. He was in Indiana before Reggie Miller got rolling. He was in Sacramento when it was a basketball backwater. By the time he was in Phoenix, the Barkley era was fading and the Nash era had yet to begin. Tisdale played 840 regular-season games and only 22 playoff games, the Shareef Abdur-Rahim of his day.

Even during his best basketball years, he declared that music was his real love. This triggered a reflexive roll of the eyes. This was the age of Shaq Diesel, when many NBA players wanted to prove that they could replicate their success and virtuosity in basketball in front of a microphone. "Crossing over" was the voguish term for these ambitions, these delusions of grandeur. It soon came to mean that the athlete would blow a boatload of money recording a demo album (sometimes even buying a studio) and hosting a lavish debut party. Then he sold a few dozen CDs out of his trunk and moved on to a new pursuit.

Except here was the thing about Tisdale: He actually did cross over. While he never took a lesson, learned to read music or studied theory, he played the bass guitar. And he was no dilettante. He playing at his father's church in Tulsa and kept at it. Music was his therapy when his teams were losing games or his career wasn't arcing as he had hoped. While playing for Phoenix, he made a demo and sent it around, careful not to reveal his identity. After hearing just a few tracks, an executive at Motown Records signed the mystery guitarist.

"We had to overcome skepticism [after] the NBA players who tried it behind a microphone," Steve McKeever, former president of MoJazz, said in the film. "Wayman was legitimate."

The hitch was that Tisdale didn't play the kind of stuff that gets heavy rotation on hit-music stations or gets played during timeouts or resonates with the New York and L.A. tastemakers. Tisdale played contemporary jazz -- invariably described as "smooth" -- funk-based songs that often had no accompanying lyrics. It was music that, as Tisdale put it, "came from within."

"Wayman was able to take the bass guitar, not typically a solo instrument, and use it to communicate -- not just funky party songs, but beautiful, heartfelt gut-wrenching melodies," acclaimed jazz saxophonist Dave Koz said. "This is a 6-9 guy on bass guitar making romantic music."

Even as Tisdale towered over everyone else on stage, plenty of his music fans had no idea he'd had another career. (Neither did the executives. Tisdale was once summoned to a studio and had to explain that he couldn't make it "because Houston is coming to town and they have this really good African guy, Hakeem Olajuwon, I have to play basketball against.") And while most hoops fans had vague notions that Tisdale had transitioned into another livelihood in music, how many knew that he was the Jordan of his new field, minting No. 1-selling albums and packing arenas on international tours?

In 2007, Tisdale woke up in the middle of the night and tried to walk off what he figured was tendinitis. He took a few steps and his leg snapped, as if he'd been smacked with a baseball bat. The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, one of the few cancers with a declining cure rate. Tisdale's right leg was amputated. He wore a maroon-colored prosthetic in honor of Oklahoma. And he soldiered on. He mentored a young basketball prodigy from his home state, Blake Griffin. He leaned on his wife -- often literally -- a high school sweetheart he'd met at church. And he kept playing music. Tisdale reckoned that it could have been worse: At least the cancer hadn't attacked his arms, which would have kept him from playing guitar. In between chemo sessions, he cut his 2008 album Rebound (take that, Knight). It, too, reached No. 1 on the charts. He kept smiling that smile. "I am the happy music man," he declared.

The cancer, though, didn't care. It ran its devastating course and in May 2009, Tisdale was dead at age 44. He left us with a significant basketball legacy. A significant musical legacy. A significant personal legacy. And thanks to this poignant documentary, he left behind the imprint for one person to possess three exceptional talents. R.I.P., Tis.