The best play-by-play announcer in the history of basketball turned 80 on Monday.
Joe Tait celebrated exactly the way you’d expect Joe Tait to celebrate: under the radar, with a low-key gathering involving a small group of friends in a tiny, out-of-the-way eatery that you’ve probably never heard of.
The former voice of the Cavaliers — can you believe he’s been gone for six years? — ate lunch at Leah’s Kitchen, tucked inside a multipurpose building that is tucked behind Acme No. 1 in West Akron.
In attendance were his son, Joe Jr.; longtime Cavs podiatrist Richard Hofacker, who has known Tait since the doc was a ball boy at the late, great Richfield Coliseum; good friend Paula Ross, who helps him with his day-to-day affairs and owns another of his favorite eateries, Taylor’s Diner in Lodi; and, of course, his favorite columnist. (Actually, Terry Pluto is his favorite columnist, but just play along, OK?)
That’s three people fewer than the number of banners hanging in the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena honoring the top performers during the Cavs’ 47 years of existence. Tait’s banner is the only one belonging to a nonplayer.
One of the players in the rafters, Bath resident Larry Nance, had planned to attend the party but was summoned by the Cavs at the last minute to be part of the news conference officially announcing that, starting next year, the players will wear a corporate logo on the front of their uniforms.
Tait’s reaction to that development mirrors mine. Not because we always think alike, but because he is a basketball purist who thinks the professional game lost its way a long time ago.
“I’m not alone because I saw [Indians broadcaster] Rick Manning interviewed the other night on TV and he said the same thing [about baseball]: ‘It used to be a sport and now it’s a business.’
“Everything is geared toward marketing and business.”
As for affixing the Goodyear logo to the front of game uniforms, “You knew it was coming because the minor league of pro basketball is now the ‘Gatorade League,’ and they’re going to splash Gatorade — pardon the pun — all over that league.
“Soccer teams look like billboards with legs. And it’s sad. It’s sad. I just don’t watch anymore.”
He’s not exaggerating. Since retiring after the 2010-2011 season, Tait has viewed exactly one Cavs game. That would be Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, when the Cavs — well, you know.
And why did he finally cave in?
“Somebody asked me if I thought they would win it all and for some reason, having not even seen the team play, I just kind of had a hunch they were going to win it all, and I wanted to see if I was right.”
Having not watched again this year, what’s his hunch? He responds with zero hesitation.
“They won’t do it this year. No. 1, because it’s so hard to do it back-to-back. And there are a couple of teams in the [Western Conference] I think are very, very good.”
He much prefers keeping an eye on the teams at Cloverleaf High School, not far from the farmhouse where he has lived for decades.
Tait is wearing a LaCrosse Catbirds baseball cap and a sweatshirt with a throwback logo (throwback to me, not to him) from the Cavs’ bad-color-scheme era — the powder blue, black and orange in use from 1994 through 2003.
He still has the scorebooks from all 3,381 games he broadcast but is downsizing and giving them to a friend. The books date to the first game the Cavs ever played, when they were a horrendous team playing in a horrendous facility, the Cleveland Arena.
But Tait loved that era.
“The best time was the first few years because it was like Custer’s Last Stand. It was like being the play-by-play guy at Little Bighorn. We all kind of just huddled together from beating to beating to beating.
“I was with Bingo Smith [another rafter honoree] one night in the car. We were driving back to the hotel, and he starts to cry. He said, ‘How come we can’t win? We’re trying so hard and we can’t win.’
“I looked and he was crying. I thought, ‘Oh my god. This is a little more serious than I thought.’
“They were good kids and they were trying hard. They just weren’t good enough.”
FITCH IS FRIEND
Tait remains close to the coach and general manager of that era, Bill Fitch. Last month the broadcaster sent the coach a birthday card with a cover that said, “At long last, I decided it was time for you to try a new position.” On the inside was a drawing of a guy sitting on a toilet backward.
“He may or may not have found it amusing,” Tait says with a gleam in his eye. “I don’t much care.”
Tait is still fun and funny, full of great inside stories that he will recount without too much nudging.
Unfortunately, his wife is no longer able to keep up. Jeannie is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is “in a home.” He visits her four hours a day.
The remainder of his time is spent taking care of his “very strange dog” and indulging in his lifelong hobby, railroads. He loves train books and videos, model railroads and actually riding the rails.
“I had a good time [broadcasting]. I was pretty much of a one-trick pony, but that’s OK. That pony carried me for about 60 years.
“I can walk away saying I gave it my best shot, and when I couldn’t give it my best shot, I quit.”
He quit at the right time. Unlike so many of the great ones, Joe Tait walked away while he was still very much on top.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31.