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Not even cancer stops Tisdale's second career

June 02, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Wayman Tisdale can laugh about it all now.

In fact, Tisdale is laughing at the opening of his new album, the jazz bassist and former NBA player sending a sunny signal to listeners that he has weathered the darkest storm in a mostly cloudless existence.

"When life tries to get you down," Tisdale triumphantly declares on the record, his tone reassuring, "it's the perfect time for a rebound."

Tisdale's mood wasn't so light 16 months ago.

Living at the time in Calabasas, the three-time Oklahoma All-American, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and 12-year NBA veteran was making his way downstairs in the middle of the night when he heard something snap.

It was his right leg.

The 6-foot-9 former power forward, who says he never suffered a broken bone in college or during an NBA career in which he averaged 15 points and six rebounds, had not tripped or fallen, but he ended up gently settling onto his backside. Sitting there on the stairs, he says, he wondered how his leg could break so easily.

Two months and countless tests later he had his answer: bone cancer. Doctors told him a cancerous cyst below his right knee had caused the injury.

"When I first heard," Tisdale, 43, says of his initial reaction to the cancer diagnosis, "I reflected back on my life and thought, 'I had a great life, I had a great time, I did a lot.' I lived two careers that most people only dream of."

Indeed, two years before retiring from the NBA in 1997 -- the No. 2 pick in the 1985 draft played for the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns -- Tisdale released his debut album, "Power Forward." It made its way into the top 10 on Billboard magazine's top contemporary jazz albums chart.

Six more charting albums have followed -- "Rebound," his latest, is due in stores Tuesday -- as Tisdale has segued seamlessly from one enviable career to another while also bringing up three daughters and a son with wife Regina.

So, cancer threw him.

"It's a horrible thing," Tisdale notes, his right leg propped on a footstool a few hours before a recent show in Newport Beach. "But you know what? After being told and after learning so much about the research that's going on, it actually was enlightening. It definitely was encouraging. . . .

"When they told me what I had to go through to get well, the approach I took was, 'Let's do it.' Because of basketball, I wasn't no stranger to battles, I wasn't no stranger to hard work, I wasn't no stranger to pain."

Still, a summer tour had to be scrapped. Chemotherapy sapped his strength. In July, Tisdale had his knee replaced during an eight-hour procedure.

By the fall, however, he was walking with the aid of crutches and, newly energetic, feeling well enough to record his new album in West Hollywood.

He walked with a cane while touring during the holidays, was back to the crutches after more surgery this spring and will limit himself to a light concert schedule this year. But Tisdale, who lives on a 20-acre spread outside Tulsa, Okla., already has recorded a follow-up to "Rebound," a funk collection scheduled to be released next year, and started work on a Christmas record, also due next year.

"Since I've got all this downtime, I don't twiddle my thumbs," he says. "I just go to the next thing, whatever I can do. OK, I can't tour? Let's make a record."

Basketball, he says, never drove him as music does.

"My older brothers used to have to make me play basketball," he says. "They were like, 'Hey, dude, you've got to play basketball.' And I was like, 'I don't want to play no ball. I hate ball.' But they pretty much forced me."

He was about 10, he says, when the music bug bit.

"Father bought me and my brothers these little Mickey Mouse guitars," says Tisdale, a son of a preacher. "He put them in our laps when he came from out of town and said, 'God told me one of you is going to be a musician and go with me and play and preach.' And I said, 'That's going to be me.' "

He taught himself to play.

"I just figured it out," he says. "I never had a lesson. I don't know notes, I don't read music, but if I hear what you're doing, I can play it back to you."

Music lovers have taken note, a reviewer for observing, "Unlike Shaq the rapper, Tisdale the jazz musician is no novelty act."

He never was, even if Tisdale feared he might be viewed that way after poorly received stabs at pop music stardom by a host of celebrities including two-sport standout Deion Sanders and comedian Eddie Murphy.

Even while he was still playing in the NBA, Tisdale says, he plotted a second career.

He brought his bass with him to training camp and on trips, he says, and sat in at nightclubs whenever and wherever he had a chance.

As his NBA career wound down, he says, "I'd finish the season and two weeks later I'd be on a music tour. That didn't sit well with owners and coaches, but I was a vet by then and if they didn't think I had it by then, they weren't ever going to think I had it. I was looking out for me and what I had to do to prepare."

It was time well spent.

He's at a point now where even cancer barely slows him.

Says Tisdale, "I feel like I've never worked a day in my life."


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