Commentary

Tisdale reaches for his biggest rebound

Originally Published: December 3, 2008
By Anna K. Clemmons | ESPN

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2008, about five months before Tisdale lost his battle with cancer.

As Wayman Tisdale tells it, there are a lot of loves behind his trademark smile.

There's his wife, Regina, whom he loved when he first saw her walk into church on April 17, 1981. They were high school juniors attending different schools in Tulsa, Okla., and she'd never heard of the basketball player who was a nationwide prep star. On their first date, he flashed that smile and made her laugh, igniting a romance that's continued through 27 years and four children.

There's basketball, which he didn't love until he learned to dunk in the eighth grade. He'd never liked it when his older brothers, Weldon and William, insisted on playing pickup games in the yard. Wayman usually quit before they finished, running over to the sandbox instead. But that dunk (of a stick, not a basketball) ignited a career that saw him become a three-time All-American at Oklahoma, an Olympic gold medalist and a 12-year NBA veteran.

Then there is music, Tisdale's "first love." He never took a lesson and still doesn't know what key his songs are in or the names of the notes he strums. He spent every Sunday playing the bass guitar in the Friendship Church where his father was pastor, even throughout college. And since retiring from the NBA in 1997, he's recorded eight jazz albums, performed on worldwide tours and collaborated with artists like country music star Toby Keith.

Wayman Tisdale
ESPNTisdale says his experiences on the basketball court helped him face the challenges of cancer.

In February of 2007, Tisdale fell and broke his leg. Over the next 22 months, he endured a cancer diagnosis followed by bouts of chemotherapy so painful that he sometimes refused to let his children see him. When his treatments all failed, he agreed to let doctors cut off his right leg.

Still, the physical trait that friends say distinguishes Tisdale even today rarely waned. "Cancer might've taken my leg, but it can't take my smile," Tisdale says. And in a flash, it happens again, that famous, ear-splitting grin.

The fall happened almost two years ago, when Tisdale was walking down the stairs of his L.A. home and he slipped. When he tried to move, "it felt like someone swung a baseball bat and just shattered it," Tisdale says of his right leg. "I screamed like crazy and almost blacked out."

Doctors at UCLA wondered how a former pro athlete who'd never broken a bone in 20 years could so easily shatter his leg. They ordered X-rays of every bone in his body and waited two months for the results. "Try to sleep eight weeks not knowing if you have cancer," Tisdale says.

When Tisdale traveled to his other home in Tulsa for his children's spring break, his doctors called with the news: He had cancer. "I told myself, whatever this is, it ain't gonna take me out," Tisdale says. "I never ran away from a war, never shied away from a player, so this isn't gonna scare me away. I knew that God would take care of me."

You can never give up because quitting is not an option. No matter how dark it is or how weak you get, until you take that last breath, you must fight.

--Wayman Tisdale

His wife wasn't as positive. "I was literally devastated," Regina says. "Six months prior to that, I'd lost my dad to cancer, so I remember saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God, this cannot be happening to me again.'"

As word of Tisdale's diagnosis spread, friends began calling to offer support. But often, as the conversation unfolded, the patient became the consoler. "My heart was broken when I heard," says longtime friend Arthur Thompson, also the drummer in Tisdale's band. "But when we first talked on the phone, he [Wayman] made me feel better. Ninety-five percent of us would've gone into a deep depression, but he didn't."

Tisdale began chemotherapy and, for the first time, stopped composing music. On the worst nights, he and Regina lay in bed together, crying. They waited to tell their children the severity of his diagnosis until the family was together that fall (their oldest daughter lives in Atlanta and their second daughter was away at college, while their youngest daughter and son live at home).

Coping with cancer is nothing new for the Tisdale family. Tisdale's mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1966 and was told she had six months to live. She's still alive today, even after another bout with cancer in 2000. His sister-in-law survived a battle with colon cancer in 2000. His close friend and personal trainer, Dolphin Davis Sr., learned he had prostate cancer while Tisdale was undergoing treatment. "There were times that he said he slept for three days," Davis says. "For a man who lives by schedules to not know the next day because of being so fatigued, that puts things in perspective."

Wayman Tisdale
ESPNTisdale has made rapid progress learning to walk with a prosthesis.

After the first round of chemotherapy was unsuccessful, a second round was scheduled. "The doctor had never given anyone chemo that was my size," Tisdale says. "They just calculated how much chemo to give me and said, 'We hope it doesn't mess up your kidneys. If it does, sorry.'"

To push through, the 6-foot-9 "gentle giant" recalled the challenges he faced during his basketball career. "I had some coaches that literally didn't want me to make it, and one in particular was [Team USA coach] Bobby Knight," Tisdale says. "At the time, I frowned on that … I look at it today that had I not persevered through a lot of the stuff he put me through, I probably wouldn't be here today. I thank God for that dude because he pushed me."

When the second round of chemotherapy still didn't work, doctors said that amputation was the most viable option to eradicate the cancerous cells. Rev. Carlton Pearson, a friend of the family for almost 30 years, spoke to Tisdale soon after. "Here's a man who's lived much of his life off his legs," Pearson says. "If ever there were a time he would've been somber … but he wasn't, he was just as up in his spirit. I've never seen Wayman lose his joy."

