Joe Tait has no idea who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, though he confesses to having heard LeBron James is back.
Truth is, he doesn’t care.
“I have not seen, listened to or been to a game since I retired,” Tait says over the phone one afternoon in November. He sees no particular reason to start now.
The season’s just getting underway and it’s true the Cavs are off to what many paid analysts are calling a rocky start. I’m calling it a horror-show. My heart tells me the record and the dismal defense are bound to improve — if the South Beach interlude taught us anything, it’s that all-star chemistry takes time — but these early games have given “entertainment” an awfully wide berth. I mean they’re tough to sit through from start to finish.
But legendary Cleveland Cavaliers radio announcer Joe Tait, a man who chaperoned the franchise from its conception, a man who for 39 seasons was its voice and soul — 39 minus two, technically, thanks to a broadcasting dispute during Ted Stepien’s inglorious ascendancy — a man for whom I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve prepared talking points, doesn’t want to participate in this conversation.
“I’m finished with that,” he says. “And how I finish things, I pretty much wash my hands.”
But LeBron’s back, I remind him. Kevin Love has joined the ranks. Kyrie Irving continues to post as electrifying a highlight-reel as any player in professional sports. I’m not exaggerating when I call this an historic roster.
“It’s just not something I’m interested in,” Tait insists. And though he remains upbeat on the line, he’s clearly annoyed that he has to repeat himself. “I’ve got nothing against them,” he clarifies. “I hope they win a million dollars. I hope they win ‘em all. But,”
—I’m so stunned I don’t know what to say. It’s just not something I’m interested in? From Joe Tait?—
“But I retired.”
“But he retired,” I text my editor later that day. “He’s got zero interest in the Cavs.”
We agree that the unexpected response merits a follow-up, and certainly more than a Q&A, which we’d originally conceived, cold-call style: “How do you, Joe Tait, feel about LeBron’s return?” and all that jazz.
“See if he’ll watch a game with you,” my editor suggests. “Bring him pie.”
*SPOILER ALERT* I do not watch a Cavs game with Joe Tait. Nor do I bring him pie. In fact, when we speak on the phone for the second time, and I mention the Spurs game the following week — ‘07 Finals rematch. Drama! Pageantry! History! — Tait couldn’t be more definitive.
“No,” he says. “Really, no.”
It’s like being rejected to prom or something, by a date you’d presumed at the very least would be tickled by the gesture. I manage to soldier on. Tait sounds bemused when I suggest coming down to his home in Medina County, 40 miles south of Cleveland, just to spend some time with him, maybe have an informal interview.
“I don’t know what you’re expecting to find,” he says in all seriousness. “It’s really boring stuff down here. My life is not for the Cleveland Scene. This is the Cleveland has-been.” He pronounces it ‘bean’ for the purity of the rhyme, and even over the phone it’s impossible not to picture him with a headset on, leaning into a table mic, giddy with the roar of the crowd at tipoff:
The Cavaliers, in their home whites, moving from left to right on your radio dial...
To be clear, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into when we schedule a meeting at his house. Nor, it’s pretty clear, does Tait. He jokes that he could use a hand with a few chores. Sorting laundry on Wednesdays, for instance; taking out the garbage later in the week.
It bears mentioning that the man is quite old. He turned 77 in May and spent most of the 2010-2011 season, his last, out with a pneumonia diagnosis that went south. Plus the godawful knees. At his age, it’s not like one’s medical picture tends to get rosier as time goes on.
But other than what struck me as fairly run-of-the-mill grandpa-isms, Tait sounded possessed of all critical mental faculties on the phone. He never gave the impression of feebleness. Still, he made no secret about the fact that he and his wife Jeannie are dealing with some pretty serious medical issues — “The only thing I’m doing down here is battling cellulitis,” he said during our first conversation.
So I’m not surprised when, a few days later, he calls to cancel our meeting. Jeannie’s got a doctor’s appointment, he says. We’ll have to push it back until next week.
