Lot’s of good Joe Tait pieces these past couple days, as the Cleveland legend will broadcast his final Cavaliers game tonight against the Washington Wizards. A lot of the same themes keep popping up (HINT: Joe Tait was really good at his job).
What I loved about Tait was that no matter when you tuned into the game, it wasn’t long before you knew the important things. He told you the score. He told you who was in foul trouble. He told you who was hot and who was not hitting shots. All you had to do was listen. Joe took care of the rest.
I always appreciated Joe’s call of the game but never realized how good he was until I moved to Wyoming. It was then that I had the chance to listen to other sports radio broadcasters, either on the long drives from Ohio, or while picking up stations out of Denver and Salt Lake City.
I remember thinking that other play-by-play men didn’t give the score nearly enough. I remember how I often wondered how much time was left in a game. I remember getting frustrated about the fact that sometimes, the people calling the game seemed less interested in their listeners than hearing themselves talk.
These guys, I thought, are no Joe.
When it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a blind person’s face light up you really really know. It was the heart of the Lenny Wilkens era; Daugherty, Nance, Price, the golden age of Richfield. Kathleen’s folks would get her good seats so she could hear and feel the vibrations on the court, which was plenty as long as she had her headphones and Joe Tait.
Kathleen’s mother’s face lit up too when Joe Tait was mentioned, and it’s one way a ten-year-old learns to stop taking play-by-play men for granted.
Who can really say what that kind of lesson in adaptability means to a ten-year-old; To see in that kind of way that not being the fastest-running or most popular kid in your class, or having stupid parents who only let you play Nintendo for as long as you practiced piano might just be things you could work with. Who can really say whether Tait would have grown into the legend he’s become had he not spent the better part of his career working for a blind man (longtime Cavs owner Gordon Gund). Who can’t wonder if Kathleen would have cared much about the Cavs at all if it wasn’t for Tait. What even bigger jerks we might be.
Joe Tait might be the best basketball play-by-play man I have ever heard.
I would listen to his radio broadcasts of the Cavaliers and see the movement on the court, related by Tait in a concise, no-frills style. He was a constant textbook for would-be sportscasters.
The book closes tonight, when Tait does his last game for the Cavaliers. It is not the glorious ending you might have wanted for him. A Cavs victory tonight will end a nightmarish season of just 19 wins, the worst performance in the Eastern Conference.
But Tait is no stranger to tough times for the team or himself. Health problems kept him off the air most of this season. His longevity — the voice of the Cavaliers for most of the past 41 years — is all the more remarkable considering how often he seemed to think his career was over. I remember him wondering about his job prospects in a speech in 1997.
Of course, as affable as he could sound at times, Tait was also known for biting, brutal opinions expressed in as few words as he needed to describe play on the court.
He never saw himself as part of the game. He was just someone to tell the fans about the game. That’s what made him a Hall of Fame broadcaster.
About an hour before the game, Tait sat quietly in The Q radio room. He was waiting for Byron Scott to arrive so they could tape the pregame coach’s show.
Tait had just left the Cavs Legends, inspiring him to tell stories.
“In our second season [1971-72], to save money on the road, the team rented three station wagons to transport the players instead of a bus,” he said. “I drove one. [Assistant coach] Jimmy Rodgers drove one, and Bill Fitch drove the third with the rookies. We had just gotten blown out in Cincinnati, and I was driving Bingo Smith and a few other guys back to the hotel.”
“Suddenly, Bingo starts crying,” Tait said. “I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘Joe, are we ever going to win another game?’ I felt so bad for him.”
Those first expansion seasons were much like this one as the Cavs took the court with a 17-61 record Friday. They were 15-67, then 23-59. In his 39 seasons, the Cavs had only 18 winning records. Only eight times did they reach the second round of the playoffs.
I really can’t stress enough how good of a job Tait did. He’d always tell you the time, the score, who has the ball and he’d update their stats throughout the night. I know it sounds basic (and, really, it is basic) but it’s so brutaly important to understanding what’s going on in the game (often times you aren’t listening to the entire ballgame, you’re just turning in for the trip to the store or what have you, so those updates are needed).
Here’s the piece I wrote for the Cavs Zine; the goal was to upload the actual zine (because it looked amazing) but alas, I suck and can’t find my copy, so I’ll just post the article. And by the way, look for another Cavs Zine to start next season… whenever that happens to occur.
On Joe Tait – By Ben Cox
“It’s basketball time here at the Richfield Coliseum.”
Joe Tait has been the voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly as long as there’s been a thing called the “Cleveland Cavaliers”. Hired in 1970 by first owner Nick Mileti in order to make the putrid expansion-Cavs sound exciting and not-quite-as-putrid (on the recommendation of Coach Bill Fitch, no less), Tait has been with the Cavaliers for all but two of their 41 seasons. Tait did year each with the Nets and the Bulls during the Ted Stephien era (if you think the Dolans are bad owners…) before returning to Cleveland for good when Gordon Gun bought the franchise. Joe did Indians games on television during the 70s and 80s (he got to call Len Barker’s perfect game), calls football games for Mount Union Purple Raiders and has worked over 3,000 games for the Cavaliers.
