The story of Wayman Tisdale, the NBA player with a bestselling jazz album

As a basketball player, Wayman Tisdale achieved what just about anyone would call considerable success.

Tisdale played 840 games in the NBA. Over the course of 12 seasons as a professional basketball player, he averaged more than 15 points and six rebounds per game with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns between 1985 and 1997. During his time in California, he and Mitch “The Rock” Richmond formed one of the most dynamic duos in the league at the time.

At the collegiate level, Tisdale became a legend at the University of Oklahoma, where his jersey number is now retired. He was named a first-team All American three times, making him the first college player to earn a spot in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. The USBWA’s annual award for the men’s outstanding freshman of the year is now named the Wayman Tisdale Award. In 2009, Tisdale was elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

But his true love was always music.

Wayman Tisdale and Dave Koz performing together in 2006
Credit: Wikimedia

The son of a preacher, Tisdale was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1964. He grew up in Tulsa, Okla., where he began playing music in his father’s church. He picked up his first guitar and broke most of the strings practising it. Eventually, with just two strings left, all he could play were bass lines over and over again. There was another challenge, too: He was left-handed. Since he couldn’t get his hands on a left-handed guitar — or some new strings, for that matter — he turned his guitar upside down and did the best he could to learn how to play along to the jazz and funk groups he loved in the 1970s.

In his teenage years, Tisdale’s size and athleticism grew at an extremely fast pace. He blossomed into a high-school basketball star and was eventually recruited by the University of Oklahoma, where he went on to dominate the competition. He even played in the 1984 Olympics alongside a gold medal-winning team that included Michael Jordan, finishing as the tournament’s rebounding leader. At the 1985 NBA draft, he was picked second overall by the Indian Pacers.

Wayman Tisdale playing with the Sacramento Kings
Credit: Bill Baptist / NBAE / Getty Images

Early in his professional basketball career, Tisdale was noticeably different from many of his NBA teammates. While other players would carry bags with shoes and balls onto the buses and planes, he carried a big black case on his back for his bass guitar. He took it everywhere the team travelled. On road trips, he visited jazz clubs and met with musicians.

One of those musicians was Marcus Miller, who became one of Tisdale’s greatest influences and mentors. Miller had made his name playing bass for Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and David Sanborn, and has gone on to have a highly successful career as a composer, arranger and producer. “I noticed this guy was serious,” Miller said.

Eventually, one of Tisdale’s demo tapes made it to Motown, and he was signed almost immediately. But it was an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a musician. Tisdale was seen as a basketball player who played music. But in 1995, his debut album Power Forward was released to positive reviews. It reached No. 4 on the Billboard jazz chart and legitimized him as a recording artist, shaking the perception that this was a fly-by-night experiment by an overly ambitious athlete. 

“The bass guitar typically isn’t a solo instrument, but Wayman was able to not just make party music but to communicate amazing melodies and emotion,” saxophonist Dave Koz later told an interview. “Music was the core of his soul.”

His message was consistent, and his mantra was bold: “If you like me on the basketball court, wait till you hear me play jazz.”

Six years after his debut, Tisdale reached the height of his music career with his commercially successful fourth album Face to Face, released after he had moved from Motown to Atlantic. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart with its smooth, soulful style and heavy R&B grooves. It was a crossover album that came at the perfect time, as its airplay on urban radio stations broadened its reach to a wider audience.

With a bestselling album under his belt and his basketball career firmly behind him — he retired in 1997 at the age of 33 — Tisdale had proven himself in his second career as a musician.

But a few years later, tragedy struck. In 2007, Tisdale fell down the stairs at his home and suffered a severely broken leg, leading doctors to discover that he had bone cancer in his knee.

The first round of chemotherapy was unsuccessful. “The doctor had never given anyone chemo that was my size,” Tisdale recalled. “They just calculated how much chemo to give me and said, ‘We hope it doesn’t mess up your kidneys. If it does, sorry.'” For the first time ever, he had no desire to make music.

In 2008, Tisdale had part of his right leg amputated. Remarkably, he saw it as a relief from the chemo treatments and embraced this new challenge with a fresh perspective. And with that, the music returned. He released his eighth album Rebound that year, inspired by his battle with cancer.

However, he would never fully recover. On April 17, 2009, Tisdale played a concert in Memphis, Tenn., that would turn out to be his final performance.

“I’ve seen a lot of people perform, but never saw anyone ever give as much as he did, with his last performance,” Koz said. “The audience knew that they were getting something that they were never going to see again.”

A month later on May 15, Tisdale died at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa due to a ruptured oesophagus following radiation treatments. He was 44.

Wayman Tisdale’s legacy lives on, though. He wanted to be a model of courage, strength and hope by continuing to make music throughout his treatment. His family has since opened a the Wayman L. Tisdale Foundation, which supports people in need of prosthetic care.