Fine by me. Plus, I can’t help noticing there’s a game that night, versus the Magic. It’s a game that will kick off an authoritative Cavs’ win streak, one that will put them atop the Central Division, where it looks like they’ll be jockeying with Chicago for the remainder of the season, a streak that will silence the naysayers, a streak that will convince even the players themselves that the learning curve they’d all been careful to acknowledge might not be as steep as they expected.
I know where Tait stands on this topic, but I can’t resist nagging a little bit, seeing if he’ll budge. Getting to watch Joe Tait watch his first Cavs game in three years strikes me (and my editor) as a golden journalistic hook. But once again, he declines.
“You’d have better luck asking me to watch a college lacrosse game,” he says.
And I’ll admit the adamance, the intractability, is confusing. He’s not quite what you’d call hostile, but he’s firm. Generally when I push like this, people bend a bit, submit to the good-natured flattery. Cleveland sports fans hold you in such high esteem, I tell him. People care what you’re up to, what you think. But there’s no convincing him. When he repeats “I hope they win ‘em all,” it’s dismissive.
The question of whom he’s dismissing — Me? The Cavs? Dan Gilbert? The entire NBA? — is what I don’t understand, and it’s something I can’t quite ask over the phone. I get the idea that there may have been some bad blood, that maybe something happened in his final years in the booth.
“I went to the Zydrunas Ilgauskas ceremony last March,” Tait admits — I use that word intentionally; it’s like he’s admitting infidelity — amending his earlier statement that he hadn’t been to a game since retirement. “I wanted to be there for that. Z was one of the greatest guys that organization has ever seen. Really, one of the best. But we got out of there quick. Jim Chones’ wife was good enough to watch Jeannie for me, and we were in the car before the Knicks came out to warm up for the second half.”
That’s it, though. Other than Z’s jersey retirement, he hasn’t been back to the Q. And other than one or two trips to the Cleveland Clinic every year, he has no reason and certainly no desire to make the trek downtown. “We get our car serviced at the Ford dealership in Wooster,” he says, “but that’s about as far as we go.”
Tait tells me he knew it would be this way too. When he left Quicken Loans Arena on his final night in 2011, he paused at the entrance way and turned back — he acknowledged the moment’s cinematic feel — and told himself that this would be the last time.
“That’s just how I retire,” he says. “Clean break.”
I continue to tell him that this, in itself, is an interesting story: A man who was so closely associated with a franchise for decades, who has now sworn off that franchise (for whatever reason). That’s unusual, I suggest. That’s worth writing about. He doesn’t see it that way. He continues to claim that his life is boring, a total snoozer, that I won’t uncover, in Medina County, the ingredients “for the great American novel.”
“We’ve lived here for 28 years,” Tait says. “And in that time we’ve had a grand total of one trick-or-treater.”
But I’m all in at this point. I ask again if he’s sure it’s all right I come down.
“Sure you can come down,” he says. “We’re not doing anything.”
In the interim, I see what I can sniff out about Tait’s relationship with the Cavs: if at any time feelings were hurt, if comments were made, if antipathies were stoked in private.
Tait’s public comments on these matters are few and far between. Since his retirement, other than doing play-by-play for Mount Union football — “I’ll do that until I’m really physically unable,” he has said — he’s steered clear of the news.
He did give one interview to the NEOMG’s Glen Moore in February of 2012, in the midst of a lockout-shortened Cavs’ season starring Antawn Jamison and — good grief — Lester Hudson. Tait’s line then was the same as it is now. Moore asked Tait, for example, how he was liking the play of Kyrie Irving:
“Now I’m really gonna pour some cold water on this,” Tait said. “I have not seen him play. I have not watched the Cavs because when I end something, I end it. You know I used to do the Decatur Commodores in the Midwest League a million years ago and I don’t go back to Decatur either.”
