There isn’t one like it in all of sports – locally or nationally. And for the better part of four decades, that single, prolific voice has told the tale of a franchise – through its highs and lows, in sickness and in health.
That voice – the voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the incomparable Joe Tait. And the next time Joe steps up to a microphone, he’ll be doing so on Thursday night in Springfield, Massachusetts – at his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Along with the Boston Globe’s Jackie MacMullan, Joe will be honored for nearly 40 years of setting the gold standard among NBA play-by-play men.
“When it comes to ‘telling it over the radio,’ there is no one who has ever done it better than Joe Tait,” praised Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert. “Rarely has a broadcaster been able to entertain, call the game and connect with fans in the great way that Joe has and does with all of the fans who listen to him.”
When Joe Tait calls a game, you get the flavor and the feel. When Gordon Gund owned the Cavaliers, Joe Tait painted the canvas that allowed the former owner – who lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa – to understand what his team was doing. Joe’s call helped him “see” the game. As the Wine and Gold move from left to right on your radio dial, the listener moved with them.
Joe Tait weaves the narrative.
Joe’s accomplishments are almost too vast and varied to list. He’s broadcast over 3,000 Cavalier games. He’s been named Ohio’s “Sportscaster of the Year” in 1974, 1976, 1978, 1991, 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2004.
He’s been the voice of the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers, Cleveland Crusaders hockey and, of course, the TV voice of the Cleveland Indians for 16 years. Currently – and for the past 21 years – he has been the voice of Mount Union football, one of the most dominant Division III programs in college athletics.
Joe Tait opens each game with an iconic call – (“It’s basketball time at The Q”) – and concludes the broadcast with an equally iconic salutation – (“Have a good night, everybody.”)
On the eve of his departure for the Hall of Fame, cavs.com caught up with Joe Tait, who – as he enters his final season behind the mic – reflects on his illustrious career as the voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers …
How has the game changed from when you first got started in the business?
Joe Tait: Money has changed the game. That’s the whole story right there. Because of it, some things got better, and a lot of things got worse.
How has life on the road changed?
Tait: Well, it’s still time-consuming and you still get in at three o’clock in the morning. In fact, you get a lot more of that now with charter flights than you did with commercial because, with commercial, you went when they went. Now you go whenever the team wants to go.
Back before we went charter, we flew commercially and, at first, there were enough first class seats and they didn’t cost that much and everybody sat up front. But then, very quickly, airlines closed down on the number of first class seats and it became a pecking order. I always ended up on the back of the plane. And it hasn’t changed to this day – I’m still in the back of the plane.
(But I volunteer for the back of the plane now. And I have no problem staying there.)
What have been some of your favorite NBA stops throughout the years?
Tait: Well, you can scratch New York and Los Angeles off the list before we even get started. And of course, two of my favorite NBA cities are no longer in the league – Vancouver and Seattle.
I enjoy Portland. I would say Portland has moved to No. 1 on my hit list. Of course, Sacramento, I enjoy a great deal. I also really enjoy Salt Lake City quite a bit.
Every city that the players don’t want to go to, I like.
Many fans don’t remember that you were also the voice of the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers – an experience you cherish. What made that so special?
Tait: Well, for one thing, they were a great bunch of people – just an enjoyment to travel with and get to know. They made you feel like you were really part of the group. (And I found out what “smoothies” were all about. I didn’t even know there was such a thing until I traveled with the Rockers.)
And in terms of basketball, they played the game the way it was meant to be played. Everybody got involved. When was the last time you saw five people handle the ball on a fastbreak? Well, that’s what they did. And they did it on a regular basis.
So I enjoyed the Rockers immensely, and I still keep tabs with a couple of folks who were involved with the team when I was with them. And I’m very proud to say that I broadcast every game they ever played.
What do you love about broadcasting Mount Union games? What’s so unique about that program?
Tait: Well, I enjoy that the athletes play for the mere love of playing. In Mount Union, or the high school games that I do, athletes have other things on their mind other than playing basketball or football. They’re there for an education.
And Mount Union is a great program. Outstanding people at Mount Union, and it’s a lot like the school I went to.
(Broadcasting games is) a really battery charger. In the long NBA season, it pumps up the old battery when you can go down to Mount Union or any of the various high schools that I go to.
Back when you were calling the Indians, Crusaders and Cavaliers, you said there was a time that you had NINE days off in a single year. What was that grind like?
Tait: Yes, I had nine days in which I was either not on the road – going to, coming from, or calling a game at home.
I was a lot younger. I was relatively new in the so-called “big leagues.” And it was exciting. You know, the idea of doing a hockey game in Rochester one night and a basketball game in San Diego the next night – that was an adventure. And it was crazy. And I enjoyed it.
Thinking about you both now, it’s hard to imagine you and Bruce Drennan in the same broadcast booth with the Indians. How was that experience?
Tait: Well, thank God for Bruce, because he and I worked together for three of the worst years the Cleveland Indians ever perpetrated on the public. And that’s saying something.
We had a lot of fun in the booth. Bruce didn’t mind being the target of practical jokes and things like that. (And, in fact, he created many of them all by himself.) But he got us through some really bad baseball.
