Wayman’s World

The life and loves of a Sacramento King, reprinted from SN&R; November 18, 1993

Baron the Rottweiler is at it again. It’s after dark in the Pocket and we’re hanging out in Wayman Tisdale’s living room talking hoop, funk guitar and family values when suddenly—POUND, POUND, POUND!!—somebody’s knocking at the front door, upset as hell because Baron is barking up a storm in the backyard. Wayman’s fifth-grade daughter Danielle opens the door to the neighbor—“What’s up?” she greets—and the guy asks to speak to … Mrs. Tisdale.

“When they come to complain,” Regina tells me later, “they never ask for Wayman.”

Who can blame them?

It’s probably not just the size thing, although certainly the Sacramento King’s 6’ 9” go-to forward is mightily built, as is common in those who show a propensity for stuffing round orange balls through hoops. And it’s probably not just because the man does double (triple?) duty as the King’s social conscience and the house musician. And it’s probably not just that the athlete reveals himself, upon investigation, to actually be an intelligent guy with a subtle sense of humor and an enormous bright smile that beams on like a flashlight.

Why do the neighbors complain to the wife instead of to Wayman?

It’s probably because of tomorrow night’s game and the high karmic price your average Sacramento neighbor would pay for putting Wayman Tisdale in a bad mood on game day.

Got high hopes

“We had to hit our grades. My mother wouldn’t let us play ball or do any other playing until we got our grades. We feared her! Let’s just say we had to be sure we had our grades.”
—Wayman Tisdale

Questions arise. Like, did Wayman choose the game or did the game choose him? What’s it like being hailed as a hero for playing a game of statistics and scores, when you’re smart enough to realize that real heroism occurs off the court, with no statisticians nearby? Also, what’s it like being treated like a major sports star in a minor sports town—because, despite his talents and that 1984 Olympic gold medal—nobody’s exactly knocking on Tisdale’s door these days offering him Pepsi commercials.

As it turns out, Tisdale’s first love was music—not basketball. “When I first thought I wanted to be anything in life, I wanted to be a bass player,” says Tisdale, laughing, “but you just don’t see too many six-foot-nine bass players around.”

Now we’re hanging out in Wayman’s remodeled, sound-proofed garage studio and he’s showing off his revamped 24-track recording set-up. A musician friend of his has turned on a soulful funk-drum-and-keyboard groove and it’s booming—BOOMING!—out loud over an expensive set of speakers. Tisdale straps on his bass and gets to whomping on the thing. He lays down a straight-ahead bass line, twists some knobs on the board and checks sound and EQ levels like some kind of audio engineer.

I ask Wayman: How did you first fall for the music?

Turns out, he caught the love off his dad, the Rev. Louis Tisdale. It seems the Oklahoma preacher used to cart his six kids (five sons and one daughter) around to church revivals, a setting where good gospel music was as sensurround as the Lord. In fact, Wayman—the reverend’s youngest—began playing the bass guitar to stop his father from doing it. “My dad used to wake us up by playing a tune on the guitar,” says Tisdale. “It was the ugliest tune you ever wanted to hear! So I learned to play, and told him, ‘That’s not the way you play it. Give it here and I’ll show you how to do it.’”

Pretty soon the young guy—who was hitting books as hard as his bass—was thunderstruck with an equal love: b-ball.

“My brothers would always try to get me to go play basketball, but in the beginning I just wanted to play music. … that was until the fifth grade. Then I remember one game. I made a shot and I was yelling down the court and waving my arms going ‘Wooooh! Woooooh!’ and the coach called a time out and said if I ever did that again, he was gonna take me out of the game! (laughs) … Well, I’ve always had enthusiasm for whatever I was doing.”

Once Wayman got into the game there was no stopping him. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was one of the most highly recruited players in the nation—but he kept on with the music all the while. “I kept playing music, even in college,” says Tisdale. “I’d play a game on Saturday, then the coaches would let us have Sunday off and I’d be back in church playing the music. I’ve always done the two.”

At the conclusion of a stunning basketball career at the University of Oklahoma—where Tisdale made All-America each year and lead the Sooners to two conference championships—came the 1984 Olympic Games where Tisdale served as starting power forward on a squad that included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin. “We were the last amateur team to win a gold medal,” says Tisdale, “We were the amateur dream team.”

Does Tisdale consider winning that gold medal the pinnacle of his athletic career? “Yeah. Yes, I do. I remember the night of the Gold Medal game, the talk before the game, the ceremonies after the game. I remember everything! It was a great feeling to be an American and to be right there … on top.”

