Tisdale: Lighting up the world

By David Woods
Updated: May 16, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS — When people remember Wayman Tisdale, they don’t begin by citing his basketball or music achievements. What made him unforgettable was that smile.

That smile lit up rooms. Colleagues say that light always will shine.

“Wayman, I’m telling you, you’ll never take his spirit away,” said Quinn Buckner, who played with Tisdale on the Indiana Pacers.

Tisdale, a three-time All-American at Oklahoma and 12-year NBA player, died Friday in Tulsa, Okla., after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 44.

Sam Perkins, the Pacers vice president of player relations, became close to Tisdale when both played for the 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning team coached by Bob Knight. Perkins said Tisdale was like his little brother; Perkins was best man at Tisdale’s wedding.

“He has that infectious way of getting to people with his smile and the way he was — always upbeat,” Perkins said. “Every time I was around him, I never knew he had a problem. He would make me forget mine because of the way he was.”

After Tisdale fell and broke his right leg in February 2007, the cancer was diagnosed. He had to have the leg amputated in August 2008.

Tisdale, a 6-9, left-handed forward, played during four seasons for the Pacers (1985-89) and then for the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. His career average was 15.3 points a game.

The Pacers made him the overall No. 2 selection of the 1985 draft. On Feb. 20, 1989, they traded Tisdale and a second-round draft pick to the Kings for LaSalle Thompson and Randy Wittman.

TNT analyst Reggie Miller, the Pacers’ all-time leading scorer, said Tisdale, Herb Williams and Vern Fleming made his rookie transition from California to Indiana very easy.

“He was the nicest man in the world with the biggest heart and an even bigger smile,” Miller said of Tisdale in a statement. “I thank him for befriending me and showing me there is more to life than just basketball.”

In a statement distributed by the Pacers, club co-owner Herb Simon said Tisdale was a much-loved and respected member of the Pacers family.

“His personality, his smile, his laugh and his positive outlook on life were such that anyone who ever came in contact with Wayman immediately loved him,” Simon said. “He was a very good basketball player, but an even better human being.”

After basketball, Tisdale became an award-winning jazz musician. Several of his albums made the top 10 on the Billboard charts. Buckner said he remembered Tisdale carrying a bass guitar on trips during the season.

Perkins said Tisdale loved music, and had an aptitude for it.

“He wrote songs as if they came to him as water from a faucet. Just flowing like that,” Perkins said.

“At (Olympics) practice, I saw him make up songs that he would put on his album. I think music came to him as easy as basketball. He’s a talent. That’s what is so mesmerizing about him.”

Knight, the former Indiana University coach, was not so enamored. Tisdale became a pet whipping boy of the coach on an Olympic team that included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Steve Alford and Perkins.

Tisdale once said his Olympic experience prepared him for the challenges of chemotherapy.

“I had some coaches that literally didn’t want me to make it, and one in particular was Bobby Knight,” Tisdale told ESPN.com for a story published last Dec. 3. “At the time, I frowned on that . . . I look at it today that had I not persevered through a lot of the stuff he put me through, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I thank God for that dude because he pushed me.”

The prosthetic leg worn by Tisdale was crimson, one of Oklahoma’s colors. He was recently honored at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa with the Legacy Award. During the ceremony, he spoke about his cancer, saying, “In my mind, I’ve beaten it.”

Last month, Tisdale was chosen for induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo.

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.

The Tisdale family is well known throughout Tulsa. In 2005, the L.L. Tisdale Parkway was named for Tisdale’s father, Louis, who was senior pastor of Friendship Church for 28 years.

When Tisdale came to play for the Sooners in 1982, coach Billy Tubbs accommodated Rev. Tisdale’s schedule, switching practice to Sunday night so Wayman could be in his father’s church that morning.

“He was a very good pro,” Buckner said. “But he always knew his calling was to get back to the church, which is where he came from.”

Tisdale is survived by his wife, Regina, and four children.