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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
Of all the stories in Sooner running back history that begin “If only he had stayed healthy…” the saga of Mike Gaddis’ career is one that is still talked about by OU fans today. And in terms of the game of life, it’s one that has a happy ending.
Coming out of Midwest City’s Carl Albert High School in 1987, Gaddis was one of the most highly recruited runners in the nation. At 6-0, 217, he was the prototypical tailback, having rushed for over 3,700 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career. Gaddis grew up as an OU fan and the Sooners had the inside track except for one thing – they ran the wishbone. So Gaddis jockeyed between his feelings for Oklahoma and the chance to be the next great tailback at USC.
“Bobby Proctor was my recruiter and he used to come pick me up when I was down there for track meets and bringing me over to watch spring practice and give me the grand tour. Made me feel like I was really a big man,” said Gaddis. “But even though I was an OU fan, I really wanted to play tailback. I didn’t want to be a halfback, so USC was in the picture and it really came down to those two schools and the difference was coaching.”
“USC had just hired Larry Smith from Arizona, brand new coach, I didn’t know who he was. Everything was the same except for the coaches for me. Obviously, Switzer had been there forever and I signed with OU. And I never looked back after that.”
But Gaddis’ OU career almost ended before it began. Tiring in early fall workouts, doctors soon discovered what was characterized as a “blood disorder” after running a series of tests. In reality, Gaddis’ was experiencing kidney problems, even though the coaches and doctors didn’t tell him the whole story.
“They talked to my mother about it and my mother kind of kept me out of it. Because at that time, to me, I felt perfect. I didn’t feel any problem. I felt normal,” Gaddis said. “Said they wanted to redshirt me, which I was upset about. I thought I could play that year. So I sat out that fall.”
The real story of Gaddis’ illness also wasn’t made known to the public. Rumors began circulating among the media and fans that Gaddis was just out of shape and not ready to play and that the health issue was a smokescreen to take the heat off of such a highly recruited player. Many doubted Gaddis would ever contribute at OU. It took a while before he proved them wrong.
Cleared to play in 1988, Gaddis started slowly before breaking into the lineup midway through the season. He had his official coming out party in the annual Bedlam Game in Stillwater, matching OSU Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders stride for stride as the Sooners took a 31-28 victory. Gaddis ran for 213 yards that day, Sanders 215.
“That was a special game because, number one, I was in a car wreck that week and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play. So driving up there on the team bus, they still hadn’t really cleared me to play,” said Gaddis.. “We get there and I’m feeling pretty good and the juices are flowing, so there’s no way I’m not playing. And the option game was just incredible that day.”
It was to be the first of three great games Gaddis would have against the Cowboys, a team that he wanted to punish each time he went on the field.
“Being from Oklahoma, you know what that game’s about and a lot of those kids you play against in high school, so there’s a lot of trash talking throughout the year and lot of trash talking for me with the coaches,” Gaddis said. “It was personal. Because I remember how hard they recruited me and then when I ruled them out, they said I couldn’t play. So I took it personal. I always got up for that game.”
Despite the flashes of brilliance, there were times Gaddis had to come out of the game for a breather, something he thought was normal, but something that was actually a product of his condition. He found that he couldn’t be the kind of workhorse back that some expected him to be.
“And I didn’t really understand back then and didn’t think about it much. But I could only carry the ball probably 20-25 times. Anything over that, I just couldn’t do it. Physically, I was just done,” said Gaddis. “And it would take me a day or two days to recover. Everybody else was going out Saturday night, but not me. I’m going home and I’m crashing. ‘Cause I’m exhausted. I’m in bed all Saturday night, Sunday I drag myself out to go to the meetings, but I’m exhausted until Monday. But that was normal for me, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Coaches and fans were excited about Gaddis finally reaching his potential after the sensational finish to the 1988 season, but things were about to be turned upside down in the off season. Switzer was forced to step down and the Sooners were suddenly on NCAA probation that kept them off of television. Several players exited in the aftermath and the start of the 1989 season was in turmoil. Following a 6-3 loss at Arizona, it was up to Gaddis to start turning things around.
He ran for more than a hundred yards against Kansas in a conference opening victory, then destroyed Oklahoma State with a 274-yard performance, the fourth-best in Sooner history. Up next was Texas and Gaddis was ready to start thinking about his Heisman Trophy chances as the Sooners prepared for the annual Red River rivalry. Sports Illustrated had written a story about him being the best back that no one had seen because OU was banned from television, and he was geared up to make his mark against the Longhorns.
