When Brooklyn, N.Y., native Jamaal Tinsley arrived on the Iowa State campus in the fall of 1999, expectations for the Iowa State men’s basketball program were at an all-time low. So-called experts and college basketball prognosticators had unanimously picked the Cyclones to finish in the Big 12 basement.
At the time, head coach Larry Eustachy was entering his second season at the helm and Iowa State was looking to rebound after a 15-15 campaign in 1998-99.
Eustachy had brought in Tinsley from Mount San Jacinto Community College to assume point guard duties for 1999-2000. Although he was a two-time All-California Community College selection, the preseason pollsters were picking against him and the rest of the unknown Cyclones. However, by the time he was set to leave Ames in the spring of 2001, there wasn’t a basketball coach, writer or analyst who hadn’t heard of Tinsley and his exploits as a Cyclone.
Tinsley was truly a basketball magician and consummate point guard who looked to find the open man before scoring. Tinsley’s uncanny ballhandling and passing abilities broke down opposing defenses and made on-ball defenders literally fall down trying to stop him. During his two seasons as Iowa State’s floor general, Tinsley was the catalyst for the two most successful teams in ISU history. Whether finding an open man for an easy dunk or juking a defender and taking it to the rim himself, Tinsley always came through in the clutch.
He earned personal acclaim for his outstanding play. He was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in 2000 and earned Big 12 Player of the Year accolades in 2001. He was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection and a first-team All-American in 2001.
But perhaps Tinsley’s biggest and most important legacy as a Cyclone was his impact on winning. In his two years in Ames, the Cyclones won back-to-back Big 12 regular-season titles, claimed a Big 12 tournament championship and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first and only time in the modern era.
He was 57-11 as ISU’s starting point guard, including an unblemished 34-0 record in Hilton Coliseum.
It’s been 15 years since Tinsley last dribbled a basketball in Hilton Coliseum, but he will be back. The Cyclone legend is among eight former Cyclone greats being inducted into the 2016 Iowa State Athletics Hall of Fame on Sept. 23.
Cyclones.com had the chance to talk with Tinsley on his memories of Iowa State.
After spending two seasons in the California Community College system, Tinsley had quietly slid under the national radar in regards of the national recruiting circles. Tinsley had become a New York playground legend while competing at the famed Rucker Park in his high school days. He earned the moniker “The Abuser” for his playground exploits, joining the likes of Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving who honed their skills on the famous court. Tinsley would be the first to admit he didn’t enjoy school and eventually dropped out of high school all but ending his chance for collegiate glory. A persistent mentor convinced him he needed to get his GED. He did, allowing him to be eligible to compete at Mount San Jacinto Community College. Word started to spread about this player with a ridiculous handle and court vision tucked away in the mountains of Southern California. Eustachy and assistant coach Steve Barnes were both California natives and had a ton of contacts in the area, including the head coach at MSJCC, John Chambers. Chambers called Eustachy and told him, “I’ve got the best point guard I’ve seen in 20 years.” Eustachy listened and brought him in on a visit. Visiting Ames for the first time, Tinsley witnessed the Cyclones get destroyed at home to Missouri, 77-61 on national television. He saw a coach light up his team at halftime and he saw a team in dire need of a point guard. He made his decision before he left town. He was going to be a Cyclone.
From all indications it seemed like you knew Iowa State was the place for you when you came on your visit to Ames. What was your first visit to Ames like?
JT: I had five schools in mind (UNLV, TCU and Clemson were other potential landing spots). Iowa State was my last visit, and I wanted to start from the bottom. I knew the situation they were in and I had heard about the atmosphere in Hilton Coliseum before I arrived on campus. I remember Iowa State was playing Missouri and they got blown out, but I just felt like I was already a part of the team. I called my mom, rest in peace, that I was going to choose Iowa State. I didn’t take another visit after that.