Often times, the work he did in the broadcast booth was better than the product on the field. I can’t even begin to imagine how many bad sporting events Tait has seen in person. The run of the Cavaliers franchise is riddled with more valleys than peaks (valleys were usually quite bleak and the peaks tended to end in heartbreak) and those Indians teams were equally awful. These were teams, fans and a city that needed Joe Tait.
Like anyone who has grown up a Cavs fan, I grew up with Tait. In the late 80s and early 90s we grew up listening to Joe Tait call games with Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Craig Ehlo, Larry Nance, Hot Rod Williams and Lenny Wilkens. No one questioned a star Cavalier’s effort or desire to win. It was an easy time easy to fall in love with basketball. And having Joe Tait call the games certainly didn’t hurt.
Growing up without cable television (the horror!) meant that I could only catch the Cavs when they were on national television (not often) or on Channel 43 (a good chunk of these games came during the West Coast trips, which were past my bedtime). So if I wanted to know how the Cavs were doing, like every other kid in Cleveland I got my info via the radio and Joe Tait. I loved listening to Joe.
When Joe calls a play, you know exactly what happened:
“Price dribbles the ball over the time line, into the forecourt, on the right wing. Goes left, hands the ball to Nance, back to Price, over to Ehlo, three-ball from the corner…. GOOD”
Not only do you know the basics like who has the ball and who just scored, but Joe added in all kinds of little things (court placement, defenders and the like). Growing up, I always knew that Tait was, you know, good but I never really knew how much so until I heard a national broadcast of a Bulls-Jazz Finals.
“Stockton brings the ball up, passes to Malone, back to Stockton, jumper…. No good”
What? That’s it? I took it for granted that other basketball announcers called the game similar to Tait. Turns out, not everyone tells you that your team was heading “left to right on your radio dial” and lets you in on the little things like where the players are on the court.
Back in the day, (before Janet Jackson’s nipple murdered 13 children during that horrendous Superbowl massacre), my dad and I were able to sync up the national broadcasts with the radio, so we could have Joe describe the action rather than sit through three hours of Bob Costas waxing poetic about Michael Jordan. Now that all live events on TV are just a little delayed (lest it happen again!), the radio no longer syncs up with the video and I’m forced to endure the likes of Mark Anthony for an entire playoff game.
Joe not only calls a good game, but he doesn’t mince words (he won’t hesitate to criticize a Cavalier or praise a good play by an opposing player) and he’s actually really funny, in a cranky-old-man kind of way. I literally laugh out loud when a ref stops the game and a clearly grumpy Tait groans “Now what?” I love when he pontificates on the refs (“Folks, I don’t know what Joey Crawford is thinking right now….”) and how enthusiastic he gets when it’s time to push DiGorno’s Pizza (If Joe says he had it for Thanksgiving dinner, by God, I believe him. The man loves his pizza). Joe is good natured good natured guy and can also take joke, being the only person I’m aware of who doesn’t have a bobble head doll, but a “bobble belly” doll (Joe is not a thin man).
Terry Pluto once asked readers to send him emails for Tait (a noted technophobe) and he’d pass ‘em along. I happily obliged, writing to Tait and saying much how much I enjoyed listening to him throughout my youth. A few weeks later, I received a hand written letter in the mail from Joe, referencing my letter and thanking me for the kind words. That’s pretty awesome, no? Tait didn’t have to go out of his way to do that.
With the advent of Tivo and the proliferation of the internet, I didn’t have to rely on Tait during the LeBron years. But I’m not the only one who missed out; Joe has stated in interviews that LeBron never had one conversation with him during his time as a Cavalier. How does that even happen? Seven years, not one conversation. Not surprisingly, Tait was pretty candid with his thoughts on LeBron’s decision, telling Pluto:
It was an embarrassment to everyone involved — the league, ESPN, LeBron, everyone. Making it worse, they didn’t even know it was an embarrassment.
Can’t say I disagree.
I feel a bit bad that Joe’s final season is the first one post-LeBron. The team is in no mans land; too good to get a high draft pick, but not good enough to compete for the title. Stuck in the middle. While it’s certainly not the worst team that Joe has presided over (let us not forget the Diop-era) it’s obvious that Joe will never call a Finals win for the Wine and Gold.
Joe’s retiring at age 73, a Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest member of the Cavs organization. He’s seen every era of Cavs basketball and he relayed what he saw, good or bad, to generations of Cavalier fans. He’s one of a kind and he will be missed. What Joe does is a lost art, the one man radio broadcast. Joe’s been by himself in that booth and he leaves you both informed and entertained. You can’t ask for anything more.
“Have a GOODnight, everybody.”
We’ll miss ya, Joe.
(also: “The team is in no mans land; too good to get a high draft pick, but not good enough to compete for the title. Stuck in the middle.” What the fuck was I thinking?!)