Tag Archives: Oklahoma Basketball

Five Years Gone But Never Forgotten – Wonderful Wayman Tisdale

May 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the earth.  We lost Wayman Tisdale far too early at the age of 44, but his spirit and love for life stays with us today.

I first met Wayman when he was an awkward teenager at Booker T. Washington High School, yet to develop all the gifts he had been granted.  What a pleasure it was to be able to have a front row seat as he developed into one of the best basketball players in the history of college basketball and as he became one of the greatest ambassadors the state of Oklahoma could have.  His musical talents, which actually were far more developed in his youth than his basketball skills, also became a primary part of his professional life.

Talking to Wayman at OU media day in 1984.
Talking to Wayman at OU media day in 1984.

Although he didn’t have the type of NBA success he may have wanted, Wayman took another road and became a well-respected and much loved jazz musician, working with some of the top performers in the industry.  His smile remained as broad as the ocean and his handshake as strong as his love for his family, his state and his music.

The last time I had a chance to visit in depth with Wayman came just a year before his passing.  He had survived cancer’s first attack and had not yet seen the relapse that was to come.  As always, his spirit was infectious and his grace was immeasurable.

There haven’t been too many bumps in the road for Oklahoma basketball all-time scoring leader Wayman Tisdale.  Since he was a freshman in high school, Tisdale has traveled a fairy tale path – from prep superstar at Tulsa Washington to three-time All-American at Oklahoma, the Olympic team, a decade long pro career and into a post-retirement career as a top-selling jazz musician.

But this past spring, Tisdale experienced one of the few setbacks in his life.  Last may, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and while doctors were doing X-Rays to determine the damage to his knee, they found a cancerous cyst in his fibula.   Following removal of the cyst, Tisdale had to cancel his music tour and start chemotherapy to treat the cancer.  Once again, it appears Wonderful Wayman has come out on top.

“Everything is great.  I’m pretty much done with the treatments and back out on the road,” said Tisdale. “So I’m feeling great and everything is pretty much behind us.  I had to curtail my touring most of the summer but I was able to go back out this winter.”

Tisdale just completed a Christmas Jazz Cruise in January to Aruba and Curacao and his latest CD, Way Up, debuted at #1 and spent 30 weeks in the top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts.

He still has the infectious smile, the outgoing personality and the easy going nature that made him a fan favorite in Norman while he was becoming the most decorated player in Sooner history and helping to build a budding dynasty for coach Billy Tubbs.  Tisdale was the first player to be named first team All-American as a freshman, sophomore and junior and he holds virtually all of the Oklahoma scoring records.

“It was a long shot when I first went there.  I had a lot of people trying to tell me not to go to Oklahoma, but that didn’t matter to me,” Tisdale said. “What mattered is that I was going to get to play as a freshman and pretty much get the program handed over to me and you just can’t find that anywhere else.”

Tisdale exploded on the college basketball scene and brought OU to prominence
Tisdale exploded on the college basketball scene and brought OU to prominence

 

It was instant stardom for Tisdale, who averaged 24.5 points as a freshman and 25.6 for his three year career.  He led the Sooners within a game of the Final Four on two occasions and built the foundation for Tubbs’ teams that would later on make it to the NCAA championship game.  And he was the leading rebounder for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal basketball team coached by Bob Knight.

From there, Tisdale became the number two overall pick in the NBA draft behind Patrick Ewing and went on to a 12 year career with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns that saw him average over 15 points a game and score almost 13,000 points.  In the latter stages of his career, Tisdale released his first musical effort, Power Forward, and showed his teammates and the world that he was serious about a career in jazz after basketball.

He had played the bass in his father’s Tulsa church as a youngster, but when he began to grow and basketball became his calling, Tisdale put music on the back burner.  He still played from time to time, with many people considering it a hobby or a novelty.  However, Tisdale was just as serious about music as he was about basketball.

“Ninth grade, I started sort of excelling in basketball and had to put the bass down then.  Never really put it down completely,” said Tisdale. “I just never really did practice as hard on the bass until maybe my eighth or ninth year in the league, I really got serious about it.”

“I got harassed a lot by (my teammates), you know.  But I knew what I wanted to do, I was focused and didn’t let a lot of people deter me in what I wanted to do.  Sometimes I went overboard because I was spending so much time doing it, but other than that, it was all out of the love.”

The big lefthander released two CDs that were critically acclaimed before he decided to retire after the 1997 season.  Now, Tisdale was making the transition from basketball star that happened to play music to full-time musician.  How was he perceived in his new world?