As Tinsley was about to enter his first season in a Cyclone uniform, tales were being told about this player with a Marques Haynes-like handle. Cyclone legend Gary Thompson witnessed a preseason practice and couldn’t believe his eyes. He could do things with the basketball that he had never seen in his 40 years covering the game. Eustachy noted, “I’ve seen him do some unbelievable things. Some of the things he tries, if he tried them 1,000 times, he’d complete about 130. The other 870 would hit the ref in the head. But, you can’t take away his creativity and his love for the game. It’s what makes him so good.” Unlike other players, Tinsley didn’t mind a small space between him and his defender. In fact, he thrived on players bodying him up where he could use his strength, hand-eye coordination and ballhandling to get around you. Perhaps former Missouri star Kareem Rush said it best when he made this comment after one of his battles against Tinsley, “He doesn’t beat you so much with his quickness but rather his ballhandling. The things he does with the ball in his hands are amazing. You really can’t prepare for some of his passes.”
You are remembered for your outstanding ballhandling and passing skills. How did you develop that skill and perfect it through the years?
JT: It started at (P.S.) 305 and learning to play at the public schools in Brooklyn. You play in countless neighborhood games and you learn to survive. As I got older, I always kept on dribbling the ball, just trying new stuff in games and in practice. The more I got comfortable, the more I just kept doing it in games. I always felt like I was always able to penetrate and get around my defender. Having that basketball skill with the ball, I had an advantage on people. Sometimes it took time for players to get used to my style, but as you play basketball, players will adapt. Guys will either watch the game or watch you. I was fortunate enough to play with certain guys that were able to do both. Sometimes I had turnovers, but most of the time I was able to make a play.
Tinsley didn’t have to be the star of the 1999-2000 team, because the Cyclones already had one in Marcus Fizer. Fizer was coming off a season where he was named First Team All-Big 12 and was a budding All-American. Fizer played his first two seasons at Iowa State without a true point guard and Tinsley was the right fit for Fizer’s play in the post. It was a perfect match.
Your first season you had an All-American in Marcus Fizer as a teammate. What was it like to play with a forward of his caliber?
JT: I figured out how good he was right away. I knew what he was capable of doing, and I knew what I could bring to the table. I always felt like I could get the ball to anybody on the court, at any position on the court. I just tried to pick spots to get him easy shots. And I told him we could make each other’s jobs easier by just working together.
It took the Cyclones a little while to gain steam with Tinsley manning the controls in his first season at Iowa State. A hiccup at Drake raised many doubts early, but the Cyclones were 12-2 heading into Big 12 Conference play. Inside the huddle the team know this could be an outstanding and special season.
When did you get the sense that the 1999-2000 Cyclone squad was a special team?
JT: It was just a learning process. For me, being in a real structured environment, playing for a demanding coach, a great coach, like Larry Eustachy, was a change. We were focused on playing as a team and knowing that eventually things would turn around. We knew that there would be some ups and downs, and we played through it. Some days were better than others, but as long as we competed on the defensive end, we were going to give ourselves a chance to win ball games. That’s what we relied on.
In your first Big 12 Conference game (Missouri) you tallied just the second triple-double in school history and the first by a Big 12 player against a conference foe. What do you remember about that game?
JT: I just remember being in the atmosphere of hearing 15,000 fans screaming and making noise. I always thrived off of that. The more I hear people make noise, the more fun it would be for me and I could be more comfortable and show my talent.
Everything started to click in Big 12 play. The Cyclones were virtually unstoppable, losing only twice, both in overtime games on the road. Players were starting to get used to Tinsley’s style and were prepared for a swift pass at any moment. To sum up the “Tinsley effect” on the 1999-2000 team all you need to do is peruse the field goal percentages of Cyclone players prior to Tinsley’s arrival. For example, Fizer shot 46.1 percent from the field before teaming with Tinsley and shot 58.2 percent with Tinsley feeding him in the post. A better example is Stevie Johnson. Johnson was a 46.6 percent shooter in his first three years as a Cyclone. He then led the Big 12 in field goal percentage as a senior at 66.3 percent behind a plethora of passes from Tinsley which led to easy dunks and lay-ins. Great point guards make great post players, as Tinsley broke ISU’s school record for assists in a season with 244, a record he still owns.
