On any Sunday, from the pulpit of Tulsa's Friendship Baptist Church, the Reverend L.L. Tisdale can patch you through to the Lord. On a Monday, when his brow has dried, he'll speak of how he came up from Fort Worth in 1969 to serve the people of Tulsa's hardscrabble North Side. And he'll tell how he returned from a revival in Wichita about 10 years ago with a present for the youngest of his and Deborah Tisdale's six kids. He had a guitar for 9-year-old Wayman.
Today a guitar fits Wayman Tisdale the way a basketball player fits the football-obsessed University of Oklahoma: loosely, like an incongruity with a long neck. But there's a felicitous ring to the phrase: Wayman Tisdale, country & western star.
Which would make rednecked Billy Tubbs a down-home impresario. At age 47, in only his third season as coach at Oklahoma, Tubbs has found his ticket to the big time. The Reverend Tisdale's youngest son is 18 now, with a dulcet jump shot and a gutbucket inside game that at week's end had lifted the Sooners to a 19-7 record. When Tubbs was hired he gave himself 20 years to turn Oklahoma into a power. "If I'm not there by the time I'm 65," he said, "I'll give up the ship, baby." With Tisdale, he'll get there a lot sooner, though last weekend Tubbs himself was dealt a temporary setback. While jogging on Sunday morning he suffered a skull fracture when he was hit by a car on a Norman street. As this issue went to press, his condition was listed as fair, and he appeared to be out of danger.
As we'll soon see, Tubbs has always been a survivor. Once released from Oklahoma City's St. Anthony Hospital, he'll be back explaining to anyone who'll listen just how simple basketball can be.
February 28, 1983
Players should shoot, often and well. "My definition of a good shot is anything that goes in," he says. "Players who can't shoot drive me up the wall because they always wind up open."
The best defense is a good offense. "If I've got guys who can score, I know I can find out a way to stop the other team. But if I can't score, it's devastating sitting there knowing I've still got to stop the other people."
The spectators should get a show. "People in Oklahoma are used to seeing exciting things happen on the football field. We want to fill our arena." As every showman knows, nothing fills a building like a star. Tubbs's arena is 10,871-seat Lloyd Noble Center. His star is Tisdale.
When Booker T. Washington High ran off with the Oklahoma Class 5-A basketball title two years ago, Wayman threw so many outlet passes to his older brother, William, then a senior, that William was named Tulsa's high school Player of the Year. Now the brothers are roommates, teammates and constant sources of amusement for each other. William, 6'4", 210 pounds, impersonates his sociology professor and Dustin Hoffman's Dorothy in Tootsie; Wayman, 6'9", 235 pounds, sends up Richard Nixon and Mr. Magoo's valet Charlie. The brothers study together, eat together and bunk together. "If we flunk, we'll flunk together," says Wayman.
"You scored better against Abilene Christian than you did on that first communications test," says William, teasing.
That's close to the truth, though Wayman is a solid B student. What Wayman did at home against the Wildcats on Dec. 6—specifically to the two ill-fated Abilene Christian players assigned to guard him—was shoot 22 for 27 and score 51 points, an NCAA single-game scoring record for freshmen. His performance also eclipsed Oklahoma's single-game scoring mark of 43 set in 1975 by Alvin Adams, the longtime star of the Phoenix Suns. Tubbs, who recognizes a good opportunity to get a little ink when he sees one, kept Tisdale onstage during the Sooners' 110-61 rout so that he could set the records.
The loss left Wildcat Coach Mike Martin with nothing but his sense of irony. "Tisdale can't play," he said. "He flat-out can't play!"
In fact, Tisdale has been so inept that for most of the season he has been among the top five scorers in the country. At the end of last week he was averaging only 26.3 points per game, on 59.0% shooting. He also was getting 10 rebounds a game, with a high of 18 against Missouri on Feb. 12. But in spite of these accomplishments, he's still only the third-most-celebrated freshman athlete on campus, after Marcus Dupree, the tailback, and Filbert Bayi, the distance runner. By his 17th game Tisdale had already set an Oklahoma season record with seven games of 30 or more points. In three starts during the Sooners' third-place finish in Hawaii's Rainbow Classic, he scored 102 points and was named MVP of the tournament.
Tisdale has been helped in his fast start by the presence in the Sooner lineup of guards Bo Overton and Chucky Barnett, Forward David Little and high-post man Charles (Big Time) Jones, who were all starters on last year's team that reached the semifinals of the NIT. But there's no question who's the most important player. In the same way that Oklahoma Football Coach Barry Switzer junked the wishbone for the I formation to exploit Dupree's extraordinary ballcarrying ability, Tubbs has throttled back on his pell-mell running game to accommodate Tisdale's post-up talents. And when Tisdale got into foul trouble during the first half of a loss at Missouri last month, Tubbs pulled him out of the game and ordered a freeze. Four senior starters notwithstanding, Tisdale has already become so important that Tubbs would rather hold the ball than play the Tigers without him. In that same game, the Missouri crowd alternated chants of "Wayman Tisdale, one-man team" with "Billy Tubbs, high school coach."
