Well, just this week we concluded one of the most wonderful annual spring traditions—the NCAA tournament. Besides the Olympics, this has to be my very favorite sports competition. As even the most casual observer knows, the “March Madness,” celebration contains 64 collegiate teams in six rounds of basketball, leading to the crowning of the National Championship team.
There are so very many reasons to love this spring rite of passage. With the vast bracket set up and feeder schools from so many college sports conferences, virtually everyone has a “home team” of sorts to cheer for. (And who doesn’t participate in an office pool betting on the game…a source of excitement for everyone during three weeks in March and April!). Nearly always there is a “Cinderella team”, usually from a smaller or lesser known school, that manages to pull out an unexpected victory. And, each and every year there are profound human interest stories from the players and coaches involved in the tournament—not to mention the historical references and honors for players from the past. This year, of course, we were saddened by the horrible accident of Kevin Ware from Louisville’s team. Suffering a terrible leg fracture, with his bone broken in two places and emergency surgery following, he was pulled from the game against Duke University. Yet, he looked on with enormous pride, when his team eventually won the entire tournament, in a heart-stopping game with the Michigan Wolverines, in his home town of Atlanta. This is but one shining moment of the grand competition.
As I think about my own love affair with the game and this tournament, as always I return home. When I was in high school, I was a so-called Basket Buddy, a girls’ pep squad that showed up for games and supported individual team members. But it wasn’t until college that I really became a devotee. I recall my years at OU, a perennial sports powerhouse, that I watched with great enthusiasm “my” spirited basketball coach, Billy Tubbs. And, in the middle of it all, was the unforgettable #23 Wayman Tisdale.
You couldn’t not love Wayman. The Tulsa native had a thousand watt smile. He was not only a superb basketball player (a three time college All-American and collegiate hall of famer), but an all-around good guy. A “preacher’s kid,” he was raised in a faith-filled household, and it always showed in his dignity, kindness, and grace.
Ultimately Wayman was recruited by the Indiana Pacers (2nd picked in the first round!) and played for the Kings and Suns, before retiring. He also was part of the Gold medal winning team in the Olympics in ’84. After all that he became a musician of considerable note. This gentle giant was a bass guitarist for a band he created. He passionately embraced a second career, playing contagious contemporary jazz music, as well as Gospel songs. One of his lovable idiosyncrasies was how he held the guitar….upside down and backwards. No matter what, he played with joy.
A few years ago, Wayman was struck down by a cruel twist of fate. Having been diagnosed with bone cancer in 2007, he eventually lost his leg. But he pressed on–making more music and doing more good. And, we were all heartbroken when Wayman passed in 2009, feeling like we lost a Sooner friend. In fact, he was missed so much that several songs were written in his honor, including this tear-jerker by the country superstar Toby Keith, also a proud Oklahoman and die-hard Sooners sports fan.
My hope of course, is that Wayman is looking down from Heaven, enjoying the NCAA tournament. I imagine we were both disappointed when our Sooners lost in an early round of the 2013 tournament. But there is always next year. God Bless you Wayman, and thank you for all of the wonderful memories, on the court and off. May you Rest in the Lord’s Glorious Peace.
p.s. After writing this, I was reminded of another tender, sports-inspired moment: Tisdale was the first Sooner basketball player to have his number retired. However, when the high school standout (and ultimately record-breaking college and professional player) Blake Griffin suited up for OU, he asked–and was granted–Tisdale’s permission and blessing in donning his number, 23, during his colleagiate career.
Enjoy Toby’s performance of his song, at an OU game, with members of Wayman’s band. The video includes vintage footage of Tisdale during his days back in Norman.