Commentary

Tisdale relishes his second act as a musician

Originally Published: February 29, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Hip-hop beats blast from players' headphones and arena loudspeakers, but that doesn't mean basketball is a hip-hop sport.

"It's probably more jazzy than anything," said Wayman Tisdale. "It's improvisation. You're improvising the whole time. You never do the same move twice. There are some moves you do. You have to adjust as the game adjusts. I would say jazz would be that music."

[+] EnlargeWayne Tisdale
Brad Barket/Getty ImagesWayman Tisdale has gone from baselines to bass lines.
If anyone is uniquely qualified to make the assessment, it's Tisdale. How many people can say they played with Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond and Charles Barkley, in addition to George Duke, Dave Koz, Bob James, Kirk Whalum and Jeff Lorber?

Long before basketball players were rapping about themselves (i.e., "I'm Outstanding" by Shaquille O'Neal), jazz artists were dedicating songs to ballplayers ("Let It Flow -- For Dr. J" by Grover Washington Jr.). But as natural as the relationship between jazz and basketball might seem, it wasn't an easy transition from baseline to bass lines.

If he had allowed himself to get stuck in the box created for him, Tisdale could be only one thing. People see a 6-foot-9 African-American and immediately reach a single conclusion: basketball player. Or, in the case of a 43-year-old such as Tisdale, ex-basketball player.

Tisdale never limited himself to that definition. If basketball was his joy, music was his passion.

"Music, I feel, through it you get a bit better feeling," Tisdale said. "For me, it was something that I was always told, 'You can't do it. Stick to your day job.' I took a lot of ridicule."

With music, Tisdale said, "You get that rush. It's more personal.

"The cool thing about it is when you see your name on the ticket. You don't see your name on the basketball ticket."

[+] EnlargeWayman Tisdale was pumped up as a member of the Sacramento Kings in 1988.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWayman Tisdale when he played for the Sacramento Kings.
For 12 years, if you wanted to see Tisdale play you bought a ticket to see the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings or Phoenix Suns. Music was a hobby, something that captured his attention ever since he saw the bass guitar players in the band at the church where his father was a minister. But now, nearly 11 years since he played his last NBA game, Tisdale is an established musician with seven albums to his credit and a mainstay on smooth jazz stations across the country.

Tisdale was a solid NBA player. He made more than half his shots, averaged 15 points and six rebounds. He didn't alter the course of NBA history, but he widened the avenues of what players can do after basketball.

To go from the baseline to bass lines wasn't the same as most career transitions. This was a field most successful people spent their entire lives trying to enter, doing nothing but practicing, taking lessons, going to music school and grinding away for their big break.

Tisdale never put down that bass guitar. In the early 90s, when he was with the Kings, he started playing in some small venues around Sacramento. People would ask him if he had a CD for them. His answer was always no. His friends persuaded him to make at least a demo tape.

One day the drummer for the band Tisdale played with was heading for some meetings with Motown Records and asked Tisdale for his demo. The folks at Motown liked what they heard.

That didn't mean Tisdale was an instant star. He recalls playing small venues like a VFW post in Oklahoma, with "a little bitty sound system with a microphone. They said, 'There's your stage, Mr. Tisdale. There's about 25 people in there. They're ready for you.'

"It's a long way from Madison Square Garden, buddy."

Tisdale would be the opening act at music festivals, providing the background music as people entered. He would be the late act at the nightclubs, playing on as the place emptied out.

"A lot of times I was in my room, by myself, wondering, 'What am I doing?' " Tisdale said.

He stayed with it, remembering to apply the work ethic he used to make the NBA.

"I took those same elements to music," he said. "It all gets back to hard work. I poured my heart into it.

"Everybody says, 'You're making it because you're an ex-basketball player.' That's the biggest deterrent. People would say, 'Go back and play basketball.' I had stations tell me, 'We'll never play a bass player, it's not a lead instrument.'"

Tisdale didn't try to hide his hoops background. As tall as he is, it would be almost impossible anyway. His first album, released in 1995, was called "Power Forward." The cover showed him standing on a basketball court, his bass plugged into an unseen amp.

Tisdale said his playing style is a little like his basketball skills, rugged mixed with finesse. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum once described Tisdale as big bass player with a big sound, but a gentle heart and soft music.

[+] EnlargeWayne Tisdale
David McNew/Getty ImagesWayman Tisdale performs at the third annual National Smooth Jazz Awards.
Tisdale doesn't like to restrict his genre to just jazz.

"It has its jazzy moments, but I think it's just music," Tisdale said. "You'll hear bits of country, gospel, reggae when you come to one of my shows. When you think of jazz, a lot of people think it's old men in a smoky room playing."

Which brings us to the subject of misconceptions.

African-Americans make up a majority of NBA players, but that doesn't make it a black sport. Sure, there has been an African-American influence. But the game was created by a Canadian man. The hoops affixed to Indiana barnyards and Beverly Hills garages show how far its appeal has spread throughout the country. As for worldwide influence, the past two NBA Most Valuable Players came from Germany and Canada, the reigning FIBA world champions are from Spain and the defending Olympic champions are from Argentina.

Jazz is an art form that was created by African-Americans, one which still carries a reflection of the African-American experience. We're talking about music from African-Americans and a sport altered by African-Americans.

Or, in Tisdale's case, we're talking about both.

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.