After the Olympics, it was onwards and upwards to a career with the National Basketball Association. Here’s the Daily Oklahoman, reporting in 1985, after the Indiana Pacers picked Tisdale from the draft: “The audience broke into thunderous applause and stood in ovation when they saw their team now had Tisdale, No. 23. … A dance band played happy music as a flood of balloons were released from the ceilings. Fireworks exploded behind the stage. Two huge pictures of Tisdale in his U.S. Olympic uniform and wearing his gold medal suddenly dropped from the rafters as Pacers cheerleaders began pelting the crowd with buttons that said ‘We Got Wayman!.’”

But things didn’t really work out they way they were supposed to with the Pacers.

The franchise figured it had found its savior, but rookie Tisdale was in over his head, averaging just 14.7 points per game for the season. Things never got better. After spending his fifth season in Indianapolis as the team’s sixth man, the Pacer’s traded him to the Sacramento Kings. Playing power forward in River City since 1989, Tisdale and his family—wife Regina, daughters Danielle and Tiffany and son Wayman II—say they’ve settled in Sacramento for keeps.

But, as all sentient Sacramentans know, the Kings franchise hasn’t exactly been burning up the nets. “It’s hard to watch the fans turn on them,” says Regina. “Like, they think since the guys are making so much money, they should try harder. Well, I’d be lying if I said they didn’t make money … but they’re not robots. They’re human beings. They can’t play 100 percent every night.”

Regina describes going over to a friend’s house recently and seeing a Sacramento Bee pre-season roundup on the table. “It was depressing,” she says. “I wanted to tell the writers: Give the guys a break! They can’t concentrate on playing if they’re taking in all this negative stuff. That’s why we canceled our subscription. The best thing for Wayman is just not to read it. So he doesn’t.”

I ask Tisdale what it’s been like to see former Kings players—guys like Danny Ainge and Joe Klein—go on to successful NBA careers while he, a guy with so much early promise, has remained on a team that continues to linger in the basement of its division.

He doesn’t mince words.

“Sometimes you get a little anxious,” he admits. “You want it to happen for you too. It’s like, OK, OK, it can get hard to keep saying we’ll get it next year and next year and next year …”

But then Wayman—having found himself in an uncharacteristic moment of doubt—beams a huge smile and turns the conversation up … where you knew it had to go: “But I want it to happen for the Kings and I think it can happen for us. I couldn’t play this game if I didn’t have high hopes, y’know? And I have high hopes. If you don’t have goals for yourself and your team … then what’s the use?”

Game day logic

“Nobody can talk to me on game day. Nobody. Even my son knows. When I tell him ‘It’s game day,’ he doesn’t mess with me … My mind has to be totally free.”
—Wayman Tisdale

Arco Arena, Astrovision, Fastbreak Dancers (Kings cheerleaders) and Flash Cumulative Statistics. The K-team will play the Los Angeles Lakers in a jam-packed, sold-out arena in a few minutes so it’s time for this writer to confess that—despite a lifetime of watching on TV as the pros play the greatest-sport-ever-invented—this is my first time watching actual live NBA action.

It’s cool pretending to be a sports reporter. For one thing, people keep handing you pieces of paper with important “flash” statistics (like assists and rebounds for the current quarter) scrawled across them. For another, you get to wear a ‘media credential’ that gives you access to the security sections of the arena.

But the main excitement, naturally, happens right out there in open court.

Pre-gamewise, I check for the location of our man, Tisdale, No. 23.

He’s down there with his teammates as they lower the house lights and do that psychedelic spotlight-spinning-in-the-darkened-arena thing they always do when they introduce NBA home team players. The effect is as goofy live as it is on TV but the fans go wild, eating it up anyway.

Back to No. 23. Shortly into the controlled recklessness that is the game of basketball, Wayman looks daunted. Tonight he’s fighting to come up for air because he’s got that Vlade Divac guy all over him. Suddenly. Tisdale makes a fantastic jump hook over the top! (The author notes: It is not cool to clap while in the press box.) Soon, another time out is called and, well, here’s another thing they never tell you about live NBA action: There are at least as many advertisements during a live game as there are commercials when you watch on TV.

Somebody jumps out with a gimmick at every break, every timeout. Among others, there’s a JC Penney mini-ball toss; there’s a thing where somebody high in the stands does a call-in quiz over a cellular phone; there’s the Sacramento Bee’s ‘Quote Of The Game’; then out comes some local Toyota dealer who, I swear, seems prepared to give away an entire automobile to a random woman from the audience if she can drop a ball into a hoop from half court. (She didn’t manage it.) Anyway, you’re spared a lot of these gory details when you watch the game on TV.

The Kings hold down a pretty good lead into the half. And despite an attempted comeback by the Lakers in the third quarter, it’s looking good for our guys toward the end of the fourth quarter. Up from the depths of the arena—like the ghost of some bad high school cheerleader—comes John Fogerty’s Centerfield—“clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap-clap, CLAP-CLAP!!!”