How much pride did you take in setting your teammates up for easy baskets?
JT: As a point guard, as a real point guard, you can’t just credit yourself, you got to credit the other guys who get in good position for you and run the floor for you. And as a true point guard, that’s your job to make other people better and get them in the right position. They also have to be willing to run up and down the court. I had a bunch of guys that ran the court like you are supposed to. It made everyone’s jobs easier.
Winning the Big 12 regular-season and conference titles were huge accomplishments. Looking back, how special was that for you?
JT: It meant a lot because when I first got there, no one was really talking about us. They had us picked low or last, if I’m not mistaken, and as a player that motivates you. We knew how hard we practiced and what we were capable of doing as a team, but nobody else knew. So, we always liked to be the underdog, and as we got better, people started to realize that we were a good team. Playing in Hilton was awesome. I really miss those days. Sometimes I’ll watch games now and it will remind me how great those years were at Iowa State. There’s (Hilton Coliseum) nothing like it.
After helping ISU win its first conference regular-season title in 55 years and its second post-season conference tournament crown in school history, Tinsley and the Cyclones were ready for the NCAA Tournament. Now ranked in the nation’s top-10 for the first time, ISU was a dark horse pick to go far in the tournament. Fizer earned All-America honors and was the Big 12 Player of the Year. Tinsley was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, National Newcomer of the Year (Basketball Times) and joined Fizer on the Big 12’s first-team all-conference squad. Tinsley, who also broke the school record for steals in a season with 98, was now about to showcase his skills on a grander scale. He opened NCAA Tournament play with a then-career-high 26 points vs. Central Connecticut State. After another solid performance in a win over Auburn, The Cyclones moved on to the Sweet Sixteen to face perennial power UCLA. Facing off against some of his old AAU foes, Tinsley put on a clinic, helping the Cyclones demolish the Bruins, 80-56 in one of the greatest single-game performances by a Cyclone in NCAA Tournament history. Tinsley fell one rebound shy of a triple-double with 14 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. On to the Elite Eight and top-seeded Michigan State.
Many Cyclone fans remember the UCLA game. You were phenomenal with a near triple-double and there was a lot of talk before and during the game between the teams. What are your memories from that game?
JT: As a player from New York like myself, I always had a chip on my shoulder. And coming to a school like Iowa State, that may not be considered a top program and going against a blue-blood program, I was motivated even more. We heard some things they were saying, but we knew we could beat them. We just had to do what we do best on the defensive end. On all of the talking, I grew up like that. Guys talking smack, that played right into what we wanted. So at the end of the day, I knew we had an advantage on them.
With a trip to the Final Four at stake, Tinsley poured in 18 points against No. 2 Michigan State. ISU held a 59-52 lead with 5:49 remaining in the game, but a couple of controversial calls down the stretch allowed the Spartans to rally and derail ISU’s magical season. Tinsley was now the talk of the nation with an outstanding post-season run where he averaged 17.5 points, 6.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.75 steals and 1.3 blocks in four NCAA Tournament games. As the ringleader of ISU’s school-record 32 wins, Tinsley now had an important decision to make. Should he turn pro and make himself eligible for the NBA Draft, or stay in school and further improve his game?
How close were you to turning pro after your junior season and what was your decision in returning?
JT: I knew I was coming back. I never even thought about it. It was so different for me not playing high school basketball. I got a little taste in junior college, and I liked that. Now I am at an even better environment at Iowa State, so I didn’t want to leave. I never thought about leaving after my junior year.
Tinsley stayed busy in the summer prior to his senior year. He was the leader of the Big 12 All-Star team which went 5-1 in its six-game tour of Austria. He averaged 12.5 points and 5.0 assists. At the beginning of the school year, Tinsley was named to the United States Select team, a squad of collegiate all-stars formed to play exhibition games against the United States Olympic team as it prepared for the 2000 Olympics. He gained even more experience by going head-to-head against established NBA stars like Jason Kidd, Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton and Ray Allen.
How much did your experience playing with the U.S. Select team help you prior to your senior season?
