Karen Morrison drove to the Friendship Baptist Church two hours early, but swore to herself she wasn’t going inside. She didn’t want her memories shattered.
“I want to remember that smile,” she said, sobbing. “That smile.”
The smile belonged to former Oklahoma basketball star and popular jazz musician Wayman Tisdale, who died in his hometown last week after a long battle with cancer.
“My belief is he’s resting,” said Morrison, who knew Tisdale while she was a junior in high school, “when he was still a nobody.”
Morrison was among dozens of mourners who waited outside the small north Tulsa church on Wednesday to pay their last respects to Tisdale, a three-time All-American at Oklahoma who played 12 seasons in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers, the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns.
Tisdale will be buried Thursday, after a public memorial service at the downtown BOK Center, a venue that holds about 18,000. He died Friday at 44.
Inside the chapel, Tisdale’s jazz music played over speakers. The open casket was surrounded by photos of his basketball and musical careers, and a guitar was inside.
Ray Jean Knight, a resident of nearby Sand Springs, said when Wayman was playing that guitar in church, “it was like there was an angel from heaven”
Before Wednesday’s public viewing, some people sat on car bumpers and paced sidewalks for more than two hours before the church doors opened. Nearby streets were clogged with cars.
Mourners came from Tulsa, from Fort Worth, Texas, and Conway, Ark., among other places.
They dressed in Converse sneakers and wing-tips, two-piece suits and basketball jerseys and formed a line dozens strong down the block. Hundreds were expected by afternoon’s end, church directors estimated.
These are some of the memories recalled Wednesday about Tisdale, a man many here called one of Tulsa’s favorite sons: The famous guitar player still humble enough to play in church in front of the elder women, who helped raise him; the loyal husband and father who didn’t let fame and fortune come between him and his community and that magnificent smile, powerful enough “to open a can,” Morrison joked.
It was bittersweet, too, for Shirley Hall, a nurse who works at the hospital where Tisdale died.
“It’s just been totally overwhelming,” she said. “For me, I go to sleep and wake up Wayman. It’s happy and sad.”
Tulsa resident Dannie Luckey called him a “gift from God,” and described his successful careers in basketball and music.
“Ain’t nothing you can sneeze at,” he said.
After three years at Oklahoma, the 6-foot-9 forward with a soft left-handed touch on the court averaged 15.3 points in his NBA career. He was on the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.
As a musician, Tisdale recorded eight albums. A bass guitarist who often wrote his own material, his most recent album, “Rebound,” was inspired by his fight with cancer and included guest appearances by several artists, including saxophonist Dave Koz and country star and fellow Oklahoma native Toby Keith.
His “Way Up!” release debuted in July 2006 and spent four weeks as the No. 1 contemporary jazz album. His hits included “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” “Can’t Hide Love” and “Don’t Take Your Love Away.”
Tisdale learned he had cancerous cyst below his right knee after breaking his leg in a fall at his home in Los Angeles in 2007. He said then he was fortunate to have discovered the cancer early.
His leg was amputated last August and a prosthetic leg that he wore was crimson, one of Oklahoma’s colors.
Later Wednesday, Karen Morrison came out of the chapel with tears in her eyes.
She decided to go through with it and pay her final respects.
“No smile,” Morrison said of seeing Tisdale a final time. “It took my smile away.”