Anchored to Journalism: Jude LaCava reflects on career

The Fox 10 anchor and "Sports Night" host was honored with the Silver Circle Award last year

Jeremy Beren, Editor-in-Chief, Scottsdale Chronicle

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He has been called Jud, June, Jed, Judy, even some names that cannot be repeated over the air or in a newspaper. No matter how he’s referenced, Fox 10 broadcaster Jude LaCava has spent three decades building a reputation as one of the West Coast’s premier figures in sports journalism. He has received many plaudits for his work and most recently was recognized with the Silver Circle Award, given to individuals who have broadcast in the Rocky Mountain Region for at least 25 years.

“He’s kind of a sports savant,” Fox 10 news anchor Marc Martinez quipped.

In 1989, LaCava drove his 1978 Oldsmobile – with an NWA cassette in the glove box, of course – from Toledo to Phoenix. He hosted “Sportsline” on 620 KTAR with Todd Walsh (now of Fox Sports Arizona) from 1989 until 1993, when, as he said, he needed a “breath of fresh air” and joined the team at Fox 10. “Sports Night” has been a fixture on Valley televisions ever since, and LaCava regards covering the Phoenix sports scene as the luckiest thing in his life.

“Timing is everything in life – and this was great timing – but it was a real honor to at least be an observer along the way,” LaCava said. “So that’s been fun.”

Over the length of a 40-plus minute interview at Fox 10’s multi-purpose studio in downtown Phoenix, LaCava reminisced on overcoming adversity and chasing a dream, while also discussing his love of comedian Redd Foxx (“he was a pioneer”), his efforts in cancer research and where he feels journalism is headed next.

“I guess the thing I look at is sports truly is a microcosm of life,” he explained. “That’s to me the great metaphor of life. You know the tragedy of a missed fi eld goal or a last-second shot that falls short – or a last-second shot that goes in. All of those things that cover the spectrum of emotions in life, the agony of defeat, the joy and thrill of victory. That’s what I love about it.”

PENNSYLVANIA:
FAMILY AND BASKETBALL

LaCava’s story did not begin in Phoenix. It did not begin in Toledo or Cleveland, either. LaCava grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, where he was a gym rat and a basketball player – all day, every day.

“It’s kinda like the old Tom Cruise movie ‘All the Right Moves,’” LaCava said. “Your only shot out was to play ball and that was the mindset in the ‘70’s. I loved basketball, I played it morning, noon and night all through high school, was a pretty good player.”

LaCava described basketball as his outlet and sports was his “great release” from a somewhat difficult youth.

“It was a tough life,” LaCava said. “For me, my mom was a real warrior, she was diagnosed with advanced cancer when I was a teenager – 14, 15 years old and I lost her five, six years later.”

Losing his mother prematurely inspired LaCava to later in life work with the Dorothy Foundation, named after his mother and founded by his sister Sandra. The Dorothy Foundation is driven by a singular concept: getting more effective treatments to cancer patients more quickly. LaCava said the foundation’s mission is to find an affordable pre-Stage I cancer test; he and a team of researchers are collaborating to that end.

“There’s one line by a guy named George Poste, who basically was the founder of ASU Biodesign that says, ‘silos subvert solutions,’” LaCava explained. “If you keep information in a silo and you don’t share it, you’re limiting the chances of getting there faster. This concept of shared data, shared information across all lines is extremely helpful because if you can take all these brilliant minds and work in concert, the logic is very simple – we’ll do a better job of getting there faster.”

Dorothy LaCava’s strength and determination to fight her disease continues to inspire her son today, but Jude’s father was an inspiration in another way.

“He was a very unconventional guy that had two master’s degrees, taught college, did a lot of different things with his life and was raised in an orphanage,” LaCava said. “So he came a long way and he was very inspirational and a real personality and character, but a guy that kinda set the tone of saying ‘if you work hard enough, you can do anything.’”

Carl LaCava was a veteran of two wars, sold cars and worked in music promotion. When he was not working with automotive business trailblazers like Roger Penske, Carl regularly brought musical acts to his dealership to sign autographs and partake in a Dick Clark-like sock hop.

LaCava attended Salisbury High School in Allentown, Pa. He played shooting guard for the Falcons, the school’s basketball team, and it was at Salisbury where LaCava experienced his toughest moment in basketball: a loss in the state tournament final to the Catasauqua Roughriders.

“I can still see the locker I stared into after,” LaCava remembered. “We lost to a team we beat by 17 points on their home floor earlier in the season. They had an excellent coach and they fouled out our big man. It was probably the best game I ever played.”

LaCava believes the loss went a long way towards shaping his resulting – and enduring – work ethic.

“Whatever you do, put the work in and great results will result,” he said.

OHIO:
CATCHING A BREAK

After playing basketball for a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, LaCava tried his luck as a walk-on at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He did not make the team and transferred to Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, where he played limited minutes for one season and later received degrees in communications and psychology.

“I said ‘you know, I took it [basketball] as far as I could, let me report on it, let me get involved in the sports media,’ and I started in Cleveland as a gopher for $3.85 an hour,” LaCava said. “Get the coffee, get the donuts, rewrite the weather, rewrite the sports and just get in the business of a major newsroom in Cleveland.”

LaCava’s time at WERE Newstalk ended when the station switched formats, and he soon found himself trying to get by at a weather bureau in the early hours of the morning. That is until he was hired to host a sports call-in show at WSPD in Toledo, approximately 110 miles west of Cleveland.

“I got my break there and paid my dues, from there worked in Toledo for like $12,000 a year, covering the Mid-American Conference,” LaCava said. “I covered Dan Majerle as a player at Central Michigan many moons ago, 30 years ago.”

Majerle, a future Phoenix Suns great, later would feature prominently in LaCava’s work after he made the trek west.