JT: It helped a lot, but unfortunately I was hurt and had put on a little weight, so I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted to. But just being there and learning, and playing against guys like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton, I learned a lot.
Despite Tinsley’s return, expectations were again moderate for the Cyclones in 2000-01. ISU lost All-American Fizer to the NBA and standouts Johnson and Michael Nurse to graduation. ISU did return Kantrail Horton, Paul Shirley and Martin Rancik, but the thought of Iowa State repeating as Big 12 champions was outlandish to say the least. Never count out Jamaal Tinsley, who was usually the best player on the court when the ball tipped.
Not many people thought you could repeat as Big 12 champions in your senior year. How satisfying was it to prove everybody wrong once again?
JT: I got to give it up to our coaching staff. Playing for a guy like Coach Eustachy, who demands so much out of you, was just a blessing. No matter if you’re the 12th-man or the best player, he would ride everybody the same. That’s what I respected about him as a man and as a coach, because not once did he treat anybody differently on the court. He always treated everybody the same. We knew we had a chance to repeat, even though we lost one of our key players in Marcus. We knew that we were tough-minded. And being a tough-minded team, we knew we had an advantage over teams that were weak. We took that into consideration and went out there and gave it our all.
The Cyclones stumbled out of the gates at the beginning of the 2001 Big 12 slate. ISU stood at 2-2 with a pivotal road game at Nebraska. ISU’s two losses took extra periods, including a four-overtime thriller at Missouri where ISU ran out of gas after Tinsley fouled out. The Nebraska game looked bleak. Despite 23 points from Tinsley, ISU trailed 59-58 with :00.8 seconds remaining, but still had one last chance with an in-bound play from the sideline. Eustachy drew up a play, but Tinsley (the in-bounder) had a hunch he could hit Martin Rancik, who was stationed at the free-throw line, cutting to the basket for a tip-in. It worked, as Tinsley delivered a perfect pass to Rancik who laid the ball in before the buzzer sounded to give ISU a critical 60-59 victory.
One of the biggest games of your senior season was the win over Nebraska on the road. Can you talk us through final play where you hit Rancik for the lay-in?
JT: You know what’s funny? I just watched that game the other day on YouTube. Well first off, I went to the hole and got my shot blocked out of bounds with under a second left. Coach (Eustachy) drew up a play for Jake Sullivan to come off a pick, but I knew that they were going to hedge out on him. I told Martin to slip off the screen. He slipped it, got wide open, and I made the play. I think that turned the season around for us. That made us really start believing. We were struggling knowing that we didn’t have a guy like Marcus Fizer to rely on. That game showed that we could go through adversity and bounce back from it.
One of the many reasons Tinsley is so endeared by Cyclone fans was his fearlessness, especially going against the top programs in the nation. He never backed down against any opponent, including Kansas, a team he never lost to with a 4-0 record. Not many players in college basketball can brag about a perfect record against the Jayhawks, including two wins in Allen Fieldhouse. Heading into his final game at Allen Fieldhouse in his senior season, a reporter asked Tinsley about the toughest places to play in the league. His answer was this; “Nowhere for me. The crowd doesn’t bother me. I remember watching KU games on TV and it seemed like it was hard to play there. But once I got there, it was just another gym.”
You are remembered for one of the most famous quotes in school history when you referred to Allen Fieldhouse as “just another gym.” You never lost to Kansas, but what was your mindset when you made that statement?
JT: Well, where I was brought up playing basketball, if you got scared, you got hurt. Guys played for their lives on the courts. Games went to 15 and would sometimes last about two hours. Now, in college, basketball was fun. Basketball is fun no matter what, but going into a college atmosphere like Kansas and hearing all of the riff-raff, it was like a piece of cake compared to the streets of Brooklyn. No offense to Kansas, but it was my background that had a lot to do with my statement.