So at least there’s consistency in his philosophy, though I suspect most folks wouldn’t begrudge Tait or anyone for abandoning Decatur, Illinois. It’s only when I start canvassing current Cavaliers’ broadcast personnel that I get a whiff of anything amiss. For the most part, their comments are little more than the expected tributes and superlatives:
“Joe Tait is one of the true living legends of the sport,” wrote Jon Michael, the current radio play-by-play guy, in an email. “He is considered by many of us to be more than just one of the greatest broadcasters in the history of the game, but much more importantly, one of the greatest people in the history of the game.”
Fred McLeod, who does play by play for the telecast on Fox Sports Ohio, concurred:
“I knew if I ever added play by play to Channel 8 anchoring, Joe’s style would be the one to emulate,” McLeod wrote in an email. “The rapid fire crispness, the energy, the ‘real’ storytelling...He’s iconic for not only the fans who loved to listen to him, but for those of us in the business.”
Austin Carr chimed in as well, with advice from Tait: “When I first started, Joe told me. ‘AC, you are only as good as your last broadcast.’ I try to never forget that.”
Only Dave Dombrowski, the Cavs’ VP of Broadcast Services, who worked with Tait for more than 30 years, gave me a piece of what I was looking for. And at first, it was the same story:
“He was the best radio play by play guy in all of sports,” Dombrowski said. “I know a lot of cities and teams think they have the best guy, but they were all number two.”
But then he added this: “At the end, even when he started to get turned off by everything that went on besides the game, he did not let that bother his performance."
Even when he started to get turned off by everything besides the game?
Eureka! A scent, a crumb. This is what I would suss out when I ventured to Medina County’s southernmost acreage. This was the Joe Tait story that I didn’t think had been told.
“Patsy!” Joe Tait hollers at his dog. “Patsy, what are you doing?”
What Patsy’s doing is yipping in my face. Or at least yipping in the direction of my face, as she stands poised to pounce at my ankles. Both of Tait’s dogs are barking like mad when I arrive. It’s a wet, vengefully windy afternoon a few days before Thanksgiving, and I was admiring the equine statuary on Tait’s stoop when he opened the door in sweatpants, a t-shirt, and orthopedic shoes.
Here’s one thing Tait’s not doing these days: standing on ceremony. He’s got white socks on beneath the black sneakers and hasn’t shaved for a few days. His gullet is immense.
Over the phone, Tait made it sound like most days, he and Jeannie don’t do much of anything: the occasional lunch with former radio producers or old friends, sure. But otherwise, they mostly just go through old paraphernalia from their jobs and, like, sort it. He has said that they’re not quite hoarders, but their foyer, rustic and log-beamed and full of boxes, begs the question.
“That’s Patsy,” Tait says, gesturing to the farm dog with the busted cataract. “And that’s Jackpot.”
Jackpot’s a Bichon-Frise poodle, a dustmop of a dog with no immediately visible legs. Tait says he was a Christmas gift to Jeannie in 2004. Got him for half-price. When he picked him up, Tait looked him in the eye and told him he’d won the jackpot — he’d be going home to Jeannie, a woman who trained racehorses for 30 years and loved animals above all things.
“Animals and little kids,” Tait says of his wife.
Jeannie’s in the living room already, also in sweatpants, sitting quietly and trying to calm her canines from a distance. Tait’s 2010 Curt Gowdy Media Award, bestowed annually by the NBA Hall of Fame to writers and broadcasters, is prominently displayed on his coffee table. Next to it, there’s a horse statuette. The TV’s on.
Tait points to a chair for me, and I ask him what he’s watching these days.
“I’m big on Hell on Wheels” he says. “And The Walking Dead. Those are the two I never miss. I read the other day that one of my favorite shows, Longmire, well, A&E decided that it was getting a lot of numbers from people like me but not from the kids, from the 25-54 group. So they dropped it. Netflix picked it up and next year, they’re going to have 10 episodes. Now, all I have to do is call my daughter and have her explain to me what Netflix is.”