Close to 20 friends gathered at the Oklahoma City hospital where Tisdale underwent his amputation last August. When they entered his room afterward, "he's joking, laughing, smiling," Regina says. Keith, a fellow Oklahoman and longtime friend who collaborated with Tisdale on his most recent album, said Tisdale, improbably, seemed happier after the surgery. "I knew he'd be all right. Everyone knows it when they see that big smile," Keith said.

A few weeks later, Tisdale talked to one of his closest friends from the NBA, Sam Perkins. "He and his wife went through a lot of adversity and they made it through," Perkins says. "We were talking about shoes that day and he said, 'Well, I guess I'll just be shining one shoe.'"

Wayman Tisdale
ESPNHis therapists marvel at Tisdale's recovery.

Tisdale credits his optimism, in large part, to his parents. The Tisdale family is well known throughout Tulsa. In 2005, the L.L. Tisdale Parkway was named for Wayman's father, Louis, who served as senior pastor of Friendship Church for 28 years. Wayman's brother Weldon has served as Friendship's pastor since 1997. Wayman chose to build his family's home off the Tisdale Parkway, he says, out of respect for his father.

And when Tisdale decided to play for the University of Oklahoma in 1982, head coach Billy Tubbs altered the team practice schedule to accommodate Rev. Tisdale's schedule, switching practice to Sunday evening so that Wayman could be in his father's church that morning.

The first time Tisdale returned to Friendship after his surgery, "he walks in and everyone is standing up, a long ovation, tears all over the church," family friend Jimmy Williams says. "Afterward someone says, 'Why?' And I said 'Love. People are showing their love for Wayman.'"

Following his amputation, Tisdale went to the Scott Sabolich Prosthesis and Treatment Center in Oklahoma City to be fitted for a custom-made prosthesis. Sabolich says that in his 21-year career, Tisdale's was the largest prosthesis he's ever created. And yet Tisdale took only 30 days to acclimate, a process Sabolich said takes a typical amputee three to six months.

"The average Joe comes in, thinks the world's over, they're all alone, disabled, etc.," Sabolich says. "Someone like Wayman goes through the same experience of losing the limb but he's such a stellar personality that this didn't faze him much. You ask him if he's OK and he says 'I'm fine, this is just a little roadblock.'"

Wayman Tisdale
ESPNTisdale has become a quick learner on his Sooners-style prothesis.

At a recent fitting (Tisdale's limb has shrunk following surgery, so he's refitted every few weeks), Tisdale joked about his new limb's repercussions, which make the right half of his backside look slightly larger than the left. "My booty is not this big," Tisdale says, grinning. "Now I'll be able to block 'em out -- I'll be great on offense." The top portion of his carbon fiber prosthesis is painted maroon with the word "OU Sooners" written in white lettering, a tribute to his alma mater. This doesn't come cheap -- his prosthesis alone is estimated to cost around $30,000.

Tisdale began relearning to walk at physical therapy sessions at the St. John Health System in Tulsa. Here, too, physical therapist Brad Potts says that Tisdale is months ahead of a typical patient. "Most people come to see me and they're carrying their prosthesis in their hand, but Wayman walked in on it the first time," Potts says.

Potts attributes the quick recovery, in part, to Tisdale's athletic résumé. "The drive that he has to succeed as an athlete is the same drive that you have to have here," Potts says. "If you give him [Wayman] two to three keys, he picks up on the concept almost immediately. His muscle memory is incredible and he's very coachable."

Tisdale has started a foundation aimed at raising funds to help amputees afford the prosthetic process (not all prostheses are covered by insurance providers). He also counsels others on fighting cancer or limb loss. "You can never give up because quitting is not an option," Tisdale says. "No matter how dark it is or how weak you get, until you take that last breath, you must fight."

Today, his schedule of family, friends, music and treatment often parallels his pre-cancer life. "If you see him today, you will see the same Wayman from before this happened," family friend Ioder Fisher says. "If it's a burden, he hasn't let one of us see it."

Wayman Tisdale
ESPN"If you see me smile, you see the genuine love. That's me."

Tisdale has returned to the recording studio and says the music on his latest album, "Rebound," tells the story of his survival. It lets people know that "whatever happens in life, you can rebound from it," Williams says. Tisdale often updates fans through video and written messages on his Web site. Since his diagnosis, the site's guest book has grown to over 40 pages of entries, many from fans sharing their own stories of cancer treatment or limb loss.

"He loves people and meets no strangers," Weldon says of his younger brother. "He's one of those guys you think wouldn't be touchable, but he's extremely touchable. Even as my brother, I can say that. He didn't allow the accolades or the notoriety to cause him to become egotistical. My father and mother helped to keep him grounded in who he was, where he came from, and now, who he continues to be."

The best evidence? His smile. "I've been blessed with this great gift, but I think it's not music or basketball," Tisdale says. "My greatest gift is to make other people feel better. What better tool than to have gone through something like this? If you see me smile, you see the genuine love. That's me."

Anna K. Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and contributes to ESPN.com.

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