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A Personal Farewell to the Legend
When I wrote about Fred McLeod’s passing, I cried when I wrote the piece and then I cried later when I read it.
I love Freddy Mac, but I’m definitely getting soft with age.
But as I begin to write about Joe Tait, I can’t help but laugh.
Yes, I know that losing a true giant like Joe Tait is no laughing matter. In fact, the death of the legendary Joe Tait – who passed this week at age 83 – is heartbreaking. And I know I’ll shed a tear later.
But the life of Joe Tait – among many other things – was hilarious. HE was hilarious.
I don’t know him as well as some people who’ve been with the Cavaliers almost as long as he was – longtime friends like Dave and Alyssa Dombrowski, Scott Zurilla, Ryan “Boo” Banks, Joe Frietchen, Kurt McLaughlin, Marty Allen, Beth Stephano and the incomparable Phyllis Salem.
But I did know him well enough to know that if he could read the schmaltzy piece I’m about to write, he’d roll his eyes and say: “Oh, brother.”
You read that in your Joe Tait voice, didn’t you?
Think about that. Almost every sports fan in Northeast Ohio has their own impression of the man. When you say his name, you hear his words.
There’s been so much written about Joe’s accomplishments. And I’ve written a lot of it.
So, I could write more about Joe Tait’s countless honors. He’s won the Basketball Hall of Fame’s prestigious Curt Gowdy Award. He’s a member of the Ohio and Indiana Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He’s also a member of the Cleveland Association of Broadcasters, the Cleveland Press Club and the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
He’s won every award there is to present. Now, others will win awards named after him.
His banner rightfully hangs in the rafters, having helped literally build the organization.
I could write about listening to him as a kid.
My favorite Joe Tait memories were when the Cavaliers were on the West Coast, in Portland and Seattle.
I had to listen covertly, and for a grade school fan, there was nothing better than some Joe Tait After Hours, lying there half-asleep-dreaming of the Cavaliers and Bigfoot, going from left to right on your radio dial.
There are the catchphrases, from “WHAM with the right hand!” to “Have a GOOD night, everybody!”
There are the seminal calls: Bingo’s jumper or Dick Snyder’s runner in a moment that he helped create: the “Miracle of Richfield.” Craig Ehlo’s three-ball against Utah which gave life to “Yes, Virginia! There is a Santa Claus – and he comes from Lubbock, Texas!”
Joe was a husband and a father. He was an Army veteran. He was an animal lover – spending his final days with his feline friend, Penelope, as described recently in Terry Pluto’s excellent piece published the weekend before his good friend passed.
I’m not going to try to outdo a Tait-sized legend like Terry Pluto.
I’m going to remember Joe Tait with a laugh – so he’s not Up There in one of his favorite cozy, ugly sweaters (possibly conducting a Union Pacific train) – rolling his eyes at me and saying: “Oh, brother.”
Here’s my personal favorite Joe Tait story …
I had worked with Joe for a few years by this point. Years earlier, the first time I met him when I’d first started with the Cavs, I was literally speechless. I’d met him many years earlier as a teen, when he autographed a baseball (that I still have). But this was the first time as a co-worker. I remember Zurilla and Dombrowski laughing at me.
Irregardless – one of the worst kept secrets for those who care is that I used to write a column on Cavs.com under the sobriquet “The Optimist.”
I’d written, what I thought, was one of my best columns yet – it was preceding Game 6 in Cleveland’s Eastern Conference Semifinal series against New Jersey in 2007. The Cavaliers won that game and the series that night; Donyell Marshall had 18 points on six threes and the Cavs got their rematch against Detroit in the ECF. (And we all remember what happened in that series. In Game 6, Joe Tait said the Pistons had been “Booby-trapped”!)
Back in 2007, Joe Tait didn’t know I was the Optimist. And it wouldn’t have mattered if he had.
Before every game – to this day – clips of all articles written about the Cavs are printed for all personnel on the road. And I happened to be sitting directly in front of Joe Tait on the team bus headed to Game 6 in the Meadowlands. He was sitting with then-PR Director Amanda Petrak.
I could tell he was reading my article – (pronouncing parts of sentences aloud and so forth) – and when he finished, the man who was one of my childhood idols, the man I grew up listening to, the man who I imitated shooting jumpers in the driveway said:
“They shouldn’t call him ‘The Optimist.’ They should call him ‘The Idiot.’”
That probably crushed me at the time. But I got over it when we advanced to the Conference Finals later that evening.
I’ll bet – at some point or another – every Cavs employee who came to Joe Tait with a long face after a loss has heard the line: “Do you see your name in the box score?”
And I’ll bet all those sad-sacks left with a smile, thinking: ’Joe Tait told me that; and it’s true!’
So smile when you think of Joe Tait, even though it really hurts that a part of our childhood – a part of us – went away on Wednesday.
Smile about a Joe Tait story – if you have one, and I bet you do. Smile thinking about a Tribe game called by Joe Tait and Bruce Drennan. You can’t help yourself.
The great Joe Tait was a Hall of Famer in two states. His name hangs in the rafters of the arena without ever playing a game. And he was a card-carrying curmudgeon. The term was created for him.
And that also made him hilarious.
Good night, Joe Tait. And keep the faith.