Midway through "The Wayman Tisdale Story," the jolliness of this particular giant begins to seem suspect. Half an hour into the documentary, no one interviewed has said anything that isn't absolutely glowing about this famed basketball star turned jazz musician. Even the dark times -- his flat NBA career after such success at the Univ. of Oklahoma in the '80s, his early struggles in music in the '90s, the battle with cancer he eventually lost in 2009 -- are almost comically bright and brimming with cheer. It must be airbrushed, a puff piece.
But then I thought back to the Wayman I knew, and I remembered: He really was this nice, this happy. That upbeat demeanor and ever-present smile -- it was genuine.
"It was like he'd never had a bad day," says Michael Jordan, a frequent talking head in this film. Tisdale had his share of bad days, but he never let them turn him into a bad person. After Tisdale lost most of his right leg to bone cancer in 2008, Jordan says, "I couldn't tell that he'd just been through this traumatic change in his life."
"THE WAYMAN TISDALE STORY"
• Mack Avenue Records and Rendezvous Music presents a documentary film written and directed by Brian Schodorf.
• Running time: 66 minutes. Not rated.
Everyone was affected by it. Doctors are interviewed here who treated his cancer, their eyes still wide with amazement having rarely seen such spirit in their examination rooms. Tisdale is seen shortly after the amputation, fitting his prosthetic leg -- emblazoned with the cream-and-crimson logo of his OU Sooners, of course -- smiling and saying, "When I woke up, you know, I said, 'Hey, I'm still this person. Just got a little less limb. You got my leg, but you can't get my spirit.'"
Such indomitable spirit was custom-made for jazz. After he finally quit the NBA after 12 years (1985-1997 in Indiana, Sacramento and Phoenix), Tisdale retreated to the back bedroom of his house in suburban Tulsa, Okla., to record his first major-label jazz album. I was a music critic there, and I got to know Wayman a bit. You've never seen a guy so relieved. Wayman loved honoring his natural talent on the court, but his heart was in palming a bass guitar rather than a basketball.
"The Wayman Tisdale Story" makes no effort to get behind that smile (late in the film you can hear an interviewer off-camera ask a question typical of the film's polished results: "How good is he?"), but it's at least truthful as a documentary about a musician, not a ball player. A.C. Green, Sam Perkins, Jordan and Tisdale's coaches are present and accounting for Tisdale's unprecedented finesse and success in basketball, but they each acknowledge that what Tisdale played best was jazz.
Pro athletes dabbling in music, of course, have enjoyed little success. Acclaimed bassist Marcus Miller recalls his reaction to Tisdale seeking his advice on recording: "I thought, oh that's cute. He's gonna make a little demo or something to hand to his teammates." Later, after Tisdale has been hand-picked by legendary producer Ahmet Ertegun and signed to Atlantic Records, Miller -- along with musicians Jonathan Butler, Dave Koz, even fellow Okie Toby Keith -- is rhapsodizing in awe of Tisdale's playing and writing.
Tisdale made nine albums (four of them No. 1 on Billboard's jazz chart) of supple "smooth jazz," not usually worthy of that genre's pejorative connotations. His playing was unique out of necessity. As this film documents, Tisdale couldn't find a left-handed bass when he was jamming in his bedroom as a boy, so he simply took a regular bass and flipped it over. The reversed position of the high and low strings required him to play with greater pluck than many bassists.
Near the end of the film, we see Tisdale accepting an award for his music. The power forward who won a gold medal in 1984 and once scored 61 points a game is now walking with a cane. The cancer killed him in 2009 at age 44, but here we see Tisdale -- smiling, of course -- saying some appropriate final words: "I'm just glad I was able to make you happy."
• "The Wayman Tisdale Story" screens as part of the Chicago Northshore Film Festival at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln Ave. in Skokie, followed by a Q&A with producer/editor Hunter Seamons. Tickets: $10. Call (847) 677-7761; skokietheatre.com. The film and its soundtrack arrive Nov. 22 from Rendezvous Music/Mack Avenue.
• "The Wayman Tisdale Story" also will air on TV, first at 8 p.m. Thursday on the NBA TV cable channel, then at 10 p.m. Dec. 27 on Chicago's WTTW.