TULSA — Live jazz music. People clapping, shouting to the preacher and swaying to gospel tunes. A casket taken 3 miles to the city’s downtown arena by horse-drawn carriage.
This is a funeral for Wayman Tisdale, the way the former University of Oklahoma basketball star and popular jazz musician would have wanted it done.
About 4,000 people, including former NBA players, pop musicians and former coaches, packed an arena here Thursday for an hours-long, spirited public memorial honoring Tisdale, who died last week after a long battle with cancer. He was 44.
“Wayman lived a blessed life,” said Billy Tubbs, Tisdale’s former OU coach. “He did more in his 44 years than most people can do in 88 years.”
Country music star and fellow Oklahoman Toby Keith played the Willie Nelson tune, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” in tribute. He said he wrote a song about Tisdale, but couldn’t get through it because of the emotion of the day.
“We had so many big plans,” Keith told mourners. “Every time I tried to say goodbye to him, he never let me.”
Former NBA players Charles Smith, Rory Sparrow and John Starks also paid their respects to the 6-foot-9 forward with a soft, left-handed touch.
“He, in my opinion, was the first athlete to really put Tulsa on the map,” said Starks, who is also from Tulsa. “Wayman was a person I looked up to and admired.”
Tisdale was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma who played 12 seasons in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns.
Jazz musician Dave Koz, who worked on three of Tisdale’s albums, ticked off a list of memorable things about his friend: “that big, bald head, goofy laughs, those big, huge feet with those basketball toes, those big bites he took out of life and his sandwiches.”
“I miss you, dear friend, but I’m so thankful to have had you in my life,” Koz said. “I’m a better man because I knew Wayman Tisdale. Forty-four years is not a long time, but he packed a lot in.”
With most celebrities comes an invisible wall to keep the public from taking too many pieces of that person, but not with Tisdale, explained musician Marcus Miller.
“I’ve seen Wayman signing autographs with a chicken wing in one hand in the middle of dinner,” Miller joked.
The morning’s service began with Tisdale’s casket being taken 3 miles by horse-drawn carriage from the funeral parlor to the downtown arena.
Once inside, pallbearers stepped to the beat of jazz music played on stage by Tisdale’s band, and the casket gently swayed from one side of shoulders to the other. Attendees rose to their feet, clapped and shouted.
Leading the pallbearers, a man wearing white gloves held a basketball above his head as he slowly marched to the stage, in step with the music. He placed the ball on a stand on the stage, and the casket followed.
A day earlier, hundreds of mourners packed a small north-Tulsa church to pay last respects to Tisdale.
Some waited more than two hours in line to catch a final glimpse of Tisdale in the open casket.
Tisdale’s high school classmate Lisa Miles fought back tears while explaining why she came Thursday morning.
“He was a big teddy bear,” Miles said. “Always there to hug you, always had a good word to say.
“He was a beautiful man,” she said.
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.