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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Joe Tait: A Cleveland Treasure Recalls a Lifetime Spent Behind the Microphone

The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won an NBA title and have only made one trip to the NBA Finals during their 41 season existence, so Joe Tait--who handled both the radio play by play and color jobs for most of that four decade march of futility--is not as nationally known to casual fans as Chick Hearn and Johnny Most, the long-time voices of the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics respectively. However, Tait is more than just a beloved Northeast Ohio broadcaster; his skills have been repeatedly recognized by his peers: he has received numerous regional and national media honors, including the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Even fans who know about Tait's long, distinguished career as a Cavs broadcaster may not realize how many other sports Tait has covered, including Major League Baseball, minor league hockey, college football and indoor soccer. Joe Tait: It's been a real ball not only describes Tait's life and career but also provides a brief, entertaining history of the Cleveland sports scene circa 1970-2011. Tait initially resisted the idea of writing a book and when he finally agreed to participate in the project he refused to turn it into "one of those tell-all things where you pick up the rocks and look for toads." Tait also did not want the book to be in the first person voice, so he selected Terry Pluto to be his co-author. Pluto is one of America's most decorated sportswriters; he has written 27 books, including Loose Balls--a highly regarded oral history of the ABA--and LeBron James: The Making of an MVP, a concise but informative history of James' career prior to the infamous "Decision." Pluto skillfully weaves together a multilayered narrative that includes comments not just from Tait but also from fans, co-workers and former players.

Tait's story begins not in Ohio--he was born and raised in Illinois--and not with sports or broadcasting but with trains; he has been fascinated by trains since his childhood, perhaps because several relatives worked in the railroad business. Young Joe loved to ride the trains and he loved to sit by the tracks watching the trains; to this day he still collects information about--and, when possible, tries to see in person--old trains and old railroad tracks. He shared this interest with his father, though Joe also has some less than pleasant memories of a man who he calls "a real disciplinarian."

As a child, Marv Albert made up statistics and imaginary leagues long before fantasy sports became a huge business--and Tait did the same kind of thing as a youngster. In fact, Tait spent so much time alone in his room focused on "broadcasting" pretend sporting events that his father actually sent him to be evaluated by a psychologist, who concluded that Tait had "a vivid imagination" but no mental problems.

That "vivid imagination" compensated for the harsh reality that Tait--despite his best efforts and despite being a tall, big kid--was not particularly good at any sport. He tried his hand at football, basketball and baseball without much success and candidly admits, "Sports broadcasting gave me the outlet that I never would have had as a player." Tait grew up in the 1950s and did not even see a television set until he was 12; his first goal was not to be a broadcaster but rather to be a sportswriter, which makes sense considering that he spent his formative years in an era when print was king, television was in its infancy and the internet had yet to be created.

Tait's broadcasting career began at Monmouth College. He did a 15 minute sports show that did not even have a name and he also tape recorded play by play accounts of the basketball team's games to be replayed over the loudspeakers at the student center. Tait found or created jobs for himself wherever he could, even if those jobs did not pay anything, and those opportunities gave him valuable experience while also helping him to make contacts in the business. One of those contacts was Bill Fitch, a basketball coach at Coe College who also did some scouting for their football team. Tait made quite an impression on Fitch, who marveled at the enthusiastic way that Tait described Monmouth's lackluster football team while doing play by play. After graduating from Monmouth, Tait served three years in the U.S. Army before returning to Illinois and resuming his broadcasting career. Tait was ambitious--he wanted to work in a big city--but he got off to a shaky start and he was fired twice within the first two years after leaving the Army.

Joe Tait: It's been a real ball provides a detailed account of Tait's steady rise through the broadcasting ranks. Tait kept a scrapbook containing rejection letters, news clippings and other artifacts that supplement his remarkable memory. By 1970 Tait was working for WBOW in Terre Haute, Indiana; he was 33 years old and wondering if he ever would get the opportunity to work in a big market. Tait found out that Fitch had been hired to be the general manager and coach of the new expansion NBA team in Cleveland, so Tait sent Fitch a brief letter of congratulations and offered his services as a play by play man. He had not seen Fitch in a decade and was not even sure if Fitch would remember who he was.

Bob Brown, the Cavs' public relations director, handled the play by play duties for the team's first seven games but he quickly realized that he could not simultaneously work in the front office and be a radio broadcaster. Fitch recommended Tait to Brown and team owner Nick Mileti, so Tait drove to Cleveland to interview for the job. Tait was making $10,000 a year in Terre Haute and the Cavs only offered him $7400 a year ($100 a game for the remaining 74 games of the 82 game season) but Mileti pledged to make it up to Tait in the future so Tait took the plunge, finally arriving in a major market (albeit with a substantial pay cut). Mileti proved to be true to his word, providing Tait broadcasting opportunities with the Cleveland Indians and other teams that Mileti eventually added to his ownership portfolio (though, Pluto hastens to point out, Mileti in fact only owned a small percentage of "his" teams and was heavily dependent on outside financing).