It was in Toledo where LaCava met another figure who would also remain a part of him when he moved to Phoenix – Charlie Tapp, a professional bowler referred to as “the best bit ever in the history of 620 Sportsline” and “a bad bit gone haywire.”

“When I put him on the radio in Toledo he was one of the funniest characters I’d ever come across,” LaCava said. “He had a singing dog. Once he took me for a ride in his Chevy van, said ‘come on, let’s go to Pizza Hut.’ And we took a really sharp right turn, and I thought we’d gotten rear-ended. Well, he traveled with 19 bowling balls, so whenever he took a sharp turn, the bowling balls would run into the side of the van.”

However, not all of LaCava’s time at WSPD was about bowling balls and singing canines. In 1986, LaCava and his colleagues went to Disney World for vacation. While they were there, they witnessed the explosion and disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28.

“That morning it finally was launched, and we came out of one of the exhibits and we saw the explosion,” LaCava said.

LaCava’s general manager told him to get in a rental car and go to Kennedy Space Center about 60 miles east of Disney World. LaCava was granted access with his Toledo Mud Hens press credential and was able to report on the explosion.

“It was unforgettable,” he said. “I can still remember the residue coming inland as I was driving to Kennedy Space Center.”

ARIZONA: THE RISE OF “SPORTS NIGHT” AND THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM

In 1989, LaCava was visiting an old girlfriend in Phoenix when he decided to drop off his tapes at KTAR. The station’s general manager, Jim Taszarek (who died recently), hired him on the fl y because of his affinity for the tapes. LaCava and Walsh then went on to host “Sportsline” for four years, until LaCava decided he needed to try something new.

“After doing talk radio for 10, 11, 12 years I said, ‘let’s try something new,’” he said. “And I came over here.”
Despite initial doubts over whether someone with a background exclusively on radio could succeed at Fox, LaCava’s confidence and work ethic soon won over the skeptics.

“Many people said, ‘you’re a radio guy,’” LaCava said. “‘You’re not the conventional Ken and Barbie-type guy that’s gonna pull off TV.’”

But LaCava pulled it off , and “Sports Night” continues to air a blend of highlights, analysis and in-depth reporting today. LaCava discussed a story that aired recently on “Sports Night” that took 20 years to complete: the Arizona State University basketball point-shaving scandal of the mid-1990’s, as seen through the eyes of businessman Joe Gagliano, who served prison time due to his role in the scandal.

“That’s one of the advantages of being in one place for a long period of time is you have a history with that story, from the suspicious nature of what happened to three years of the investigation, the indictments, the prison sentences,” LaCava said. “And now, many years later, some of the principles in that story finally talking and revealing the details that, to me, would be everything. It’s like ‘Goodfellas’ with basketball, this was a great story.”

When Gagliano reached out recently, LaCava interviewed him for a lengthy segment on “Sports Night.” But as compelling as the story was and is, LaCava said it was not on the same level as another, more dynamic story he covered many years ago.

“I think Pat Tillman was the biggest story because of how unusual it was, how unique it was,” LaCava said. “We can look at all the sacrifices our veterans make, but not many veterans walked away from a $13 million contract to go and enlist and really try to go get Osama Bin Laden. That was Pat’s mission. I think Pat transcended everything, because we always think of the athlete as the self-absorbed, ‘me, me, me’ type of personality, and Pat was anything but that. I think his legacy – they’ll talk about his legacy 50 years from now.”

While the former Arizona Cardinals safety was an intense and driven man, another athlete LaCava has covered over the years was Tillman’s polar opposite: former Suns forward Charles Barkley.

“There was never a veil on what Charles said,” LaCava laughed. “It was ‘what you see is what you get.’ He’s Chris Rock in basketball shoes. This guy was outrageous. We would hand him the mic sometimes and let him go off . So in terms of entertainment and talent, Charles was a happening.”

Barkley led the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals, which took place the summer before LaCava arrived at Fox. While Walsh correctly predicted Chicago Bulls guard John Paxson’s series-winning three-pointer, LaCava took a big-picture view of the series and how it became a “coming-of-age” for the city of Phoenix.

“I thought Toledo had a more vibrant downtown than Phoenix, and quite frankly, the landscape of Phoenix was one facility – the Veterans Memorial Coliseum,” LaCava said. “So if you can visualize that old-school arena, and now 26 years later it’s Chase Field. It’s Talking Stick [Resort] Arena. It’s Glendale. It’s ASU’s revamped stadium. I don’t think we’ll ever see a 25-year period with this explosive growth.”

LaCava feels the industry of journalism has grown, too, and he believes this generation presents challenges not seen before by media.

“You know, I broke in with typewriters and now it’s this, it’s iPhones,” LaCava said. “It’s 24/7, it’s non-stop news and information. In the 1980’s, they had a term called ‘information overload.’ I would say today, it’s information overload times 100 or to the nth degree, because it’s constant. This is where your young demographic is insisting on doing it differently, wanting it for free, wanting it on their iPhone, and that’s the challenge of today’s media.”

He concluded by addressing the future of journalism and how this generation can influence it.

“It’s really a great question that I can’t definitely answer right now,” LaCava said. “When you get to it, I would have to say that we’re in a whole brave new world of what’s out there, and it’s gonna be up to your generation to define it because there’s so many different ways to get news and information now and the standards are all over the map. So where does credibility and knowledge come from? It used to be the newspaper and three stations: NBC, ABC, CBS. Now, it’s 100 podcasts, it’s a million websites, it’s all kinds of tweets. That’s a good thing, I’m not against it. I’m just saying, ‘What do you believe in? What’s most legit? What’s the most credible?’ That is what’s really going to be the test of journalism the next 25 years.”

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