Indianapolis – They take their basketball seriously in Indiana – as if it were a religion. And if the altar is the rim and backboard in every kid’s driveway and the high priest is Indiana University coach Bobby Knight, then blasphemy is the National Basketball Association, which, with its apparent lack of defense, intensity and strategy is, to natives, basketball’s version of professional wrestling.
So given all that, it seemed as if Wayman Tisdale, the hulk from Oklahoma, was the perfect choice to serve as a messiah to these doubting Hoosiers.
Here was the son of a minister who met his future wife Regina, in church when he was a teen-ager.
He was as close to a good ol’ guy as you can find in Tulsa.
“He always had that big, beautiful smile,” Regina said. “That’s what got my attention. And he’s the kind of person that when he meets you, it’s like he’s known you forever.”
On the basketball court, he was heavenly. He became the first collegian to make All-America his first three seasons. Despite turning pro after his junior year, he concluded his career ninth on the all-time scoring list, averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds, shooting 58 percent and setting 17 school and 9 Big Eight Conference records.
But what did he do for fun? His favorite hobbies are picking his guitar and fishing.
Why, the guy’s nickname when he was a kid was “Moose.”
When he came to the Indiana Pacers, Tisdale helped put together a group of students, called “Tisdale’s Team.” The group travels to schools in the state to urge other students to stay away from drugs. First lady Nancy Reagan was so impressed she came to Indianapolis recently to congratulate Tisdale and the students.
And if that’s not enough, Tisdale even played for Knight, leading the gold-medal winning 1984 Olympic team in rebounding and in rebounding and drawing praise from Knight “as one of the finest young men I’ve ever dealt with.”
This, indeed, was a player Hoosiers desired, which was vividly demonstrated in an Indianapolis News poll that disclosed 93 percent of the respondents wanted the Pacers to select Tisdale with the team’s No. 2 pick in the 1985 draft (Patrick Ewing was a sure No. 1). And why not? Former Pacers general manager Wayne Embry predicted Tisdale would have the impact of a Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas or Larry Bird on the team.
“His confident and personality make his talent infectious,” Embry said at the time. “Only the great players are capable of making the others around them better. The guy doesn’t know how to lose.”
But he learned quickly.
The pacers were 22-60 the year before Tisdale arrived. In his rookie season, they were 26-56.
And he couldn’t crack that starting lineup.
The next season, the Pacers made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and reached .500 going 41-41, sparked by rookie Chuck Person. Wayman Tisdale was still a substitute, the sixth man, although a good one, averaging 14-7 points and 7.2 rebounds.
“It wasn’t a terrible year,” defended Tisdale.
Agreed. But it also wasn’t the kind of season the Pacers had in mind when they gave Tisdale a four-year $4 million contract. It’s not the stuff of saviors.
Wayman Tisdale couldn’t walk on water. But he has taught the gospel of patience, and the prayers of Pacer fans are starting to be answered.
Tisdale has finally gained a starting role, even sometimes a starring role, averaging 24 points and seven rebounds the last three weeks.
“He does have the ability to take a game over,” says Pacers GM Donnie Walsh.
Tisdale is averaging 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds for the season. But since he began starting in early February, he has led the team with a 17.5 average to go along with almost seven rebounds a game as the Pacers fight for a playoff berth in a season in which Herb Williams and Person have been injured and Person’s playing level has diminished.
I look at myself as an emerging guy,” says Tisdale, 23. “I don’t consider myself there, but if I keep improving I will be. I’ll admit, I thought I’d come right in and play like I did in college. Little did I know what kind of transition I’d have to make.”
So much of a transition, in fact, that his famous smile even became a frown.
“One time that year I was so frustrated I came home in tears,” Tisdale recalls. “It just seemed like I couldn’t do anything right. It was midseason and it just seemed like it was never going to get better.”
Part of the reason is, unlike Jordan or Bird or Thomas, Tisdale didn’t spend his college basketball days preparing for professional basketball, but merely for a place in the record books.
You see, Tisdale was a 6-foot-7 ½-inch center in college (though listed at 6-9). “I always played center in high school and college, with my back to the basket,” he says. “I was never taught to play out on the floor, but I really didn’t worry about it.
“My impression about the NBA was that they really didn’t play defense and without zonesthey couldn’t double or triple-team me in college, but I learned fast.”
Tisdale found it almost impossible to score inside or post up for his short, left-handed turnaround jumper.
“I used to be the strongest player, move where I wanted and when,” Tisdale says, “but now one guy could hold me up three seconds or force me off the blocks. So I had to make adjustments.”
But they didn’t come easy.
“When I’d put it on the floor, I’d dribble out of bounds,” Tisdale says. “And when I’d go outside and shoot, the ball would go over the rim.”
So when it was clear he had little magic, the Pacers made him disappear.
It also didn’t help that Tisdale came to camp late in the contract dispute and when he did show up, there was much more of him than anyone imagined – about 270 pounds worth.
If he was working out, the only thing he was exercising was his jaw, for chewing.
“I got pretty down, grouchy, and I was never like that,” Tisdale says. Added to the expectations of turning the team around, it made for a bitter experience.
To his credit, Tisdale did work on his shot, even on learning to dribble with his right hand across the lane for a shot.
He became a respected sixth man last season and a 35-point game against Sacramento was the league’s best haul for a reserve. But he was still hauling around too much on the court.
This season he’s below 250 pounds and up in the hearts of his coaches and the fans.
“I see myself now as being a headache to some teams,” Tisdale says,. “I’m able to put the ball on the floor and shoot it outside, yet I’m a power forward.
“I always kept my faith in God. I figured He didn’t bring me this far to leave me.”
So, indeed, it’s still possible that this young man shall lead those Pacers, and maybe some doubting Hoosiers, too.