September 21, 2014

Medina
Thunderstorms
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Basketball Hall of Fame: Longtime Cavaliers’ broadcaster Joe Tait to be inducted tonight

Joe Tait quickly agreed to meet two reporters for lunch the other day to discuss his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight.

Picking an establishment wasn’t quite as easy.

“How about The Oaks?” a reporter sug­gested, figuring the upscale Chippewa Lake restaurant was close to Tait’s home in Lafayette Township.

“Boy, you guys must have quite the expense accounts,” Tait said with a laugh.

“OK, then, what about Main Street?” the reporter said, only to have that idea shot down due to possible traffic and parking issues around Medina’s Public Square.

After 40 years broadcasting NBA games, including 38 with the Cavaliers, Joe Tait will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

After 40 years broadcasting NBA games, including 38 with the Cavaliers, Joe Tait will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

The 73-year-old Tait, a Medina County resident since 1987, then solved matters once and for all: “Let’s go to Eat ’n Park.”

Eat ’n Park it was, because that’s Tait’s style. The man would rather drive or take a train than fly first class, rather drop a few coins in a little casino in the middle of nowhere than go to Las Vegas, rather eat a good, family-style meal than spend some serious dough at a five-star restaurant.

So it was that between bites of a turkey club sandwich and sips— OK, gulps— of a strawberry milkshake, Tait spent 90 min­utes reliving 40 years of broadcasting NBA games.

At times he was humorous and at others he was humble, but he was always honest.

“It beat the heck out of working for a liv­ing,” Tait said at one point. “It was an enjoyable experience over a much longer period of time than I had ever imagined.”

Hired by original Cavaliers owner Nick Mileti when the franchise was founded in 1970, Tait has been the team’s radio play­-by- play voice ever since, save for a two-year hiatus in the early 1980s when Ted Stepien owned the club.

The coming season will be his last, as earlier this week Tait turned down an offer to broadcast only home games beginning in 2011-12.

“I’ve had enough,” he said in typically blunt fashion. “It becomes harder each year to perform my duties at the level I expect of myself. I’m not going to sit around and become a cartoon character. I’ve seen that happen to others, and I’m not going to do that.”

Tait doesn’t spend much time rehashing the past, but that’s exactly what he’ll be expected to do tonight when he and Jackie MacMullan, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, receive the Curt Gowdy Media Award in Springfield, Mass.

“I don’t know,” Tait said when asked what he would say in his acceptance speech, “but it will take less than three minutes.”

Though one of the main guests of honor would rather say “It’s basketball time at Quicken Loans Arena,” “Wham, with the right hand,” or “Have a good night, every­body,” it will take a bit longer to do justice — or attempt to do justice— to Tait’s remarkable career.

The coach

Bill Fitch, the original coach of the Cavs, was at Coe College in Iowa when he first met Tait, then a student at Monmouth College in Illinois.

To pick up a little extra cash, Fitch also scouted for the Coe football team, which played Monmouth on a regular basis.

“This kid was broadcasting the games and eating up all the food in the press room, but he was doing an outstand­ing job,” recalled Fitch, now 78 and living in Montgomery, Texas. “I got to know him, and he was good at what he did.”

Later, when Fitch became general manager and coach of the Cavs, the organization “had to fill some spots in a hurry.” One was that of radio play-by-play man for games that were to be broadcast on WERE-AM.

“Joe’s the first guy that came to mind,” Fitch said. “I told (Mileti) about Joe and he said, ‘Go talk to him.’ I did, and I asked Joe how much he’d pay us if we let him announce.”

Bob Brown, the team’s pub­lic relations director, actually broadcast the first few exhibi­tion games before Tait was given a one-game audition.

“They told me if Nick Mileti liked what I did, the job would be mine,” Tait said. “He did and it was.”

The Cavs went 15-67 that first season— one of their games was not even broadcast on WERE, which chose to air Monday Night Football instead— but their 33-year­old radio announcer could make any victory sound like the greatest ever recorded.

“He was some kind of friend, and still is,” Fitch said.

“I’d say I could trust him as far as I could throw him, but he’s too damn big.

“The one thing I told every­body when we started the franchise was that no one was going to do anything that wouldn’t stand the test of time. Joe was one of them. He’s cer­tainly stood the test of time.”

The owner

Hired by Mileti, basically forced out of town for two sea­sons to preserve his own san­ity during the Stepien regime —“Drudge that pond,” Tait said— brought back by Gor­don Gund and maintained by current owner Dan Gilbert, no one has seen more Cavs games in person than Tait.

Though he’d be the first to joke it’s not a pretty mug shot to put on something, Tait in many ways is the face— or at least the voice— of the fran­chise, especially to those who have listened to him for four decades.

“I’ve listened to him for 27 years, and he’s really brought basketball alive for me,” said Gund, who is blind. “He’s been terrific. He’s just outstanding at what he does.

“I’m just very glad he’s receiving this recognition.

Sure, it should have come sooner, but the most impor­tant thing is it’s coming now. I think the world of Joe.”