“Pretty much from day one, they really embraced me on the music side,” said Tisdale. “I guess my sound is so different and so new that it kind of took off right away when they heard my playing. It just been a blessing to come from one world into another and be pretty much successful, so I don’t take that for granted at all.”

Wayman Tisdale OC Pavilion 05 Amy Rogin

“I always wanted to do it and always aspired to do it, and I knew what kind of work it was going to take after being successful at basketball, knew that I was going to have to work just as hard or harder to make it in music, so why can’t I?  That was the theory I used and it just came about.”

“It took lots of discipline.  I listened a lot, too. I listened to a lot of advice.  I bumped my head a lot of times, too, but even though I bumped my head I still took the advice and kind of just went from there and things just started to fall in place after a while.  There’s no substitute for hard work and that’s what I’ve been taught and done the whole time.”

Tisdale has released seven solo albums to date.  In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and received the Legacy Tribute Award. He was also nominated by the NAACP as “Outstanding Jazz Artist” for its 2004 Image Awards.

Honoring Wayman with a lifetime achievement award at the Oklahoma Sports Headliner event
Honoring Wayman with a lifetime achievement award at the Oklahoma Sports Headliner event

He has also kept a connection to his home state, commuting from his farm home near Tulsa to his business interests in Los Angeles.  Tisdale and his wife, Regina, have four children and his Tulsa home includes a stocked pond so he can indulge in another passion – fishing – while helping in the garden and horseback riding with his son. Outside of the home, Tisdale regularly takes Tae Bo with Billy Blanks, calling it his new addiction and the best workout since playing in the NBA.

“We’re back home and enjoying the farm life and I’m traveling probably more now than ever,” noted Tisdale.  “Things are just moving right along.”

For a couple of years, Tisdale returned to OU to do color commentary on Sooner basketball television broadcasts, but his music success forced him to give up that job.  He still takes a keen interest in the program.

“My schedule is just really busy, pretty much all year round now, so I wasn’t able to do it.  I really enjoyed doing that.  I loved that,” said Tisdale.  “The program is kind of rebuilding now and it’s getting to where it needs to be.  It still has a long way to go, but it’s a good start and they’ve got some good foundation to do it with.”

A big part of that foundation is freshman center Blake Griffin, who some are touting as the second coming of Tisdale.  Even though Tisdale was the first OU player to have his number retired, he agreed to allow his number 23 to be reinstated so that Griffin could wear it this year.  Griffin is off to a great start, but still has a long way to go to reach the numbers that Tisdale compiled, even though Tisdale hopes the 6-10 youngster can reach those heights.

“I’d rather that he be better than me.  I know that he’s gonna be a great player and I’m going to be wishing him all the best”, said Tisdale. “We need to get him to average about 10 or 15 more as a freshman.  But he’ll be alright.”

And while Tisdale is doing just fine in his latest career, he still would like to stay involved in the sport that gave him a chance to reach a national audience and he took the opportunity to lobby for yet another job.

“You know, I’m interested if the Sonics come to Oklahoma City, I’m definitely interested in working in some capacity”, Tisdale said. “Not as a coach or anything but front office work. Community relations.  I think I’d be good at that.  My face would look good on that.”

It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the smiling youngster from Tulsa showed up on OU campus and put Sooner basketball on the map.  Tisdale plans to keep moving and putting a smile on the face of everyone he touches.  As far as he’s concerned, that’s just part of the plan.

“I think everybody’s life is orchestrated.  We’ve just got to follow the blueprint”, said Tisdale.  “I feel that I’ve been dealt a pretty great blueprint and it’s just been a blur for me.  It hasn’t stopped going since before I got to OU.”

Sadly, there would be no storybook ending to Wayman’s story. Shortly after this interview, the cancer returned with a ferocity that required the amputation of his leg.  Still, Wayman battled back through rehabilitation, but the signs were there that this was a battle he would not win.  Eventually, he succumbed to the disease.

His memory lives on with the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the top NCAA freshman each year.  And his wife Regina battles on, still cherishing her husband’s memory and struggling to deal with such an enormous void.  We share her memories and we, too, still can’t believe that he’s gone.

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The Champions That Never Were – 1988 Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

When my wife-to-be asked me if there would be anything to conflict with an April 2, 1988 wedding date, I confidently said “No, because neither OU or OSU will be in the Final Four.”  After all, it hadn’t happened in 40 years and up until December, there was no indication it would happen that season.

In January,  I started sweating because OU went on a tear like no other – one that would eventually take them to the top of the college basketball rankings.

In late March, I had to sheepishly admit to my audience that I would not be going to Kansas City for the NCAA Championship because I was getting married that weekend.

