Commentary

In honor of Tisdale, give Auerbach a try

Updated: May 19, 2009, 7:18 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

My last column, which was about the common abstract nature of basketball and jazz music, provoked more e-mail than usual, which is probably thanks more to its exposure on Page 2 than to any authorly stroke of genius I had.

[+] EnlargeWayman Tisdale
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesWayman Tisdale died too young at 44, but he lived the type of full life anyone would be proud of.

One e-mail, sent to me at 3:50 p.m. Wednesday, was from a reader named Paul F. The bulk of that e-mail follows:

That was a great column on basketball and jazz. I've made that comparison many times both with friends and occasionally when I write.

There are actually other parallels than the ones you raised.

Both are also -- [in my opinion] -- truly American art forms (I do know that James Naismith was Canadian, but still ... ), if you don't mind considering basketball an art form.

I have no idea if you have plans to continue this train of thought in your column, but if you do, it would be great to know what Wayman Tisdale feels and thinks. Tisdale was a prominent baller who is now a prominent musician. I wonder if he could tie it all together.

At noon Friday, I sat down at my computer after a workout at the local 24-hour Fitness that included my ogling a woman in pink on the treadmill. I checked ESPN.com and found a lead story that read: Sooners legend Tisdale, 44, dies of cancer.

So that was weird.

Paul F. was right. Basketball and jazz are two of the few cultural contributions we Americans can claim as our own. (If, borrowing from the other Paul, we don't mind considering basketball as culture.) He was also right that Tisdale probably could have shed some light on my theory. Sadly, I'll never be able to test it out on him.

In all honesty, I wasn't going to. I'd like to say I'm interested in Tisdale because of his talent as a jazz musician but, after more research into his life, I'm much more interested in his talents as a renaissance man.

I always clumped Tisdale in with the rest of Oklahoma basketball. Growing up like I did, which is to say, growing up a die-hard fan of the Kansas Jayhawks, I was bred to think of the Sooners basketball team as a bunch of brash street thugs who were to be hated at every possible opportunity. That sentiment came to a head when "my" Jayhawks beat the evil Sooners in the NCAA championship in 1988.

[+] EnlargeWayne Tisdale
David McNew/Getty ImagesWayman Tisdale earned Paul Shirley's admiration for his ability to leave basketball behind.

After five years at Iowa State, I was able to understand that stereotypes don't always hold. The players at Oklahoma weren't any worse than the players anywhere else. Luckily for the Jayhawks that spurned me, I'm able to apply that same awareness to Kansas fans, so I don't think all of them are whiny, spoiled and faux-aristocratic.

Unfortunately, my judgment of Tisdale preceded my illumination. Because a 10-year-old version of me assumed that all Sooners were evil, I assumed that Tisdale was, by default, evil. (I mean "evil" in a basketball/sporting sense. I didn't actually think Tisdale had horns or carried a trident.)

As it turns out, Tisdale was far from evil. He was, in fact, a man I could have admired. Not because he's dead -- I don't like to fall into the very American trap of lionizing people just for ceasing to breathe. And not even because he battled cancer with grace and a smile. No, I could have -- and will -- admire Wayman Tisdale for his ability to leave basketball behind.

This skill is of particular interest to me because I seek to do the same. Soon, I will turn my back on a basketball career and will start a new career. Potentially, an artistic career: writing. (Or semi-artistic, depending on one's respect for scribesmanship.)

Granted, my basketball career has not been as illustrious as Tisdale's basketball career. And the next stage of my life, whether it involves keyboard tapping or grad-schooling, might not be as successful as Tisdale's jazz career. But that won't stop me from admiring him, even in death, just as I admire others who have made a smooth transition from athletics to something else and who are still alive. Men such as Bill Bradley, Doyle Brunson and J.C. Watts, who, incidentally, is also a Sooner.

In honor of my newly found, retroactively applied affection for Tisdale, the rest of today's column will be spent discussing a musician I think he would have liked.

Dan Auerbach is, under normal circumstances, the frontman of The Black Keys. Several readers alerted me to his solo album, "Keep It Hid," which was released in February. Upon first listen, I was mildly impressed, but Auerbach's work failed to stick with me. Lately, he has made a comeback.

[+] EnlargeDan Auerbach
C Flanigan/Getty ImagesDan Auerbach's soulful music should erase anyone's stereotypes about blues musicians.

I am by no means a music scholar, which is good and bad for my future as an analyst of the art form. Good because I come by my opinions honestly; bad because I will, on multiple occasions, be out of my element. I'm confident that, in 10 years, I'll look back at some of my statements and immediately scrunch up my eyes, hoping whatever idiocy I once put on the page might disappear from the permanent record.

That paragraph was necessary because of the next.

I like the blues, but my experience with it is limited. Much like most of The Black Keys' work, Auerbach's new album can best be described as blues. If you're anything like me -- or rather, anything like I was, say, three years ago -- you might think the blues is restricted to broken-hearted old men who perform only at places called things like "Dusty's Juke Joint" in cities such as Tuscaloosa, Ala. Not so, as it turns out. The people playing the blues are often broken-hearted, but they're just as often strikingly hopeful about the future.

Which is what I love about "Keep It Hid." On it, Auerbach sounds like a man who has seen too much but who has decided that most of what he has seen is worth the small fraction that wasn't. There's heartbreak in "Keep It Hid," but there's also love. Most of all, there's soul.

Soul is a tough word to define, but from what I can divine about Wayman Tisdale, it seems obvious that he had it. He dreamed, failed, achieved, quit, loved and hurt. And even though he made it to only 44, it seems as if he lived the type of full life anyone could be proud of. I hope I can do the same.

I don't know Tisdale, but I have a feeling that he would have liked Auerbach's "Keep It Hid." I think you will, too.

If you don't believe me, read this article about Tisdale's fight with cancer while listening to this song, called "When The Night Comes" by Auerbach. Don't listen while thinking of Tisdale as a dead man. Listen while thinking of a man who knows he might die but who keeps finding the beauty in life anyway.

Which, come to think of it, is about the best way there is to describe the blues.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and by e-mailing him here. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."

ALSO SEE