Remembering Tizzy and His Trademark Smile
By: Alex Kramers
“Probably one of the best college players to play the game.”
Arguably the NBA’s greatest player, Michael Jordan, pays the late Wayman Tisdale – a man who personified talent, optimism and perseverance – the ultimate compliment in the soon-to-debut documentary “The Wayman Tisdale Story.”
One of only 10 players in college basketball history to ever be named a three-time All-American, Tisdale, a 6-foot-9 power forward with a sweet left-handed jump-shot and unstoppable post moves, averaged 25.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game at the University of Oklahoma. A three-time Big Eight Conference Player of the Year, he still holds the school’s career scoring (2,661 points) and rebounding (1,048) records, as well as the single-game scoring mark (61).
An instant fan favorite with an infectious smile, genuine charisma and tremendous heart, Tisdale led the Sooners to Big Eight titles in 1984 and 1985, winning 70 out of 81 games during the stretch, and became the first Oklahoma athlete in any sport to have his uniform number, 23, retired.
He was the leading rebounder and fifth-leading scorer on the legendary 1984 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team that included future Hall of Famers Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.
“Of any of the kids I coached, he was one of the most enthusiastic for playing basketball and toward his teammates,” remarked Tisdale’s Olympic coach Bob Knight to ESPN.com in May of 2009.
“The phrase ‘team spirit’ cannot apply to anybody more than Wayman Tisdale. He was simply one of the most enjoyable kids I have ever had the opportunity to coach.”
After being selected with the second-overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, Tisdale played 12 years in the NBA, including five-and-a-half in Sacramento, averaging 15.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game over the course of his professional career. His best season came with the Kings in 1989-90, when he averaged 22.3 points per game (19th in the League) on 53 percent shooting and twice notched a single-game career-best 40 points. Tisdale ranks fifth in scoring (6,808 points), sixth in rebounds (2,676) and seventh in blocks (280) in the Sacramento era.
“When I think of Wayman Tisdale, I think of one of the absolutely most delightful players that we’ve had in the 24 years I’ve been associated with (the Kings) organization,” said Kings Director of Player Personnel Jerry Reynolds in 2009. “He was certainly one of the most outstanding players, and his stats would prove that. I’ll take it a step further – there was never a time when he wasn’t the most popular player in the locker room.”
Yet, basketball was only the tip of the iceberg for the supremely gifted Tisdale. While playing for the Phoenix Suns in 1995, the multi-talented star delved into what he described as “his first love.”
A self-taught musician who began playing the bass as a child when his father gave him a Mickey Mouse guitar, he released his first album, "Power Forward,” which climbed to the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s contemporary Jazz chart. Tisdale subsequently recorded seven critically-acclaimed albums, two of which, “Face to Face” (2001) and “Way Up!” (2006) peaked at the top of the charts. He toured worldwide with some of the biggest names in the genre and scored a No. 1 hit with a remake of the song, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” which serves as a perfect microcosm of his ever-optimistic outlook.
“(Basketball and music) are the two parts of myself,” said Tisdale. “Basketball taught me a work ethic. And even though music comes from a different part of me, I work just as hard at it.”
In February of 2007, after breaking his leg in a fall down a flight of stairs in his home, Tisdale was diagnosed with bone cancer. Following multiple rounds of chemotherapy, the doctors had to surgically amputate the lower portion of his right leg.
Suddenly, Tisdale, only a decade removed from being one of the best athletes in the world, could no longer stand without the assistance of a prosthesis.
Despite hearing a grim prognosis from the doctors and faced with the unfathomable task of simply learning how to walk again, Tisdale never wavered and continued tolight up a room with his guitar. After acclimating to his prosthetic leg in just 30 days, he soon went back to the recording studio to work on a new up-beat album inspired by his fight, which was titled “Rebound.”
“Cancer might’ve taken my leg, but it can’t take my smile,” he said.
Tragically, Tisdale lost his long battle with the disease and passed away on May 15, 2009, at the age of 44. Just as he always did on the basketball court, he lived his life with dignity, kindness and integrity.
To those who had the privilege of knowing him, Tisdale’s accomplishments as an athlete and musician pale in comparison to the character and influence he exemplified as a person.
“Nicest man in the world with the biggest heart and an even bigger smile,” Reggie Miller, who played alongside Tisdale on the Pacers, told the Associated Press in May of 2009. “I thank him for befriending me and showing me there is more to life than just basketball.”
A role model and close friend of many of his former teammates and coaches,Tisdale’s joy and passion went far beyond the hardwood.
“That’s a real friend who’s got your back and would do just about anything for you,” Sam Perkins, a former Indiana teammate, told the Associated Press in May of 2009. “That smile just gets you. He was upbeat all the time.”
After reaching the pinnacle of greatness in two prestigious and high-profile careers, Tisdale ultimately discovered his best talent was not strumming guitar strings or dunking a basketball – it was making the world a better place.
“I’ve been blessed with this great gift, but I think it’s not music or basketball, my greatest gift is to make other people feel better,” said Tisdale a few months before his passing. “What better tool than to have gone through something like this?
If you see me smile, you see the genuine love. That’s me.”
Free Throw – Alex Reflects
My first year as a Kings fan in 1993 coincided with Wayman Tisdale’s last season in Northen California, and since I grew up in New Jersey in the pre-NBA League Pass and YouTube days, I didn’t get many chances to see him play. But nearly every time I’d check the Kings box score in the local newspaper, I’d find his name alongside 20 points and 10 rebounds. Despite lacking the size and elite athleticism to match up with the League’s top big men, Tizzy never took a night off and competed with an unmatched passion and desire.
Over the last few years, I’ve been humbled to meet many of my Kings heroes, from Mitch Richmond to Chris Webber. Hearing touching accounts from Wayman’s former teammates and coaches, as well as the writers who covered him during his career, my biggest regret is that Kings fans will never have the chance to share another moment with him. Even amidst devastating adversity, the former Sacramento forward’s smile persevered, just as his commitment to improving the lives of others did until his final notes were played.
Rest in peace, Wayman.