Half of the invited guests couldn’t make it because they were at the semifinal game against Arizona.  And on Monday night, when Oklahoma and Kansas were meeting in the finals, it was 3 a.m. Tuesday in London, where I was standing by a hotel window straining to hear the game from Armed Forces Radio in Germany on my Sony Walkman.  Don’t worry, I had a set of headsets for my wife, too.

I did tape the game (yes, we had VCR’s back then) but I never watched it all the way through because it would have been too painful. There was no way the Sooners could lose – but they did – and that loss has haunted the program ever since.

Still, it was a magical season except for one 20 minute stretch. Let’s relive it with former Sooner coach Billy Tubbs.

SOONER-SPECTAC-247

When basketball practice started for the 1987-1988 team at the University of Oklahoma, no one outside the program was expecting the Sooners to do much. Despite the fact that they had gone to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen the previous year, OU was unranked to start the season.

Most of the national skepticism centered on the fact that the Sooners had lost three four year starters – Choo Kennedy, David Johnson and Tim McCallister – from the previous team. On campus, the feeling was different – at least for a couple of underclassmen who had contributed little the previous year. They walked into Coach Billy Tubbs office and made a bold prediction.

“Stacy King and Tony Martin, who weren’t starters the previous season came in during the summer and told me “Coach, we’re going to the Final Four because we can play defense the way you want us to play defense”, said Tubbs. “And it turns out that they were right. It was our defense that really put us over the top.”

It may sound funny mentioning defense and Tubbs’ teams in the same breath if you’re one of those people who only looked at the final scores during the era.  Oklahoma was known for their run and gun style that produced 20 games of 100+ points that season.  But it was the Sooners full court pressure that forced turnovers and provided easy baskets, allowing them to produce points in bunches.

Tubbs knew he had something special going after a ferocious practice early in the season at the old OU Field House. “It was only the sixth or seventh workout we had, but we had already identified our starting lineup” said Tubbs. “You usually don’t have it worked out that quick.  Most of the time, you’re experimenting with the lineup right up until conference starts in January.  But this group asserted themselves early.”

Forward Harvey Grant and guard Ricky Grace were the returning starters.  King began to blossom as an inside offensive thread after two mediocre seasons and he joined junior college transfer Mookie Blaylock and senior squad man Dave Sieger to round out the starting five.

Tony Martin and Harvey Grant get instruction from Coach Tubbs
Tony Martin and Harvey Grant get instruction from Coach Tubbs

“We didn’t go into the season ranked,” Tubbs said. ” We started off wearing everybody out. We made the rankings pretty quick.”

The Sooners ripped off 14 straight wins to start the season, including a 152-point outing against Centenary, 151 vs. Dayton and 144 on Oral Roberts.  After the Sooners routed Oklahoma State, 108-80, to open Big Eight play, Cowboys coach Leonard Hamilton proclaimed them a Final Four-type team.

That praise must have temporarily gone to the players heads, because they promptly laid a couple of eggs, losing to a mediocre LSU team in New Orleans and then dropping a conference game at Kansas State, scoring a season-low 62 points.

It would be their only two-game losing streak of the year and once they shook it off, OU ran off another dozen wins in a row. They followed the pair of losses with a 20-point road win at Colorado, prompting Buffs coach Tom Miller to say that the preceding losses had served to wake a sleeping giant.

The Sooners reaffirmed their national status with a thrilling three-point home win over a talented Pittsburgh team that featured rebounding demon Jerome Lane and talented forward Charles Smith. Then it was a string of league wins, including a pair over Kansas, and one final non-conference rout of New Mexico before the Sooners would lose another game, an overtime thriller at Missouri.

All along the way, for the most part it was an iron-man crew that the Sooners put on the court.   The starting five averaged over 35 minutes per game, with Terrence Mullins, Martin and Andre Wiley getting most of the remaining minutes.

“We probably had the best players in college basketball who never got to play,” said Tubbs. “Mullins, Martin and Wiley all made some important plays for us, and Mike Bell was an outstanding player.  Tyrone Jones could play as well.  But our starters were in such good shape that they never came out and they didn’t want to.”

Top among those was Sieger, a sleepy-looking honor student from California who didn’t seem to fit with the high-flying athletes that surrounded him.  But his looks were deceiving.  He usually drew the defensive assignment on the opponent’s best offensive player and he was in Marine Corps-type shape.

Dave Sieger was the unsung hero of the squad
Dave Sieger was the unsung hero of the squad

“Dave was really the glue that held that team together,” said Tubbs. “He didn’t say a lot, but he was a tremendous defender and he became very proficient in hitting the three point shot.  And he was in the best shape of any player I’ve ever had.  He could run the court all day.”