Tait’s ability to describe the action, provide up-to-date sta­tistics and continually remind listeners of the score and time on the clock isn’t rocket sci­ence, but those who have lis­tened to a lot of radio broad­casters nationwide are unani­mous in their opinion he’s one of the best play-by-play men in the business.

Of course, early in his career, Tait could make a Cleveland victory in the 56th game of the regular season sound like the team had just won an NBA championship.

“I’m always amused by my enthusiasm,” Tait said when asked what it was like to listen to tapes from the early days. “I tended to get very enthusias­tic, but back in those days there wasn’t a whole heckuva lot to cheer about.”

Tait’s most memorable broadcasts probably came back in the 1975-76 “Miracle of Richfield” season, which featured last-second shots by Jim Cleamons and Dick Sny­der as the Cavs beat Washing­ton in a thrilling seven-game playoff series.

To this day, Tait still believes the Cavs would have beaten Boston in the Eastern Confer­ence finals and Phoenix for the championship had center Jim Chones not broken his foot in practice prior to the Celtics series, but he wastes no time worrying about the fact he’s never gotten to call a title­clinching game.

“I’m just along for the ride,” he said. “I’ve told other announcers who are thunder­struck or crushed when their teams lose, ‘Your name is not in the scorebook, so get over it.’” It is that ability to stay somewhat detached— to remember he is calling the game for those listening on the radio— that has allowed Tait to stay so good for so long. “When it comes to ‘telling it over the radio,’ there is no one who has ever done it better than Joe Tait,” Gilbert said.

“Rarely has a broadcaster been able to entertain, call the game and connect with fans in the great way that Joe has.”

The player and GM

Tait no longer allows himself to get close to players, coaches or front office executives, but he holds a special place in his heart for Danny Ferry, who came to the Cavs in the very unpopular Ron Harper trade and never lived up to expecta­tions.

“He worked so darn hard to become an acceptable player,” Tait said. “He came in on a very tough trade, he had bad knees and the coaches didn’t play him, but he kept working very hard. When a bunch of guys got hurt and he finally got the chance, he played well.”

Ferry never came close to becoming the next Larry Bird, as some had predicted when he left Duke, but Tait still calls him his favorite Cleveland player of all-time.

Ferry, who returned to Cleveland as general manager when his playing days were over, holds the team’s radio announcer in equally high regard.

“Joe is an honest guy,” Ferry said. “When I wasn’t playing well early on, I’m sure he told it like it was. As I continued to work at it, to get healthier and find my niche as an NBA player, Joe let me know he had an appreciation for me as a player and a professional. That certainly meant a lot to me.

“Joe knows basketball and calls it like he sees it,” Ferry added. “He has a great style on air that combines his love of sports, a sharp mind and a great voice. When he walks away from the Cavs after this season, it will be a great loss.”

Hall of Famer

Tait has been inducted into so many halls of fame, he should have his acceptance speech down pat. Yet for a man who makes his living talking, he’s surprisingly con­cise and quick at the podium. It was true when he was inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame, it was true when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Greater Cleve­land Sports Commission and it will be true again tonight.

“I certainly didn’t put it on myself,” Tait said when asked about having the tag of Nai­smith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.

To those who have worked with Tait over the years, that humility is not a shock. Nor is it surprising he is receiving what they feel is a long-over­due honor.

Though he can be grumpy at times and disdains much of what surrounds the game today, Tait’s ability to convey what is happening on the floor has not deteriorated.

“With my job, I hear every announcer from every team,” said Scott Zurillo, who pro­duces Tait’s radio broadcasts.

“I’m not saying it because he’s my co-worker, I’m saying it because it’s true: He’s the best.

I’ve told him that 100 times and he doesn’t believe me. He pooh-poohs it away and chuckles.”

Zurillo, who drove Tait to tonight’s induction, has tons of stories about the announcer’s reaction to drawn-out rendi­tions of the national anthem, lousy halftime acts and deaf­ening noise in arenas.

He can tell you about nearly tipping a golf cart in the pour­ing rain while racing to get Tait to a fundraiser at Westfield Group Country Club, or of the announcer “swearing like a drunken sailor,” then laughing like a little kid when he messes up the taping of promotional announcements.

“He’s like my grandfather,” Zurillo said. “We sit and talk about current events, about personal things. He’s business when it’s time for business, but before and after, he’s fun.”

Those are the kind of com­pliments Tait will gladly accept. The way he sees it, he wants to be respected by fans and co-workers. He’s not out to make friends with multimil­lion- dollar athletes or owners, he’s out to do his job.

“I’m trying to tell the people what’s going on and capture the excitement of the moment,” Tait said. “If some­body on the other team does something spectacular, I’m going to give him his just deserts. If somebody for the Cavaliers screws up, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s important to me to let the people know what’s going on.”

For 40 years, Tait has been doing just that. Tonight, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will recognize him for it.

“There’s nobody better than him,” said Dave Dombrowski, Tait’s producer for 10 years beginning in the late 1980s and currently the Cavs’ direc­tor of broadcast services. “I hear some people say so-and­so is the best. That’s baloney.

“We’ve got the best. We’ve always had the best.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.