While not self-identifying as a Luddite, Tait remains happily unacquainted with the technologies of the past 20 years or so. If you want to communicate with him, it’s the landline or nothing. Tait has no cell phone and no email address. In his living room he’s got an atlas — an atlas! — which he uses to map out driving directions with pencil and paper. He’s got street maps of all the adjacent counties in his car as well.
“Just give me an address,” Tait says (reciting what is unmistakably a personal tenet), “and I’ll get there.”
But he stresses that he’s not anti-technology. He uses it in the way most of us probably should: “enough to survive, and to enjoy the things that I enjoy.”
“This Netflix is probably going to require that I take another step forward,” he says. “And I’ll do it, because I want to see that show.”
There’s a pure and practical logic to Tait’s approach, and I’m beginning to think that the same might be true for his Cavs’ apathy. Maybe his refusal to witness the franchise’s revival really is just a weird principled thing.
We’re chatting away now, in the leather seats of his living room, and I’m scribbling throwaway notes in my memo pad while trying to triangulate an approach to the conversation I want to have.
Jeannie is a somewhat spectral presence to my left, occasionally repeating or corroborating her husband’s thoughts. She’s not quite all there, I’m beginning to understand.
Since we’re talking about TV though, I think to ask Joe if he watches any other Cleveland sports, other than the Cavs, I mean. And he says that yes, he watches the Browns every Sunday.
“Win or lose, the Browns are fun to watch this year,” he says.
“And the Tribe?”
“I watched the Tribe when Corey Kluber pitched. He was worth watching.”
The implication — that the Cavs aren’t — doesn’t strike me as accidental or even disguised. Tait seems to intuit where I’m heading with this, so I don’t mince words.
“So you honestly just won’t watch the Cavs because of the way you retire? Because of the way you end things?”
A note, briefly, to say that sometimes in interviews, you’re forced to ask the same question again and again until you get an answer you’re happy with. This is never comfortable, and reporters get shit for this all the time. It's like they can’t take a hint. But the goal, as I understand it, is to get past the knee-jerk or rehearsed response, to get past the spin, the stock quote.
So when Tait says, “I just…” and then pauses, I sense he’s entering new territory:
“I watched the Cavs for 39 years. They’re not gonna show me anything I haven’t seen before. I saw LeBron. I saw some unbelievably good basketball. I’ve also seen seasons where we’ve won 15 games. I’ve seen it all, as far as the Cavs are concerned.”
He pre-empts my obvious rejoinder by acknowledging the obvious rejoinder:
“The rejoinder to that is: ‘Well they could show you a world championship.’
“Well?” I ask.
“Maybe they will,” he says, and shrugs. “But we played for the World Championship once and it was an absolute zoo. I couldn’t believe they managed to squeeze a basketball game into the middle of all that ridiculous stuff.”
He says it spitefully, and I recall Dombrowski’s comment — when he started to get turned off by everything that went on besides the game — and crack the door a bit.
“It was different back in Richfield?”
“Sure. It’s a whole different mindset now for game presentation, as they call it. I saw it slipping and changing the past ten years I worked. Every year, they came up with some new stupidity.”
Tait adjusts in his chair, sensing that he may be coming on a little strong. “They’re gearing it, I guess, for the people who like that sort of thing, And, you know, that’s good. I hope they all make a million and do well. I have nothing against them at all. I really don’t.”
“So you mean like the hoopla?” I want him to get specific. “The media? The flaming sabres?”
“And the noise,” Tait says, diving back in. “It’s so loud. And I have no desire to see a scoreboard or telescreen or whatever they’re calling it that goes from foul line to foul line or baseline to baseline. I don’t need to hear guys screaming and yelling.”
“Except you can’t really be a sports fan and be anti-noise.”
Tait considers this for a moment and reclines.