Even by expansion standards the Cavs got off to a rough start, losing their first 15 games before defeating a fellow expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The Cavs won just one of their first 28 contests en route to a 15-67 record (the Trail Blazers were a much more respectable 29-53, while the league's third expansion team that season--the Buffalo Braves, now known as the L.A. Clippers--finished 22-60). Scouting was not as sophisticated during that era--and this was especially true of the Cavs, who literally assembled their roster based on player statistics found on the backs of basketball cards. Humor can often be found in the midst of such serial losing and probably is necessary to preserve one's sanity. Fitch delivered many quips during the 1970-71 season, including, "War is bad but expansion is worse." One time on the road Fitch forgot his credential and the security guard would not let him in to the arena. Fitch asked the guard if he knew the Cavs' record and then said why would anyone be trying to impersonate the team's coach, whereupon the guard relented and granted Fitch access. After the Cavs narrowly defeated Portland to get their first win, Fitch described the sloppy proceedings succinctly: "It looked like the gamblers got to both teams."

In the 1971 NBA draft the Cavs chose Austin Carr with the number one overall selection. Fitch thought that Carr, who still holds numerous NCAA Tournament scoring records and whose 34.6 ppg career scoring average ranks second in NCAA history, could have an enormous impact on the team but injuries limited Carr to just 43 games as a rookie. Carr then had two healthy seasons before a knee injury permanently robbed him of his explosiveness and balance; he turned out to be a very good pro but not a franchise player. Younger fans likely do not know many details about Carr's career but are primarily familiar with him as one of the team's TV commentators, a role he has filled since 1997.

The Cavs did not post a winning record until 1975-76, when they went 49-33 and upset the Washington Bullets--the 1975 Eastern Conference champion--in seven games, a series that became known as the "Miracle of Richfield" (the Cavs had moved from downtown Cleveland to Richfield Coliseum). If starting center Jim Chones had not gotten injured during practice prior to the next series, the Cavs may very well have toppled Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and gone on to win the NBA title. Although LeBron James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007, the way he departed Cleveland took the bloom off of the rose of that campaign and thus the 1976 season is probably the one most fondly remembered/thought about by diehard Cavs fans.

The Cavs were not able to build or sustain any momentum from the great 1976 season; they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1977 and 1978 and then did not qualify again for postseason play until 1984-85. During most of those wilderness years the Cavs were owned by Ted Stepien, who infamously traded away so many first round draft picks that the NBA had to step in and forbid him from further destroying the franchise's future; Stepien's lasting legacy is an NBA rule named after him that prohibits any team from trading away first round draft picks from consecutive seasons. The reason that Tait was the voice of the Cavs for most but not all of their first 41 seasons is that Stepien fired Tait and sold the team's broadcast rights to a different radio station; Stepien was jealous of Tait's popularity in town, while Tait (and many others) thought that Stepien was not doing a very good job of running the team, a sentiment that Tait was not shy about expressing during his broadcasts. Tait spent one year with the New Jersey Nets and another year with the Chicago Bulls before the NBA forced Stepien to sell the Cavs to an ownership group led by Gordon Gund, who immediately rehired Tait.

Under Gund's leadership, the Cavs enjoyed some of the best seasons in franchise history. During the late 1980s/early 1990s the Cavs were one of the best teams in the league but they just could not get past the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen-led Chicago Bulls. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Tait's book is that very little coverage is given to that era; Cavs fans who are too young to remember the "Miracle of Richfield" and too disgusted with LeBron James to think fondly of the Cavs' success circa 2006-2010 consider the Brad Daugherty/Mark Price era the franchise's golden age.

LeBron James is clearly the most talented player, by far, in Cavs history (Tait's choice for the second most talented player in franchise history is Larry Nance, whose achievements are sometimes overlooked because he played alongside Daugherty and Price). Tait does not mince words when discussing his perspective regarding James' sense of entitlement, lack of leadership skills and tone-deafness regarding the "Decision." Tait insists that he feels no personal animosity toward James but rather dislikes the way that the league and the media build up players from such a young age.

It is almost a cliche to call someone an "an American original," but it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone else will follow a career path similar to Tait's, rising from small town obscurity to being the voice of the same NBA team for four decades. Joe Tait: It's been a real ball is an easy, fun book to read and will surely bring back good memories for Cleveland sports fans who listened to Tait's trademark calls since 1970.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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