In his first season, Tisdale may have redefined the term "low post." He prefers playing to the left of the lane with his back to the basket, but that's the extent of his resemblance to classic centers who wheel through the middle with hooks and drives. Tisdale's favorite move is a high-arching, lefthanded turnaround jumper he loads up with backspin and gets off in an instant, using the glass if he has an angle. Wayman seems to waylay defenders with the sheer suddenness of the shot, and his upper body is so lissome and capable of contortion that he's uncanny in avoiding the offensive foul.
It's little wonder Tisdale was wooed by just about every basketball power in the country and was selected to virtually every schoolboy All-America team during his final year at Washington High. Converse, the sneaker company, named him its national Player of the Year. Rolling Stone even ran a photograph of Wayman at home, beaming and bare-chested on his bed with his bass guitar prominent in the background.
But there was never much question that he was going to Norman. He liked the challenge of playing on a football campus, he liked the unpretentious, wisecracking Tubbs, and, most of all, he liked knowing that his brother would be around. "Yes, we can try to beat around it," Wayman says, "but it was a pretty simple choice with William being here."
Until older brother Weldon took up basketball, the game had no place in the Tisdale household. The Reverend Tisdale favored football. "I thought basketball was for girls," he says. "I didn't know there was so much contact." But Deborah wouldn't let her younger boys play football. Inspired by watching Weldon, William and Wayman set up a garbage can in their backyard, took a ball and began horsing around. Soon they graduated to the macadam of the Immaculate Conception Church schoolyard, a couple of blocks from their home. "I remember when Wayman made his first dunk, in seventh grade," says Weldon, who played two years of basketball at Yale before graduating last spring. "He ran all the way home to tell William and me. It turned out he'd dunked a stick."
By the time he was a ninth-grader, Wayman had grown to 6'6". But he tended to tire easily, and other things competed for his time. Deborah wouldn't let her boys out of the house unless they made a full accounting of the status of their homework. And every Sunday Wayman thumped the bass for the gospel ensemble at Friendship Baptist. "Growing up, I wanted to play the bass more than basketball," he says. "Me and some friends had a street band going. We even made up a few songs."
"Right," says William, "like Baby, You Know I Got That Bottle of Gin in My Closet Since 1969 (So Why You Wanna Give It to Your Drunken Daddy?)."
Wayman keeps a pebble-grain Bible with his name in gold leaf on the front. "I've got to open it every now and then for him to keep it from getting petrified," says William.
By approaching the game so simply and plying the press with quips, Tubbs obscures his own coaching gifts. "Sometimes when he fusses at us in practice we just have to laugh," says Wayman.
In many ways Tubbs suggests another Oklahoman, Abe Lemons, the former coach at Texas, who also tried to use wit and the fast break to succeed on a football campus. But Tubbs's wit is more gregarious than Lemons', his humor more Socratic. Lemons never needs a straight man; life is his straight man. But Tubbs is at his best with a foil. When his wife, Pat, suggested that he loved basketball more than he loved her, Tubbs said, "Well, I love you more than track." When told at the press conference announcing his hiring that Georgetown's John Thompson had been offered the job first, he said, "I was my wife's second choice, too. I've been with her 25 years and it's worked out pretty good." (Their daughter, Taylor, is in high school; Tommy is a six-foot junior guard at Oklahoma.)
Tubbs had a boyhood that was equal parts Tex and The Grapes of Wrath. Two years after he was born, in St. Louis during the depths of the Depression, his father, Oscar, died and his mother, Bessie, moved with her two boys to Fort Smith, Ark. While she supported them as best she could—sewing and housecleaning at first, and later working au pair in a farmhouse—Billy romped around Fort Smith with brother Wayne, eight years his senior, whom he called Buzz.
Buzz and his friends would go swimming in the "strip pits," precipitous holes from which coal had been mined, and goad little Billy into jumping in. They would play baseball in a cow pasture adjacent to Route 22, an artery that, in the days shortly before World War II, was swollen with military traffic running between town and Fort Chaffee. Buzz always tied Billy to a fence post to keep him from wandering out onto the highway. When Bessie had scrimped enough to buy Buzz a used bicycle, it served as the family car. There would always be a place for Buzz's kid brother atop the rear fender.
One summer day in 1941 Buzz wanted to go home, but Billy evidently didn't and simply jumped off the back of the bike after Buzz put him on. Buzz retrieved him, mounted him on the handlebars, where he could be held, and set off again. As they coasted down a long hill, Billy got his foot tangled in the spokes of the front wheel. There was a bad fall, and Buzz still remembers seeing Billy's right ankle bone through the torn, bloodied skin. "Maybe I just resent authority," says Billy. "That's why I'm ornery with officials today. I like sticking my foot in their spokes."