“At the old Coliseum, the way it was set up, you could go to a game and if you saw your Aunt Maudie sitting across the way, you could walk around that inside walkway and go talk to her. You could talk to her because there wasn’t anybody screaming in your ear and deafening noises that affected your ability to hold a conversation.”
“But you can do that when you’re watching on TV at home,” I spar back. “Isn’t one of the big reasons to go see it live because of the noise? Like a three-pointer at the buzzer or something? Isn’t everyone supposed to be yelling and screaming?”
“They did!” Tait shouts. “They did! And it was great. It was a genuine response to a great moment. It wasn’t…manufactured.”
So that’s it.
Another run-of-the-mill grandpa-ism, perhaps, or at least a variation on familiar grandpaistic themes: The world is moving too fast. The newspapers are dying. The iPods!, the iPods! The soups are too cold. The sports are too loud.
And from your grandpa, or mine, these are choruses so stock and humdrum that they’re basically static. At best, they’re cute — the precious older folks who can’t quite keep up, who remain attached to what has become unfashionable or inconvenient. From Joe Tait, is it any different?
“Hey Katie, what the word?” Tait speaks into his telephone. “Let me check...still alive.”
He has a leisurely conversation with the woman on the other end. His leg has returned to a normal size, he tells her. His finger no longer leaves a red indentation when he presses the area around the knee. His dosage of this or that medication could probably come down.
When I asked him earlier in the afternoon about players with whom he’d been close, he mentioned that during the ’09-’10 season, his final full season with the team, his knees were in terrible shape. And every time the Cavs flew, Shaquille O’Neal would carry Tait’s bags to his seat at the back of the plane for him, because he’d seen that he was struggling. “The nicest guy,” Tait said of Shaq. “Truly a gentle giant.”
When he hangs up now, he tells Jeannie that’ll he be right back. He wants to go “feed the birdies.”
I join him outside to lend a hand if I can, as promised. It’s been a windy day, and Tait points to a garbage can out by their pond in the back that’s rolled away. I jog out to it, return it to its spot, marked by a disc of flattened, discolored grass. Wham with the right hand.
This takes me thirty seconds. Back at the house, Tait is using a walking stick to descend a few stone steps to the birdfeeder. He’s got a bucket full of bird seed in tow and he’s moving very slowly.
I ask if there’s anything else I can do for him.
“No no no,” he says, and then stops. He toys with the grip on his walking stick. There’s something else he wants to say.
“You know, Jeannie has not been well,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t go anyplace.... Other than that, we’re just hanging in there.... At home, where she’s comfortable. We get along fine.”
So there's this too.
When he says Alzheimer’s, the pieces fall into their appropriate slots: the particular hostility toward noise and in-game theatrics, the bucolic retreat, the daily ritual of sorting memories.
“All we’re doing is fading,” Tait says, suddenly contemplative in private. “Fading slowly but surely into oblivion. Other great moments in sports show up all the time with somebody new telling you about it, and the other guys drift away. So I’m sure that if the Cavaliers win a championship, I will slide back into the same area of, ‘Jeez, who was that guy?’”
“But your name is in the rafters,” I tell him, and he concedes with a nod.
“That is true. On the other hand, most young folks probably don’t know who half of those names are. Bingo Smith? You know Bingo Smith?”
I tell him that of course I know the name, but admit I probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. “He was a little before my time.”
The wind is bristling back here, but Tait, who’s wearing only a light rain jacket over his t-shirt, doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t quite place his anxiety. Just a general fear of being forgotten? Of death? He’s gazing placidly at the pond, at the upside-down boat near the dock, his goodbye gift from the Cavaliers that’s he’s never once been in.
“It’s not like you want fame though, is it?” I ask, just to be sure.
“No, no.” Tait shakes his head. “I have no desire to be the bard of Bob Evans or anything like that. But it is nice. It is nice when someone comes up in the restaurant and says, ‘I knew it was you. The moment I heard that voice, I knew it was you.”