Anna K. Clemmons spent four days with Wayman Tisdale last year working on a profile of the musician, and former NBA player, as he battled cancer. After hearing of his death Friday morning, Clemmons wrote the following:
Sitting in Charlotte, N.C., at a swim meet this morning, my BlackBerry buzzed with a "Breaking News" e-mail that read: "Wayman Tisdale dies after losing battle with cancer."
I read it three times in disbelief before texting a friend to ask him to check several sports Web sites to confirm. Perhaps there'd been a mistake. Surely this wasn't right.
I spent four days with Wayman Tisdale in November 2008. Since that week, I've thought of him often, including again last night while watching the season finale of "Grey's Anatomy." I'm not an avid watcher of the show, but the cancer storyline with one of the characters coupled with another character's leg amputation immediately brought Wayman to mind. I thought about what a good person he is, how I was glad he's still OK and the good things he was probably doing at that very moment. Since meeting him, when I've found myself frustrated or impatient, the first phrase I think of is Wayman's: "Don't ever give up. Until you take that last breath, you fight." It might sound corny, but his lesson was so inspiring and such a present reminder of the great things we are lucky to have in this world. And now, how quickly they can be taken away.
The funny thing about writing features on people is you spend these concentrated periods of time with thes, often learning intimate things about their lives. Then you depart just as quickly, with a hug or a handshake and a goodbye. Given that, not many athletes leave an indelible mark on you once the story is filed. Sometimes you might keep in touch via the phone, texts, e-mail or Facebook and catch up on what they're doing when you're in the same city. But it doesn't extend beyond that very often.
Rarely, if ever, have I learned as much from someone or been as impressed by a person as I was by Wayman Tisdale.
Wayman was so kind to me and Tim Harmon, the ESPN producer I traveled to Tulsa with for the story. He not only opened his home to us but also shared his time with his family, his music studio, his hospital visits, his physical therapy sessions and even a dinner he attended honoring his good friend Toby Keith. He never complained that we were around too often, never asked us to leave or to give him his space.
Wayman literally did not meet a stranger. It would take us at least 10 or 15 minutes to exit somewhere because everyone wanted to talk to him and his wife, Regina. Sitting down to lunch at P.F. Chang's after a session at his prosthesis center, you could tell that Wayman was tired. He wasn't talking very much and clearly wanted a break. And yet, at four different times during the meal, restaurant patrons walked up to shake his hand, wish him well or say "hello." Each time, Wayman grinned his trademark smile and talked for as long as they wished, listening and cracking jokes.
At the prosthesis center, Wayman's nurse brought him to meet two other patients. Although they were clearly fans of his, he wanted to talk about them. In their 10-minute conversation, I'd estimate that Wayman was the subject of two of those minutes, tops. We learned that these men had both lost limbs, one in a hunting accident, but were still able to participate in most of their favorite activities, like fishing, and they were major University of Oklahoma fans. Both Wayman and Regina listened intently, smiling, asking questions and clearly wanting to hear their story. Yes, a lot of athletes will give fans a smile or a handshake, but beyond that, Wayman was clearly an exception.
When we were scheduling interviews of Wayman's peers, we had more than 15 people who wanted to sit down and talk to us. Often, there was a line of people waiting, many of whom traveled to Tulsa simply to talk about Wayman. There were probably thousands more; we just didn't have the time. As people came in, all from different walks of his life, you could tell how much each one loved and respected him.. We never heard anyone say an unkind thing about him, even when we asked and tried to find some character flaw. Imagine what a remarkable human being one is to have that kind of reputation, not just with those closest to you but those in the community who respect you for who you are and what you stand for.
Perhaps most importantly, Wayman clearly loved his family so much, and vice versa. Sitting in the Tisdale house and talking with his children, they wanted to be around their father, helping out, sitting and watching football. Even during the individual interviews with Wayman and Regina, the children never wanted to be too far away.
The world is a darker place today after losing Wayman. He is a man who loved life with a fervent passion, even when life was less than kind to him. He found so much joy in the everyday: music, basketball, his family and really, just being alive. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I feel lucky that I spent four days with such a remarkable person and hope others still can learn from his story and be inspired.