Gaddis had more than 130 yards at halftime but what started out as potentially one of the best running days by any Sooner against the Longhorns turned into a nightmare early in the second half.
“I take a pitch around the left and I’m getting ready to go 80. I mean it just opens up and that’s going to put me over 200 yards for the game, I’m going to have a 1,000 yards for the season by the end of the game, and I’m thinking, I’m getting ready to win this trophy, that’s why I came here to win a championship and win the Heisman. I’m Billy Sims. That’s who I grew up wanting to be,” said Gaddis. “And then boom, just like that – I put my foot in the ground, my knee gives out, next thing I know I’m rolling on the ground looking up at the sky wondering what in the heck just happened to me.”
“And even then, when they took me to the sideline, I just felt like it was a sprain. So I’m like, tape the sucker up and let me get back in there. Obviously, there like no way, we’re going to wait to see what’s going on. It was an ACL tear. I had two guys I grew up watching. Billy was my main man and then there was Marcus Dupree, so in my mind, Dupree blows his knee out and he’s pretty much done. I’m thinking I’m pretty much done.”
His season ended with 829 yards on just 110 carries – a 7.5 per carry average – in just less than six games. Gaddis had watched his Heisman dreams evaporate and even though he began rehabilitating, he doubted in his own mind if he could ever come close to being the back he had been. He could not even return to the field for a year and a half, and as the 1991 season arrived, he was listed as the fourth team tailback. That might have been the last we heard of Mike Gaddis if not for some comments made by head coach Gary Gibbs.
“I think he said something like we can’t count on Gaddis, something like that. And he sparked me to want to come back, so I busted my butt that summer, me and Coach (Pete) Martinelli, strength and conditioning coach,” said Gaddis. “What motivates me is when people say you can’t do it. If I don’t want to play, that’s my decision. But you aren’t going to tell me I can’t play. I go to coach Gibbs the day of the article and I’m told him ‘I’m getting ready to prove you wrong because I’m going to come back. I’m going to make you play me.’”
Still third-team when the season started, Gaddis finally got his last chance when the two backs ahead of him were injured in the conference opener at Iowa State. He came off the bench to rush for over 100 yards and would up regaining his starting spot down the stretch. Gaddis reeled off a 217 yard performance against Missouri and tore up his old favorite, Oklahoma State, with his third 200 yard game against them., running for 203 yards on a career-high 35 carries. He finished the year with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, turning down a chance for a medical hardship year to go to the NFL.
A sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Gaddis once again saw misfortune strike when he blew out his other knee after securing a spot on the team. He tried to come back with other NFL teams, but concerns about his kidneys rather than his knees made teams leery of giving him a shot. It was about the same time that the possibility of kidney failure started to become reality.
“I always believe everything works out for the best and I never second guess. When I was 18 at OU, they told me that when I was 25, I would probably need a transplant,” said Gaddis. “When I was 27 is when I started feeling the effects. The high blood pressure for no reason and headaches, so I started seeing a kidney specialist and about five years later, it was time to get it done.”
After testing all four of Gaddis’ brothers for a match, doctors selected his brother Brent as the ideal candidate to donate a kidney. Brent, who had been a basketball player at Southern Nazarene University, spent 10 months in psychological and physical evaluation, while Mike was on dialysis, before the two went to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas for the transplant operation.
“It’s a blessing every year with my brother’s kidney in me. I haven’t had any rejection. My body has accepted it”, said Gaddis. “Obviously, I’m on tons of medication so my body won’t reject it. Because I take so many immune suppressants, I have to be real careful around people who are sick. Even when my kids get sick, I have to be careful and worry about infection. Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems and this kidney could last me the rest of my life.”
“Looking back, you don’t really know how bad you are feeling, because that’s normal to you. When you know is after I had the transplant. Then I knew how bad I felt all my life. I never knew you could feel this good.”
Gaddis settled back in Oklahoma City, where he has operated an insurance agency for more than 15 years. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea, for 20 years and they have two boys, Lunden and Roman . Gaddis keeps close tabs on the Sooner program and is especially happy for two of his old teammates who are now on college coaches.
“Ol’ Cale (Gundy) does a heckuva job with those running backs. I never thought he would be good running back coach”, Gaddis said. “But the ball doesn’t touch the ground, they run hard, they’re physical, I told him he couldn’t coach me, because I was fumbling all over the place. I had that ball out there like a loaf of bread. I grew up watching the wishbone.”