Blaylock was another player that let his on court work do the talking.  Shy and reclusive off the court, the Midland, TX Juco transfer was a silent assassin on the hardwood, leading the NCAA in steals with a quick pair of hands and a fearless defensive style.

Mookie Blaylock's steals ignited the OU offense
Mookie Blaylock’s steals ignited the OU offense

Following the late season road loss to Missouri, the Sooners breezed through the Big Eight Tournament, getting revenge over the Tigers in the semi-finals.  They opened NCAA Tournament play with four consecutive double-digit wins over UT-Chattanooga, Auburn, Louisville and Villanova, sending an Oklahoma team to the Final Four for the first time in almost 40 years and only the second time in school history.

Stacey King was a big reason the Sooners made the Final Four
Stacey King was a big reason the Sooners made the Final Four

In spite of all they had accomplished during the season and in the tournament, most so-called experts were picking fellow number one seed Arizona Wildcats to prevent OU from reaching the title game.  With Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr and Anthony Cook, Arizona had just eliminated number two seed North Carolina by 18 points.

But on this night, Oklahoma controlled Lute Olson’s team, grabbing a 12-point halftime lead and never trailing the rest of the way en route to an 86-78 win.  King, who had become the OU scoring star with a tournament leading average of 28.5 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, ran into foul trouble in the game, but Wiley came in to supply 11 points and four boards in relief.

What was to happen next prevented the Sooners fairy tale from having a happy ending.  Expecting to see Duke in the finals, OU instead got a Kansas team that had barely (and some say unfairly) made the NCAA field and then improbably made it all the way to the championship game.  The finals were in Kansas’ home away from home, Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, and it was the third time OU had faced the Jayhawks after taking a pair of eight point wins from them in the regular season.

Tubbs got a preview of what the Sooners could expect when they arrived in Kansas City for the Final Four earlier in the week.

“Of course, the first practice for all the teams in the Final Four is open to the public.  And there were 13,500 fans for our practice, 99 per cent of them Kansas fans, and they booed us when we ran out to start our workout,” said Tubbs.  “I’m sure that is the first time that a Final Four team has been booed at a practice, and it’s probably the only time it’s ever happened.”

Tubbs and the Sooners were not happy to see KU in Kansas City
Tubbs and the Sooners were not happy to see KU in Kansas City

With Jayhawks fans buying up the bulk of Kemper Arena tickets, the Sooners found themselves facing a hostile environment in reaching college basketball’s greatest stage.  The two teams put on what is still considered by many to be the greatest single half of basketball in NCAA championship history, battling to a 50-50 tie at the half.  Kansas grabbed the Cinderella slipper, stunning the Sooners, 83-79, to grab the title.

Danny Manning ended OU's championship dream
Danny Manning ended OU’s championship dream

Still, it was OU’s best season ever, a 35-4 record and their highest finish to date in the NCAA tournament.  In one poll listing the top 10 teams since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 participants, the 1987-88 OU team is included – the “oldest” team listed and one of only two to make the list that didn’t capture the championship.

All of the starters gained professional success in their post-Sooner careers. Four of the five were drafted by the NBA. King, Grant and Blaylock were first-round draft picks and all played a number of years in the league, Grace was picked in the third round by Utah but didn’t stick. Sieger decided not to attend any post season tryout camps and wasn’t drafted but he did tryout for the Olympic team but didn’t make it.

After winning three championship rings with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, King is a now broadcaster for the team, Grant spent 11 years in the league and became a college and NBA coach after his playing career ended. He currently has sons playing collegiately at Syracuse and Notre Dame.

Grace moved to Australia, where he was the top guard in the professional league there for many years and was named to the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame. He became an Australian citizen, played for their Olympic team, and is now the director for a sports academy that provides opportunities for indigenous communities in Western Australia.

Ricky Grace became a legend in Australia
Ricky Grace became a legend in Australia

Sieger opted not pursue pro basketball after the Olympic trials, instead going to graduate school, eventually attaining his PhD in Engineering.  He was a college professor for a number of years.

The saddest postscript belongs to Blaylock. After a 13-year NBA career in which he was named to the All-Defensive team twice, Blaylock settled in Atlanta, where he had spent the bulk of his playing days. In 2013, he was involved in a head-on crash that left him on life support for a time, and led to the death of the other driver.  Just last month, charges against Blaylock were upgraded to vehicular homicide in the first degree and he is currently out of jail on $250,000 bond.

Mookie Blaylock awaits his fate on felony charges
Mookie Blaylock awaits his fate on felony charges

As the years go by, it is harder and harder to impress on today’s college basketball fans just how dominant that Oklahoma team was and how shocking it was for them to lose.  It is unlikely that we will ever see a starting five in this state as talented as that squad.