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After NBA And Jazz, Wayman Tisdale's Story Cut Short


Wayman Tisdale was that rare human being: a great athlete who had a great second act. But his life ended in tragedy. Wayman Tisdale was a three-time All-American at the University of Oklahoma, and a forward on the U.S. team that won Olympic gold, a great power forward for the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings. But music had been his first love.


SIMON: And he left the NBA to become a jazz musician, and also, once again, great.


SIMON: A new documentary tells the story of Wayman Tisdale's life and his final fight with cancer. Brian Schodorf wrote, produced and directed "The Wayman Tisdale Story." He joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRIAN SCHODORF: I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on, so much.

SIMON: Help us understand the way he went back and forth between music and basketball.

SCHODORF: Well, he grew up in a church. His father, Louis Tisdale, was a very prominent pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Wayman played the bass in the church choir, and that's how he developed it. He didn't think he was going on to play in the NBA. He thought he was going to be playing the bass guitar the rest of his life. Obviously, when you're six-foot-nine and a high school phenom, basketball certainly takes priority.

SIMON: Let me get you, draw you out a bit about his playing career, beginning in college, because Michael Jordan, no less than Michael Jordan, says that Wayman Tisdale was one of the great college ball players of all time.

SCHODORF: Back in the early '80s, the University of Oklahoma was a football school. And as a freshman, he came in and really put Oklahoma basketball on the map. And now you're talking about a generation with guys like Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone - household names. And Wayman really at that time was superior to all of them in many aspects on the court.

SIMON: Of course, he also had the experience of being an Olympian, playing for Bobby Knight.

SCHODORF: That's an interesting story. And any folks know Bobby Knight, they know that...

SIMON: They're mentally throwing a chair in their heads.

SCHODORF: Oh, Bobby Knight's a tough guy to play for.


TISDALE: I was the number one scorer in the country at the time. Bobby Knight told me I don't want you to score, I don't want you to shoot a ball, I don't want you to shoot a shot.

SCHODORF: And it's not that Bobby didn't like Wayman. I think he really saw something in Wayman that he wanted to bring out. Wayman's this guy, he's smiling every time he scores. Whether he scores a jump shot or dunks on you, he's walking back smiling. Bobby didn't like that. That doesn't sit too well with the great Bobby Knight. So, he wanted to challenge Wayman to toughen up, to be a better rebounder, a defensive player. But it challenged Wayman, and Wayman told me that after those Olympic Games he found out what type of warrior he was - that he could take the brunt of Bobby Knight's yellings and cursings, and he can take it and ultimately lead the team in rebounding and help them win a gold medal.

SIMON: And, of course, it was that kind of warrior spirit, as it turns out, that he would need when he got into his 40s and had his struggle with cancer. I want to play you a portion of this film, if we could, where Wayman Tisdale and his wife talking about the incident that eventually helped him to a diagnosis.


TISDALE: I remember it like it was yesterday. I was pretty much just 2:30 in the morning going to get my wife some water.

REGINA TISDALE: I hear this (makes bubbling noise) and was thinking he did not fall.

TISDALE: After I fell down the steps, 'cause the leg had just broke.

TISDALE: I jump out of the bed and I go running, and I'm yelling Wayman, and he's yelling Regina at the same time. And when I get there, he's just sitting on the step. Get up, get up. When he goes to get up, he yells.

TISDALE: It just seemed like somebody took a baseball bat and just, boom, as hard as they could.


SCHODORF: Here's a 44-year-old guy, never had any health complications with just walking down the stairs and your leg snaps? It ended up being a disease called osteosarcoma bone cancer, which is a rare form of mainly childhood bone cancer. So, for Wayman to get something like this, it's one in a million. And it resulted - it usually results in the amputation of a leg because they try to stop the spreading. And so when Wayman was going through this, he was down but, you know, obviously, rounds of chemotherapy are going to take their toll on you, but his spirit and his relentless enthusiasm for encouragement and trying to help others never let him get down. And it never let him say, hey, this is going to beat me.


TISDALE: Hey, y'all ready to hang?


SIMON: What does his music make you think about at this point? 'Cause he was a distinct musical talent. This wasn't someone who was just going through the motions.

SCHODORF: He was a self-taught musician. He played the bass guitar upside down, left-handed. And over the years, he kept practicing and, you know, towards the end of his NBA career, he decided to get in it more heavily. And he just has a beautiful sound.


SIMON: The DVD of this film is being released in tandem with some of Wayman Tisdale's greatest hits on CD. And I'm wondering if you want to recommend a piece of music to us to play out of this interview and tell us what it means to you.

SCHODORF: You really want to just pick one? I like them all. I'm looking at the disc right here. I think that Wayman wrote this song - it's number four on the record - it's called "It's All Right." It's off his "21 Days" record. Wayman sings on it, and it was actually written in 2001, written and performed. But if you listen to the words, you would think he wrote it right after he had his leg amputated. Because even back in 2001, he was expressing to people you have to keep your head up. You're going to have some dark, lonely nights but at the end of the day, you have to have faith, keep your head up and it's going to be all right.


TISDALE: (Singing) At night, please, don't you worry, about the things you're going through, yeah. Sometimes it's been longer just to show you people bring it through...

SIMON: Brian Schodorf - his new documentary "The Wayman Tisdale Story" is now available on DVD. Mr. Schodorf joined us from NPR West. Thanks so much.

SCHODORF: Thank you. I appreciate it.


TISDALE: (Singing) It's all right. It's OK...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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