The Kansas game in Hilton Coliseum in 2001 (Feb. 17) was a perfect example of Tinsley’s impact on a game. ISU was 9-2 in league play and the winner would likely seize control of the conference race. The stage was set with a nationally-televised CBS audience and Tinsley didn’t disappoint. Despite going 1-for-13 from the field, he dominated the game in every other facet. He had 11 assists, six steals and only turned the ball over twice to lead the Cyclones to a key 79-71 victory. Some of Tinsley’s passes in the victory were astonishing, including a behind-the-back wraparound to Jake Sullivan, who buried a 3-pointer and sent the Hilton Coliseum crowd into a frenzy.
The win over Kansas at home in your senior season gave Iowa State the upper hand in the conference race. What were some of your memories from that game?
JT: Well first of all, I never let my offense dictate my game. If I’m having a bad shooting game, I could always do something else to help my team win. And as a point guard, sometimes you go through that. As a true point guard, you got to control the game and make sure you get a good shot every time down the floor. You have to always think about managing the clock and do what you do best in controlling the situations to make sure that your best shooters get good shots. I felt I did that against Kansas that day.
Iowa State had its sights on a second-straight Big 12 Championship with two home games left on the schedule. After beating Texas Tech, ISU had Nebraska in the season-finale to clinch the outright title. The game was a slugfest, as the Cyclones held a slim 72-69 lead with 3:20 remaining. It was now Tinsley time. The senior literally willed his team to victory by scoring 10 of ISU’s final 14 points to help the Cyclones win and secure their second-straight Big 12 crown. Tinsley ended the game with a career-high 29 points. It was time to celebrate, this time in front of the sold-out Hilton Coliseum crowd.
Iowa State clinched its second regular-season title with a win over Nebraska in the home-finale. You had 29 points and willed the team to victory. Nobody thought you could repeat. What do you remember about that game?
JT: Like I said before, I have to tip my hat to my coaching staff because they never allowed us to let up. The coaching staff always wanted us to put the foot on the gas. If you’re not playing good, Coach is going to sub you out. It’s not about making shots, it’s about playing hard. So knowing that, you didn’t have anything to lose because you should play the game the right way. It felt good to do something we hadn’t done in a while. To win back-to-back titles, that meant a lot to me and it still does.
Although Tinsley and the Cyclones made an early exit from both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments that season, the 25 wins was the second-best single-season total in school history at the time. Tinsley earned First-Team All-America honors, was voted Big 12 Conference Player of the Year and was named Associated Press’ Runner-Up National Player of the Year. Tinsley led the team in scoring (14.3), assists (6.0), steals (2.5) and blocks (0.6). With his individual stats and honors, Tinsley will always be considered one of the greatest players in school history. However, his legacy at Iowa State will always be solidified by being a winner. He helped ISU forge its longest homecourt winning streak in school history (it ended at 39 games in the fourth home game of the 2001-02 season) and he was a two-time Big 12 champion.
Perhaps your biggest legacy is going 34-0 at home in your two years at Hilton Coliseum. Has it ever dawned on you how impressive that record is?
JT: Well, that’s home (Hilton Coliseum). You always want to protect your home. You never want to let games get away from you at home. You always want to protect the cookie jar. We were fortunate enough to win a lot of games at home, and that gave us a good opportunity to go out and win a lot of games on the road, too.
Tinsley was the 27th pick of the NBA Draft and recently retired from a successful 11-year career in the NBA where he scored 4,652 points and dished out 3,330 assists.
You recently retired from the NBA. What are some of your future plans?
JT: Actually, I’m trying to get into coaching right now. I am playing in another league with former NBA players (The Basketball Tournament). I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m at 175 pounds for the first time since I was at Iowa State, so I’m in great shape. I have that going, but I want to get into coaching, though.
Do you still have a chance to follow Iowa State?
JT: Yeah, I check the scores out. I follow Iowa State on Twitter and Instagram and all of that stuff.
What does it mean to you be inducted into the Iowa State hall of fame.
JT: It means a lot to be inducted into the hall of fame. That’s very special for me knowing where I came from and how hard it was for me to get there. It’s just a blessing. I’m very excited to be back in Ames. I have a lot of good memories Iowa State, moments I will always treasure.