“Chris Wilson (now at USC), I played with him. Those guys are doing a good job. I never saw either one of them as coaches, but who does when you’re playing. It’s a good way to stay around the game, you’ve got to be patient, they’re in there breaking down tape and getting their guys ready, and then having to listen to the “experts” on the radio second guess every move. It’s a tough job. They’ve served their time and put in their dues and I think they’re putting in some serious hours. I get to go home every day.”
For Gaddis, the thought of what might have been is something that he’s learned to live with through the years. Despite the injuries and illness, he still managed to carve out a spot among the top ten all-time rushers at OU in what amount to about a season and a half worth of action.
“Just growing up an Oklahoma fan and then having an opportunity to go play at that school that you grew up worshipping and listening to on the radio every Saturday before every game was on TV,” said Gaddis. “It was my lifelong dream to go there, but not just go there but actually be able to be a good player there. My only regret was, there is no way I could know how my career might have turned out. I thought I could have gotten a couple of Heismans, honestly. When I look back, I never really started a full season.
“I’m pretty proud about that and maybe one day, my kids will really believe I played there.”
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steve Williams was one of the most amazing characters in OU sports and professional wrestling history. What you saw in the ring as Dr. Death was pretty much what you saw outside the ring with Steve Williams. In fact, at some point, Steve Williams basically ceased to exist and there was only Dr. Death.
His collegiate exploits were legendary and he may have been most well known in college for a wrestling match that he lost at Gallagher Iba arena in the Bedlam dual, helping make a name for an obscure 400-lb heavyweight named Mitch Shelton and almost tearing the roof off the building in the Cowboy fans’ post match celebration.
Williams turned pro as a wrestler while he was still playing football at OU, and became a revered and reviled figure around the world, especially in Japan. He battled throat cancer, helped current WWE star and former OU football player/wrestler Jake Hager (Jack Swagger) get started, and found God.
I spoke to Dr. Death about his trials and tribulations in 2008. Sadly, just a year later, the cancer returned and he died in a Denver hospital in December 2009.
He came to Oklahoma already in possession of one of the most colorful nicknames in the history of sports and he left with a fistful of championship rings. But that was just the start of the story of the man they call “Dr. Death”. As a professional wrestler, former Sooner football player and wrestler Steve “Dr. Death” Williams has fought many opponents around the world and he has conquered just about all of them including the most deadly of them all – cancer.
Williams arrived at OU in 1979 from Lakewood, Colorado, where he was a highly recruited lineman and a champion wrestler. He obtained his nickname after an incident in a high school wrestling match.
“I shattered my nose about a hundred times and they had to keep stopping the match, so the coach from another school gave me an old time hockey goalie mask and when I put that on, my coach yelled out “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “Reporters from the newspaper picked it up. I wasn’t like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (whose real name also happens to be Steve Williams) or the “The Rock” who got a nickname for being an entertainer; I got a nickname for being a tough guy on the mat.”
“I didn’t have to give Vince McMahon a big house because he made up the name. I already had the name, I did all my bookings and I was my own agent, so it came out really well”
And that nickname gradually became the only name Williams knows. Most of his fans probably don’t know his real name and even he doesn’t recognize it most of the time.
“It’s not Steve Williams. When people say Steve, I don’t even hear that word anymore, it’s usually “Doc” or “Dr. Death” and I think they usually remember the name “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “There are always some wanna be’s that came out of there like (Brian) Bosworth who wanted to be a Dr. Death. I was already there and conquered the Sooner football field and I think they remember me as the tough guy who came in there and conquered amateur wrestling and football and the first guy who could become a professional wrestler when he’s had one more year of football left. I don’t think anybody has ever accomplished that.”
At OU, he lettered four times in football for the Sooners as an offensive lineman, making all-Big Eight in his senior season.
But it was on the wrestling mat where he had the biggest impact, becoming only one of ten four time All-American’s in Oklahoma history and creating some legendary moments, especially during the Bedlam Duals. Williams best national finish was a second place showing at the NCAA tournament in 1981.
Following his collegiate career, Williams tried his hand at football in the USFL, but wound up in professional wrestling, working for another former Sooner, Cowboy Bill Watts, in Mid South Wrestling, which later became the Universal Wrestling Federation.
“Dr. Death” captured the UWF World Heavyweight Title in 1986 and later held the National Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship.
Legal troubles sidetracked his career in the late 1980s, but Dr. Death emerged as a marquee performer in Japan after being seen wrestling the legendary Antonio Inoki in a sold-out match in Texas.
