Wayman Tisdale knew his cancer was bad the day the music stopped. Even though the basketball legend is identified in these parts mostly for his sport, his first love was music. Long before he became a high school phenom at Tulsa Washington, a college superstar at Oklahoma or a stalwart big man in the NBA, he was a bass guitarist.
The bass became his passion before he was even in junior high. It still is today. "Nothing stops my music,” he said. "Nothing.” Cancer did. Diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg early last year, Tisdale endured two intense rounds of chemotherapy. The treatments zapped his energy and his enthusiasm. Getting out of bed was an ordeal, so working in his in-home studio was an impossibility. "The music actually stopped for the first time in a long time,” Tisdale said. Now, the music is back. So is Tisdale. His cancerous leg has been amputated, replaced by a prosthetic, and his darkness has been eliminated, replaced by hope. Listen to his music, and you can hear it. A different ballgame Wayman Tisdale was in third or fourth grade when he received the gift that changed his life. His father bought Mickey Mouse guitars for all three of his sons. The two oldest boys were into sports, so their guitars were used as hockey sticks and baseball bats. Not Wayman’s. He spent hours in his bedroom fiddling with that guitar. He never did take a lesson. Instead, he would watch the bass players in the band at the church where his father pastored, then he would try to emulate what he saw. Even as Wayman became a basketball star, he continued playing the bass. He played in the church band. For family and friends. For himself. During his 12-year career in the NBA, Tisdale started playing in little clubs after games. He would do so at home and on the road. That was his hobby and his outlet. Thing is, the response was overwhelming. "It got to be where people would line up around the building to see me play bass,” Tisdale remembered. Folks regularly asked where they could buy recordings of his music. Eventually, he cut a seven-song demo, figuring he could sell it out of the back of his car and maybe make enough money to pay the house band. That demo found its way to Motown Records, and in 1994, the music giant signed Tisdale to a contract. A year later, it released his debut album, Power Forward. The record sold more than 250,000 copies. "In jazz, you sell 50,000 pieces,” Tisdale said, "you’re doing great.” Tisdale has done great and then some. In 1997, he retired from basketball and turned his undivided attention to music. He toured around the world and released eight albums in the decade since. Tisdale has enjoyed commercial success as well as critical acclaim, a rare feat. "Early on, it was legitimate to wonder if Wayman Tisdale wasn’t just a basketball player dabbling with playing jazz bass,” Jeff Winbush wrote in a review on AllAboutJazz.com. But now? Winbush called Tisdale "one of the brightest talents in music today.” A change in game plan Wayman Tisdale was on the road playing shows, doing what he loved when the doctors called. The cancer was back.