When we had our reunion game last year – when the Indians got bad enough and nobody cared in September – they brought us back for a game. I told Bruce that night, ‘I don’t know these guys. I don’t follow baseball anymore, so it’s your ballgame.’ And, of course, that was like throwing raw meat to a starving dog. He leaped right in and I just went along for the ride.
I think my highlight of that day was when Mike Hegan and I judged an ice cream sundae-eating contest.
When (Tribe PR Director) Bob DiBiasio asked if I’d like to come back and do it again this year, I said, ‘I’m on a 20-year plan. I’ll come back and do it when I’m 92. Call me – I’ll come back.’
Throughout your years with the Cavs, who’s your favorite player?
Tait: Danny Ferry is my favorite. He came (to Cleveland) under the worst possible circumstances. He came in a trade for a very popular player. He came with bad knees. He ended up sitting on the bench and he could have just vegetated there for 10 years, taken his money and walked away.
But he spent a lot of time at night in the Coliseum – and then downtown – working and practicing. And he worked himself into becoming an acceptable ballplayer. And the one season where we needed him because of injuries, he stepped up, averaged double-figures and played very well.
How about some of your favorite coaches?
Tait: Well, Bill Fitch obviously is No. 1 on the hit parade because he was instrumental in bringing me to Cleveland, and I have a very soft spot (in some part of my anatomy) for him. In fact, I will call him later today to thank him again because he was instrumental in getting me to Cleveland – along with Nick Mileti.
So, Bill Fitch, then Lenny Wilkens, who was just one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. He is a cut above most people. And Lenny was not just a great competitor, but, as I said, a wonderful human being.
And then, another fellow that stands out to me is Mike Fratello. A lot of guys didn’t like him, but Fratello got more out of less than any coach I’ve ever seen. Some of his teams were so inept that they would have had a tough time getting to the playoffs in the CBA. But he would figure out a way to get them into the NBA playoffs. Of course, they had nothing left when they got there and they were eliminated quickly. But he got them where they were trying to go.
A lot of current Cavalier fans have no idea how great the Coliseum was? What are your memories from that building? How about the old Cleveland Arena?
Tait: Well, the Coliseum was definitely fan-friendly. Although getting in and out of the place wasn’t the most exciting time in your life, once you got in, it was fantastic. It was just a very fan-friendly building and the crowds we had, when the team was going well, were phenomenal. I guess a good way to put it was “genuine.” The Coliseum was a genuine, fan-friendly arena.
The Cleveland Arena was less charming.
The players on other teams – and maybe even on our own team – used to refer to it as ‘the black hole of Calcutta.’ And they wouldn’t change or shower there because the showers bordered on disgusting. So what players would do – they’d stay at the midtown Sheraton across the street and they’d walk in their uniforms across to the arena.
One night, in a snowstorm, I almost killed Wilt Chamberlain, who was walking across the street with John Block. In the snow, I didn’t see them until I was right on top of them.
Do you have any goals for your last year behind the mic?
Tait: What I’m looking forward to this year is going around the league one more time and saying goodbye to the engineers that I have worked with – some of them as many as 25-35 years. (I would guess John Trinidad at Golden State would be the longest. He’s been with me, I’m sure, for 35 years.)
So it’s not going to be just saying goodbye to co-workers, it’s going to be saying goodbye to friends. And I’m looking forward to that – having a chance to say goodbye and thank them for all the good things they’ve done for me over the years. Because I was really blessed with good engineers everywhere I’ve worked.
What are you most proud of?
Tait: They asked Bill Fitch what was his definition of a successful coach and he answered: “One who still has a job.” I think from that standpoint, I’m proud that I lasted as long as I did.
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I guess the thing I like the most is when a person who is blind or shut-in – (or incarcerated; I hear from them, too) – tells me that they can “see the game” based on my call of the game. That’s really the best right there.
Do you have plans for Thursday’s ceremony at the Basketball Hall of Fame?
Tait: Well, I’ve never been involved in anything like this before. I’ve been to the old Hall of Fame in Springfield, but this is the brand new Hall of Fame. I haven’t heard from them as to any of the particulars, so I guess – giving the Hall its proper respect – I’m even going to wear a sports jacket. (I’m not going to wear a tie, but I am going to wear a sports jacket.)
… and you’ve already memorized your speech?
Tait: Absolutely. I’ve got it down, cold. They said we have three minutes to speak. But I think (fellow inductee) Jackie MacMullan can have two of my minutes (on top of hers) because I don’t plan on using up all three.
I should get out everything I need to say in about a minute.
What are your plans for retirement? Will you still follow the Cavaliers and the NBA?
Tait: I’ve been practicing for retirement this summer, and I really enjoy it. I haven’t done much of anything. I don’t plan on doing much of anything when I retire.
When I left the Indians, I didn’t follow baseball and when I leave the Cavs, I don’t plan on following pro basketball. Not because I have anything against the sports, but I guess it would be like a postman who walked a route for 40 years, delivering mail. Then he retires. Is he going to go back and walk that route during retirement? Of course not!
That’s it and that’s me. I’ve walked my route.