Basketball on the radio is often a bizarre experience. The game is so tied up in the players' styles, and play happens so fast that a mere description can't always get at what's exciting about the sport. Near-continuous action is difficult to describe. It's not baseball, with its slower rhythms, and it's not football, for which a good number of fans really only care about the result.
So we should cherish the radio play-by-play announcers that seem to bring the game directly to your mind's eye. One of them, Cleveland mainstay Joe Tait, is calling his last game for the Cavaliers on Wednesday night. From Rich Heldenfels for the Beacon Journal:
The book closes tonight, when Tait does his last game for the Cavaliers. It is not the glorious ending you might have wanted for him. A Cavs victory tonight will end a nightmarish season of just 19 wins, the worst performance in the Eastern Conference.
But Tait is no stranger to tough times for the team or himself. Health problems kept him off the air most of this season. His longevity — the voice of the Cavaliers for most of the past 41 years — is all the more remarkable considering how often he seemed to think his career was over. I remember him wondering about his job prospects in a speech in 1997.
The whole column is worth reading -- Heldenfels speaks of Tait as a man who really only cares about basketball in its simplest terms, a guy who doesn't have time for events like "The Decision" and celebrity superfans like Jay-Z. And while that view of the game neglects a lot of what makes the NBA an interesting cultural object, it's also what made Tait such a beloved announcer. He focused on the game, and he brought it to you as if he were there.
As a native San Franciscan, I never had the pleasure of listening to Tait. But I know how Warriors fans around the Bay Area still speak in hushed tones about the legendary Bill King, and I imagine Cleveland has a similar relationship with Tait. These men are legends, as much a part of the franchise as some of the team's best players of all time. In many cases, these announcers are the ones who get fans hooked in the first place.
With mobile devices increasingly able to handle streaming video, it's likely that radio broadcasts of NBA games will only become more marginalized in future seasons. Announcers with the longevity and legend of Tait will come around far less often. But they should still be remembered, because they're a part of what makes this league so great to follow on an everyday basis.
- Joe Tait