"I was scared to death he'd lose that foot," says Wayne, who works as a production control manager for American Airlines in Tulsa and who last week stood vigil by his brother's bedside. He spent that summer nursing Billy, changing bandages and shooing flies away. Bessie got a job at the local cleaners, and in 1945 the Army sent Buzz to the Philippines. When Bessie's boss had to close down his establishment in Fort Smith, he made her night manager of his laundry in Tulsa. Billy sometimes slept in a bin of clothes while she worked. But Bessie had a heart problem she refused to acknowledge, and in 1949, when Billy was in the eighth grade, she collapsed and died.
"Suddenly everything changed in his life," says Wayne, who by then was also living in Tulsa and supporting his own wife and two kids on 80¢ an hour. "He didn't know what to do. That's when I grew up." Billy, spurning the offer of Bessie's landlord to adopt and raise him as his own, moved in with Buzz. At the time Billy's only trousers were a pair of jeans. Years later he would tell his wife that, if nothing else, he would always have plenty of clothes because basketball coaches dress well.
"Getting involved in athletics was the best thing to happen to him," Wayne says. "I'd heard stories about him hanging out with the store-porch loafers in Arkansas. He was kind of a street kid, never a bad boy, but he came up tough, and a kid like that can go either way." Today Billy says, only half-jokingly, he'd probably have ended up a gangster if he'd stayed in St. Louis.
He fit in well as a guard on the Tulsa Central High team, a running bunch called the Firehouse Five. For Billy's final varsity season, after he'd moved with Wayne's family just over the city line, Buzz forged rent receipts showing Bessie's old address so Billy could play his senior year at Central. The dreaded alternative was attending the local school, where the coach was a walk-it-up Hank Iba disciple from Oklahoma State.
Meeting the cost of college was out of the question. But Shelby Metcalf, a friend from Tulsa who now coaches at Texas A&M, wrote Billy a letter urging him to look into a two-year school in Jacksonville, Texas. Lon Morris Junior College played a 45-game schedule, Metcalf wrote, and the coach there, O.P. Adams, knew running basketball cold. So Billy brazenly wrote Adams that he could make his team. Adams decided he had to see a kid with that kind of gall.
Tubbs accepted Adams' offer of a make-good scholarship and started at guard for two seasons before moving to Lamar Tech (now Lamar University) in Beaumont. Within two years after graduating from Lamar, he became an assistant there, handling tickets, concessions and the jayvee, and getting the players and the technicals. "In my spare time," he says, "I ate lunch." The Cardinals finished at better than .500 eight times during the 11 seasons he apprenticed under Jack Martin. When Tubbs left in 1971 to become head coach at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Lamar didn't have another winning season until 1977-78, a year after Tubbs had returned as head coach.
At Lamar he won Southland Conference titles three of the four years he had the head job, bouncing Detroit from the NCAA tournament in 1979 and Weber State and Oregon State the next year. Those wins made Tubbs one of the hottest coaching prospects around. Enter Oklahoma, whose coach, Dave Bliss, had just left for SMU, walking out on a new arena and an ample budget just two years after winning a Big Eight title. He was sick of fighting football.
Whereas Bliss stubbornly focused his recruiting on Indiana, having served as an assistant under Bobby Knight for four years, Tubbs has been more than satisfied with local kids. He starts two Oklahomans (Tisdale and Overton) and two Texans (Jones and Little) with a Hoosier holdover (Barnett). And football's O.K., too. "I never liked to tackle anybody, but I've always liked to watch," says Tubbs. "Football at Oklahoma gets nothing more than it deserves. If we do our job well, we'll get our share. I may envy them, but I'll never resent them."
Shortly after Tubbs's hiring, Switzer literally went out of his way for the new basketball coach. He passed up the OU Club of Tulsa's annual football banquet, flying off to a vacation isle and leaving the dais to Tubbs. That night Tubbs told his audience about a player he'd seen for the first time only three days before, at an amateur tournament in New-Orleans. The kid was from right there in Tulsa, and Tubbs had to have him.
Tubbs has said that he puts recruiting before everything, including his family, and Tisdale became as much a surrogate son as NCAA rules would permit. Tubbs saw 25 of Tisdale's games over the next two seasons, reminding him with each appearance, if not by actual contact, of the challenge and nucleus of solid players he'd find awaiting him at Oklahoma. "For us to have any credibility in this state, we had to go out and get Wayman," Tubbs says. "If someone had told me last year I could have any player in the country, Wayman's the player I'd have picked."
Never mind that many other coaches, given the same choice, would have picked Tisdale, too. "He was the best player for us," Tubbs says. What others say and think has never counted much with Tubbs. "They said it was a dumb move to stay at Lamar 11 years as an assistant," he says. "They said it was a dumb move to go back there as a head coach. They said it was a dumb move to go to a football school. I can't wait to see what my next dumb move is."
The impresario says this with his eye always on the house. "Our crowds aren't as big yet as they will be," he says. "It's what we've said all along: You've got to put players on the floor who'll win, but also capture people's imaginations. Wayman has that charisma."
Reach 'em and teach 'em, son of a preacher man.