The cheer ends, a win by the Kings looks inevitable, a timeout is called and a jubilant Tisdale literally lifts the full body of Spud Webb up, up, up into the air in celebration.

If I could be like Wayman

“It’s all about decisions. Had I went with my friend who took drugs, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I go into the Sacramento schools and try to tell these kids: You know right from wrong … you gotta make smart decisions!”
—Wayman Tisdale

Yeah, tonight Wayman seems somehow omnipresent in Arco Arena.

That’s even at a Lakers game where, despite a win for the Kings, our man didn’t exactly have his best night. Omnipresent. Because one opens the night with the Kings warming up to a theme song “Let’s Jam” by Tisdale, then one watches Tisdale on the floor playing good ball with the best of them, then one hears, at the half, the announcer telling audience members about how they can join ‘Team Tisdale’ a charitable effort for at-risk kids and, well, good God … for Sacramento purposes, this guy seems to be everywhere.

So what if Charles Barkley thinks being in the NBA doesn’t automatically make you an exemplar? For his part, Tisdale has to suppress a laugh when I ask him what he thinks of the Phoenix Suns star’s famous “I am not a role model” quip.

“I feel you’re a role model whether you want to be or not,” Tisdale says. “It comes with the territory. … I feel that any time you’re in the public eye and the kids are looking up to you, then you gotta do the right thing.”

Wayman’s right thing, for now, is an outfit called Team Tisdale. The idea of the organization is to get a positive message out to “at-risk” Sacramento kids. The message: stay in school, avoid drugs, develop some goals, be yourself.

It works like this—the “team” (Wayman plus a lot of local and corporate sponsors) makes a 22-minute video that attempts to inspire kids to make good choices, eschew drugs and plan healthy lives. Then Tisdale shows it in Sacramento schools and, basically, talks with the kids and answers questions (“whatever they want to ask me”) about life and choices.

“Mostly, I give them examples of what I know about—me. I talk about when I was growing up. Drugs were prevalent back then, but not to the extent they are now. But I tell them about a friend of mine who was doing drugs. He tried to get me to do drugs, but I shied away from it. He kept doing them and ended up in prison. I ended up with the basketball. So I give the kids an example: Do you want to end up in prison or do you want to be in the NBA?

“The point we’re trying to get across is the importance of being yourself. Trying to keep up with your friends and the peer pressure doesn’t help you out in the long run. You have to just be yourself. That’s the key to growing up right. … And I feel, especially in Sacramento, that there’s a lot of the focus on violence. Well, the kids need something more positive.”

A few days later—role model or not—people are gathering from all over to get an autograph from the big guy at the just-opened Sportmart in Roseville.

In fact, they’re swarming around Tisdale, clad in his royal blue King’s sweats, begging to have their picture taken with him, hoping he’ll sign some of their stuff. Somebody hands Wayman a basketball and he autographs it. Someone else hands him a pendant flag and he signs that. Others pass him a team schedule, a personal photograph, a Spalding gameball box, a King’s T-shirt and … jeez, this guy is nonplussed! He will sign anything! Pretty soon, somebody hands Wayman a plastic water bottle and, I swear, Tisdale puts pen to plastic.

One sharp high school senior, decked out in full Raiders gangsta black and silver, looks at me like I’m an idiot when I ask him why he cares about having Tisdale’s autograph. “He’s famous,” Wesley Metcalf explains incredulously. “He’s famous, he’s a good basketball player and he’s OUR basketball player.”

“I’m not caught up in the fame,” Tisdale tells me. “I’m just a normal guy that likes to help people. My philosophy? Be yourself. I’ve always been myself regardless of what environment I was placed in.”

In order to remain himself, Wayman keeps on with the music. Fifth Quarter, his band, plays a jazz-funk fusion thing. They’ve opened for the likes of Natalie Cole and the Yellowjackets and have been known to appear at NBA functions like last year’s All-Star Game. The members of the group, like Tisdale, are professionals—but musicians, not ball players. Guitarist Bobby Gonzales used to play with Bobby Brown and Mariah Carey. Drummer Lenny White was with Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever. And keyboard guy Bernard Wright used to play with Miles Davis. In fact, in a moment of humility, Tisdale once told a reporter this about his band: “I’m pulling up the rear. I’m the weak link … but I can hold my own.”

So I ask Wayman what’s his philosophy of life now, given the family, the music, the charity; given that fact that he started out so strong in basketball—won that gold medal and all—but is now playing on a team that’s got, well, a reputation problem.

“My philosophy?” asks Wayman without skipping a beat. “I love life, I like everything, y’know? I’m gonna be me no matter what … I’ll do something until I just can’t do it anymore. I’ll keep coming back and keep coming back. And that goes for music and that goes for basketball and that goes for the Kings. You only lose when you stop coming back.”