Wayman Tisdale arrived on the OU campus in August 1982 amid much fanfare. But don’t overestimate the euphoria. Remember, he was a basketball player. Tisdale missed that exhibition season with a foot injury, so he debuted in a marquee opener on Nov. 27: Oklahoma at UNLV. But that game was not broadcast live. Even on radio. Never forget how far Sooner basketball has come, thanks to Tisdale, who died Friday at the age of 44 as one of the most beloved sporting personalities in Oklahoma history. Much has been made in the last few days, rightly so, about Tisdale’s charm and charisma. Not enough has been made about his impact on the state’s sports landscape. That impact was epic. Tisdale and Bob Kurland, Henry Iba’s great Oklahoma A&M center of the 1940s, rank as the most influential athletes in state history. A few football players have surpassed them in fame. But no football player can impact a team or a culture the way a basketball player can, not even a Heisman Trophy winner like Barry Sanders or Steve Owens, or a renaissance-igniting quarterback like Jack Mildren or Josh Heupel. The baseball stars of Oklahoma had to leave the state to prosper. Great Olympians John Smith and Shannon Miller were in niche sports that never lit the general public’s fire. But Kurland turned A&M into a two-time NCAA champion and helped Iba lay the foundation for OSU’s basketball tradition. Tisdale’s big-bang arrival turned college basketball into a happening in this state and the Sooners into a national power. In 1982, wrestling was as big as basketball at OU. Tisdale changed that overnight, with Lloyd Noble Center regularly packed. Coach Billy Tubbs seized upon that momentum to recruit great players, schedule big-time opponents and build a program that, while still sitting in football’s shadow, remains nationally competitive. When Tisdale arrived at OU, the Sooners had been to one NCAA Tournament in the previous 33 years. They’ve been to 22 of the 27 staged since. Since Tisdale’s arrival, OU has 30 NCAA Tournament wins. Only 12 programs in America have more: North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Connecticut, Arizona, Louisville, UCLA, Syracuse, Michigan State, Georgetown and Indiana. Quite impressive company to keep. Not even the most starry-eyed optimist saw that coming when Tisdale signed. Tubbs knew he had something special, but he also said in spring 1982, "Everybody thinks of him in terms of a post man. But I don’t think he would be the low post for us next year.” A common theory on Tisdale’s potential was that he would dominate the paint with rebounding and his long arms for shot-blocking, and that his offense was pretty good and would get better. In Tisdale’s fourth college game, he scored 53 points. Tubbs was fooled or trying to fool us; Tisdale was one of the great low-post players in the history of basketball, even on the NBA level. Tisdale’s pro career is undervalued. He played on terrible teams; one winning season in 12 NBA years. But Tisdale averaged 17 points a game his first nine seasons and always could score on the low block when he had a coach who wasn’t trying to move him outside. In that debut game against Vegas, heard back home on KTOK tape delay, Tisdale didn’t even start but entered 4:15 into the action and fouled out with 5:19 left. In between, he scored 21 points and showed everyone at the Las Vegas Convention Center what was to come. "That SOB’s a player, isn’t he?” asked UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. "He’s well worth books and tuition.” Tisdale was the furthest thing from an SOB God ever made, but he was well worth a scholarship. He changed Oklahoma sports. Changed it as much as any athlete ever has. Berry Tramel: 405-760-8080; Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.
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