Wherever Wayman Tisdale went, whatever he was doing, chances were he was smiling. Tisdale was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma in the mid-1980s before playing a dozen years in the NBA and later becoming an accomplished jazz musician. But those who knew Tisdale, who died Friday May 15th at a hospital in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., recalled not only his professional gifts but a perpetually sunny outlook, even in the face of a two-year battle with cancer that took his life at 44.
"I don't know of any athlete at Oklahoma or any place else who was more loved by the fans who knew him than Wayman Tisdale," said Billy Tubbs, who coached Tisdale with the Sooners. "He was obviously, a great, great player, but Wayman as a person overshadowed that. He just lit up a room and was so positive." Jeff Capel, the current Oklahoma coach, noted Tisdale's "incredible gift of making the people who came in contact with him feel incredibly special."
After three years at Oklahoma, Tisdale played in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. The 6-foot-9 forward, with a soft left-handed touch on the court, averaged 15.3 points for his career. He was on the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. Governor Brad Henry attended Oklahoma at the same time Tisdale did and later appointed him to the state's Tourism Commission.
"Oklahoma has lost one of its most beloved sons," Henry said. "Wayman Tisdale was a hero both on and off the basketball court. ... Even in the most challenging of times, he had a smile for people, and he had the rare ability to make everyone around him smile. He was one of the most inspirational people I have ever known." State senators paused and prayed Friday morning after learning of his death.
Tisdale learned he had cancerous cyst below his right knee after breaking his leg in a fall at his home in Los Angeles on February 8, 2007. He said then he was fortunate to have discovered the cancer early. "Nothing can change me," Tisdale told The Associated Press last June. "You go through things. You don't change because things come in your life. You get better because things come in your life." His leg was amputated last August and a prosthetic leg that he wore was crimson, one of Oklahoma's colors. He attended an Oklahoma City Thunder game April 7 and later that month was honored at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa. During the ceremony, he spoke about his cancer, saying "In my mind, I've beaten it."
He recently told Tulsa television station KTUL he had acute esophagitis, which prevented him from eating for about five weeks and led to significant weight loss. Among the causes of that condition are infections, medications, radiation therapy and systemic disease.
In April, Tisdale was chosen for induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was the first freshman to be a first-team All-American since freshmen were allowed to play again in the 1971-72 season. He was also one of 10 three-time All-Americans. Patrick Ewing and Tisdale were the last to accomplish the feat, from 1983-85. "On the court, he was an offensive machine that could score with the best of them," said Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson, an assistant on Tisdale's Suns teams. "Off the court, he was grounded in faith and family."
Tisdale played on an Olympic team that sailed to the gold medal in Los Angeles. The squad was coached by Bob Knight and featured the likes of Ewing, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin. "Of any of the kids I coached, he was one of the most enthusiastic for playing basketball and toward his teammates," said Bobby Knight, who coach the 1984 Olympic team. "He was great player on that team because he wanted the best for everybody. The phrase team spirit cannot apply to anybody more than Wyman Tisdale. He was simply one of the most enjoyable kids I have ever had the opportunity coach."
Perkins and Tisdale shared a love of music and became friends during the Olympics. Perkins later was the best man at Tisdale's wedding. "That's a real friend who's got your back and would do just about anything for you," Perkins said. "That smile just gets you."
As a musician, Tisdale recorded eight albums. A bass guitarist who often wrote his own material, his most recent album, "Rebound," was inspired by his fight with cancer and included guest appearances by several artists, including saxophonist Dave Koz and country star and fellow Oklahoma native Toby Keith. His "Way Up!" release debuted in July 2006 and spent four weeks as the No. 1 contemporary jazz album. His hits included "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," "Can't Hide Love" and "Don't Take Your Love Away."
"He was truly an inspiration to me, paving the way for an athlete like myself to pursue a passion for writing and performing music," said Bernie Williams, the former New York Yankees star turned jazz musician. "I had the honor and privilege of having Wayman perform on the title track of my new album, and was looking forward to collaborating with him again."
Tisdale averaged 25.6 points and 10.1 rebounds during his three seasons with the Sooners, earning Big Eight Conference player of the year each season. He still holds Oklahoma's career records for points and rebounds. Tisdale also owns the school's single-game scoring mark -- 61 points against Texas-San Antonio as a sophomore -- and career marks for points per game, field goals and free throws made and attempts.
In 1997, Tisdale became the first Oklahoma player in any sport to have his jersey number retired. Two years ago, then-freshman Blake Griffin asked Tisdale for permission to wear No. 23, which Tisdale granted. Griffin went on to become the consensus national player of the year this past season as a sophomore.
"I spoke with him pretty frequently this past season and he helped me in ways he probably doesn't even know," Griffin said.
Tisdale is survived by his wife, Regina, and four children.