“I thought that was it.” Kiwi basketballer Lindsay Tait opens up about his silent battle with cancer and retiring at the age of 36.
In a basketball career where he specialised in overcoming obstacles, Lindsay Tait was not prepared for the biggest challenge of them all.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2017 New Zealand National Basketball League season, where Tait made the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 seasons, he took off to the United States for a break.
On his return, he noticed something was wrong, and soon discovered a concerning lump in his throat. It was thyroid cancer and it had spread to his lymph nodes.
After winning seven titles and compiling 37 individual awards in his NBL career, Tait’s basketball career looked over. Far worse than that — he believed his life was over.
“When I was diagnosed and you even hear the use of the word cancer — you think you’re going to die. I thought that was it,” recalls Tait.
“All I was thinking about was my sons and my family. I was thinking ‘I need to be here to see my sons to turn into men’. I wasn’t ready to go yet.”
On October 9, Tait underwent surgery to remove his thyroid gland, and with it, the cancer. Like he had done so many times on the court, Tait came out on top.
Tait will retire at the end of the current NBL season, bringing to a close a storied 19-year career he is grateful to have extended by an additional year.
Typically, a cancer battle calls careers to a close, but for Tait, it was the opposite. Once recovered from surgery, the 36-year-old point guard viewed his close call as giving him a “second chance at life” — and an opportunity to make a statement in one last season.
“It definitely changed my perspective on life and the game of basketball — I do not take for granted any time I’m able to open my eyes and go out and play basketball. I’ve always loved it but it’s extra special now,” says Tait.
Why come back for one last campaign? After all, the Avondale College product has nothing more to prove in the league — he’s arguably the NBL’s most accomplished player, and the league’s most consistent force for most of this century. Yet, despite that, Tait wanted to come back to show his sons Mikaere and Marley how to approach adversity.
“I have two young sons and they’ve been through this with me, especially my eldest who is 12 years old,” said Tait.
“I felt that it was important that he sees that when life puts something in front of you that’s difficult, and you get knocked down, you don’t stay down. You get up, and you keep fighting. I wanted him to know the cloth that he’s cut from — that’s his DNA.”
Tait has 15 games left in his NBL career — a career which will see him finish in the top 10 all-time in points, assists and games played. While he has a few games he’d like back, there’s nobody in the New Zealand basketball community who would deny Tait his status as an NBL great, and he believes that is his crowning accomplishment.
“A lot of people say they have no regrets but there are things in my basketball career, decisions I’ve made and things I’ve done that I do regret, but I look back on my career and I smile, I’m at peace. I have the respect of my peers and ultimately that’s all I was fighting for.”
Now, Tait is hoping to pass his experience on to the next generation, and give back to the game which gave him so much.
He is taking the lead with the Basketball Auckland Talent Accelerator Programme — an opportunity for representative-level high school players to learn from the best.
It’s a path he didn’t expect to be taking, but life has been full of those for Tait in the past few months. Both his parents coached, and a piece of wisdom from his father proved prescient as Tait began his foray.
“Basketball has given me a lot, and I never envisioned myself getting involved with coaching. When I was telling [my father] when I was younger that I’d never even consider coaching, he told me that it’s the closest feeling you’ll ever get to playing.
“Being involved for a short period now, I’d agree with that. There is a feeling of joy you get when you take a young, talented kid and teach him something and see him do it; it’s as exciting to me now as if I can pull it off myself.”
After overcoming his off-court battle, Tait is making the most of his second chance to make an impact on the court.
“I’m not a religious man, but it is a blessing,” he reflects. “I just feel lucky every day that I get another chance to do this.”
A lot of people say they have no regrets but there are things in my basketball career, decisions I’ve made and things I’ve done that I do regret, but I look back on my career and I smile, I’m at peace. Lindsay Tait
Lindsay Tait is grateful he got a chance to play one more season of NBL after winning his cancer battle.