“I was one of the all time culprits in Japan. Every time I went over for a tour, they put my head on a cartoon figure of Godzilla and they would say “Godzilla’s back” and it was kind of neat,” said Williams. “I spent 18 years over there. I guess you can call me half-Japanese. I know how to speak it and eat it; I take my shoes off when I come through the door. I eat with chopsticks. I really enjoyed Japan. It was a wonderful thing.”
“I wrestled Antonio Inoki, he was a senator over there. In fact he was the one who got the Japanese prisoners out of Iraq. I wrestled him in Dallas-Ft Worth in front of probably 40,000 people and I got a deal out of that. It wasn’t a contract, it was a handshake. That’s probably why I stayed in Japan, because every contract I had in the United States has been broken and over there, I had a handshake and my money was sitting in the bank every time I got there.”
Williams bounced back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for the next several years, and even wrestled in one of the first professional events in China.
Still a major attraction in his ‘40s, “Dr. Death” ran into the toughest opponent of his career in 2003 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. An operation was performed that affected his vocal chords and at the time, doctors gave him six months to live. But Williams battled back and has been cancer-free for the last three years.
The incident had a profound effect on Williams’ life. Always known as a wild man and a party animal from his days at OU through his professional wrestling career, “Dr. Death” has changed his ways and is now giving his testimony to groups around the country. With his life in order, Williams is now using his influence to talk to the next generation of wrestlers. He will be giving the prayer at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast on the opening day of the NCAA Championships in St. Louis and he plans to continue talking about his recovery.
“We have an awesome God. He is just so wonderful. I had throat cancer and they gave me six months to live and as of today, man, I’m three years cancer-free,” said Williams. “I’m wrestling, I’m out in churches ministering. I wrote a book “How Dr. Death Became Dr. Life” and I’m going around the world telling people about how awesome God is. Everybody should get their life right with Him.”
“He gave me a second chance. I do my testimony. I tell a lot of people I used to do it my way because I was so big and awesome and I was on top of the hill and nobody could knock me down. I did it like Ole’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra’s song. I did it my way. In September ’03, I got knocked down to my knees from an opponent named cancer and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I asked God into my life and now we’ve become a tag team. He’s conquered cancer for me and now I’m gonna talk to the world telling them how awesome our God is.”
“Dr. Death” has lived in Louisiana for a number of years, but now he is making regular visits to Oklahoma through his association with a local company involved in wrestling, and he was recently honored by the OU wrestling team for his contribution to the Sooner program.
“It was kind of neat that I got to come and be honored by the team and the OU fans, and then come back and see Danny Hodge, Frankie DeAngelis, and some of the older guys, it was really neat,” said Williams. “I hadn’t seen a lot of wrestling matches lately and when I’ve been back in Oklahoma the last month and got to sit down and watch a dual, memories came back like the good old days. The fans that were there supporting it made me feel good and I kinda wish I was an assistant coach for them. I could help them out, you know?”
One thing Williams would like to see is increased support for wrestling in Oklahoma. He is disappointed by the lack of fans at the Sooners matches.
“I never wrestled at the Field House. We were filling them up so big, we always had them at the Lloyd Noble,” Williams said. “I feel sorry for Coach Jack.(Spates). I think wrestling should still be on a pedestal. A lot of people ought to come out and support OU. I went to the Ford Center and watched them wrestle and they beat Arizona State and I thought that was a great match. There are some great wrestlers on that team that have the ability to be NCAA champions and all-Americans”
“I don’t think people realize what wrestling is all about. They don’t know the rules. I think if somebody gets out there and explains the techniques and the point system, people could understand it better. It’s like boxing and anything else. They like to see the big guys go at it. I don’t think people understand the sport and if they understood it better, I think they’d come out and watch.”
When it comes to his days at Oklahoma, Williams has nothing but fond memories of being a Sooner and is still close to his coaches in both football and wrestling.
“Being a football player that helped me with wrestling and wrestling helped me with football. What great coaches I played for – Barry Switzer and Stan Abel – you couldn’t have asked for anything better than that,” said Williams. “Those two guys were like fathers to me. They came to see me in the hospital when I was dying and couldn’t speak, and they spent six hours with me. And I realized that was a turnaround for me. I speak to Barry a lot and Stan.”
“I think it was a blessing to go to Oklahoma and kids, if they ever get a chance, they ought to come to Oklahoma and play. In fact, I have nine rings – three Orange Bowl, one Fiesta Bowl, one Sun Bowl, two Big Eight in wrestling, two Big Eight in football. Those are my pride and joy.”