I was slow to embrace Fred McLeod when he became the Cavs’ lead TV play-by-play announcer in 2006. He had previously manned the same post for the Detroit Pistons, so to me, his hiring bore the fingerprints of the new owner of the Cavs, Michigander Dan Gilbert. The Rocket Mortgage man wanted to bring in his own people, as all CEO types do when they take over.
McLeod’s predecessor, Michael Reghi, was a fine commentator in his own right. It was he who was there for the early LeBron years. He was the one who first conceived of Flight No. 23 exploding off the launchpad. He was the one who booked this one for Paul Silas’ Cavaliers. He called LeBron’s first 40-point game, a triumph over the Richard Jefferson–led New Jersey Nets.
Reghi was on the mic starting in 1993, around when I began to notice who was on the mic, and so I liked him—and so I approached McLeod, his replacement, with bitterness. I wasn’t alone. It feels like ancient history now, given how deftly Fred would weave his thread into the Cleveland sports quilt, but there was little love for him upon arrival.
This story from The Baltimore Sun—Reghi called Orioles games, hence the local interest—rounded up the reactions from Cleveland-area press. It was “classless” of the Cavs to have fired Reghi, said one. He’d been a “loyal, hard-working and effective broadcaster for 15 years,” said another. Reghi’s firing was such news that on sports radio it overshadowed the other top stories of the day, like “LeCharles Bentley’s press conference or Fausto Carmona’s second meltdown in three days.”
Again, these are distant memories. Perhaps today it’s in poor taste to call attention to them at all. But they’re relevant, I think because it’s a credit to McLeod’s skill as an announcer, charisma as a commentator, and warmth as a person that today I have to strain to remember what televised Cavs games even sounded like before him. I tear up imagining what they will sound like after him.
My thinking of McLeod as a foreign interloper couldn’t have been more misguided. Reghi, I would later find out, was the Detroit product, while McLeod was born in Strongsville. Fred may have spent some time punching a clock in Michigan, but he wasn’t from up north. He was an Ohioan. He was a Clevelander. He was one of us.
He cried when the Indians traded away Rocky Colavito, perhaps his number-one all-time sporting hero. He listened along on the radio as the Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship. The Miracle of Richfield, he said in 2006, “still seems like it was yesterday.” We joke as Cleveland fans about where local figures register on the Gets Us scale. Those three memories are as bona fide as it gets.
If you need a more recent memory in the same vein, you needn’t look very far. Back up the calendar to the summer of 2016.
You remember. Feel the warm June air on your skin. See the Cavaliers in their awful-beautiful black sleeved jerseys. Despair as they face a 3-1 deficit. Rejoice as they make it disappear. Savor the experience of LeBron, Kyrie and the gang conjuring the impossible. And listen as Fred McLeod, a native son now and forever, whose career was built on the rich timbre of his voice, screams himself hoarse through tears of joy, telling us the 52-year drought is over.
If you spend a significant amount of time following sports, odds are you spend some of that time watching games alone. We think often of the crowds and community, but putting a ballgame on the tube tends to be a solitary exercise. You’re just sitting there staring. It’s the announcers who make it an interactive experience. They tell you what’s going on, conveying the shock, or joy, or disaster, or whatever. They give you something to engage with. When something memorable happens, theirs are the voices that you remember. When they’re good, they elevate your memories. They became immortal.
We’ve been fortunate in Cleveland to have quality announcers over the years. Read these calls and you can’t help but hear them in your head, whether it’s an every-game catchphrase or a one-off call: A swing and a drive; It’s BASketball time; Run, William, run!
In his dozen-plus seasons as the Cavs’ play-by-play man, McLeod added plenty to that collection. It can’t be easy, putting your own spin on a game, but he did. A drive wasn’t made into the lane, but right down Euclid. The final moments of a close game weren’t crunch time but sweaty palms time. A three-pointer finds not the basket, but the bottom.
All of the warmth and condolences in the world go first and foremost to the McLeod family. Yet I find myself thinking about Austin Carr. I harped often on the Fred-AC commentary combo. Their homerism became too much for me, their greatest-hits calls too grating. At times I wanted a more serious broadcast, one loaded with advanced stats and Xs and Os. But I’ll be damned if I’m not sitting here on a Tuesday afternoon with tears in my eyes, sad that I won’t get to hear those two on the air live together again.
Back in 2006, they were separate entities, but in time they became true partners. They referred to each other and functioned as such. One knew when to leave room for the other. Fred would draw an outline and AC would color it in, perhaps with a hammer thrown down or a bird gotten. They could be dorky and corny and biased as hell, but you could never say they didn’t care. You could never say they didn’t get Cleveland. When times were tough, they made us laugh and smile. When times were championship-level good, they made us all feel like wine and gold winners.
I never met Fred McLeod. I know little about him beyond what I’ve read online and heard him say on TV. But he always struck me as a good man. I felt more at ease when I saw him on the screen. His warmth and laughter felt genuine. His impact on my life, such as it was, was exclusively positive. These are vague, doughy sentiments, but what better things can you say about a person?
Here’s a start, from those who knew him better. May he rest in peace, and may his family find courage.
Shocked and saddened to hear about the loss of Fred McLeod. He was a student of the game. He loved the CAVS but even more so the fans…Fred worked his ass off for the city of Cleveland and the NBA. Praying and sending my best to his wife Beth and kids.
— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) September 10, 2019
Last season, Fred McLeod stopped me in hallway before a #Cavs game, just to offer praise and support for the website. After that, I wrote every post with Fred at least partially mind, knowing that no matter how small the news, he was reading. I intend to continue that tradition.
— Sam Amico (@AmicoHoops) September 10, 2019
I look forward to reading and tearing up at all the great stories shared today about Cavs play-by-play legend and all-around great person Fred McLeod.
My small story-
Would text me to let me know he called a “shaqtin” play mid-game. Wanted to see it succeed. Meant a lot to me. pic.twitter.com/WK1fzqRnhu
— Mike Goldfarb (@MikeGoldFool) September 10, 2019
Totally heartbroken. My friend, Fred McLeod, has passed. He was 67. Fred was the Cavs’ TV play-by-play man. We met at Ch.4 in Detroit. Fred is the reason I’m on TV today. He gave me my big break. Here’s us together. Love and prayers to his wife @BethHMcLeod and his family. pic.twitter.com/lMHPl0maec
— Rob Parker (@RobParkerFS1) September 10, 2019
Can’t tell you how many times I ran into Fred McLeod in a Marriott lounge on the road and we’d dive into conversation about hoops. His passion and knowledge not only about the Cavs, but the entire NBA, was simply tremendous. We’ll miss you, Fred. https://t.co/DxIiyLFeo0
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) September 10, 2019
Cavs announce the passing of long-time play-by-play man Fred McLeod. Fred was a fantastic man, always supportive of WFNY, and embraced having this punk blogger kid around the practice facility and in the locker room. Beyond awful news. He will be greatly missed.
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) September 10, 2019