On April 20, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs faced the Dallas Mavericks in the first game of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. It was a close, tense, exciting game between two tense rivals with recent history and championship pedigree. The Spurs won 90-85 behind Tim Duncan’s classic 27 point performance. And all of that takes a back seat to something almost mundane that happened between the third and fourth quarters of the game. Craig Sager Jr. interviewed Gregg Popovich for TNT’s broadcast of the game. Popovich is famous for giving brief, one word answers and curt responses that scream of contempt to the reporters asking these questions. He has no time, he’s got a game to win and a team to coach! Except for April 20th. On that night, he took his time to answer the questions posed to him and took the time to praise Craig Sager Jr. for the job he did, but expressed disappointment in Sager’s father not asking him the questions.
Senior was at that time being treated for acute myeloid leukemia. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and got it from his son; the same some who interviewed Popovich. Sager had never missed so much as a TNT regular season game between two horrendous teams since joining the Turner sports crew in 1981. But he missed the entire 2014 playoffs and a major personality was missing. The playoffs went on and entertained millions while Craig recovered and became a model of how to live honorably and enthusiastically while recovering from serious disease.
On March 5th, 2015, Sager returned to the sidelines to work the TNT broadcast of a game between the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder at the United Center. It made sense. Sager grew up in Batavia, Illinois, only an hour and a half west of the Windy City. He loved the Cubs and was a diehard Chicagoan. He got to cover an exciting game between two excellent teams in his home town. How perfect .
Then on June 16th, 2016, TNT loaned Sager to ESPN to work his first ever NBA finals. The man once described by George Brett as a “one man crew” when he worked in Kansas City had reached the pinnacle of the sport he became synonymous with. He was holding a different logo on the microphone than he had since the 80’s, but LeBron James still hugged him in the middle of the game while being interviewed and asked him how it took so long to get him to that stage. Craig responded by brushing it off and doing his job. How perfect.
He did and lived all of this while being in and out of the hospital for follow up treatments after his first remission and, tragically, his cancer’s return. He needed three bone marrow transplants to keep going, something that hadn’t been done by many before. He would go to Houston to get chemotherapy, hop on a plane to go work a game, then fly right back to continue treatment until he was physically able and needed to work again. Truth was, he was always needed. Popovich needed a colorful character to make him look even more stoic than he already was, and Kevin Garnett needed another bright character to play off of to make his time more fun for all. He just wasn’t able to do it forever.
Yesterday, Craig Sager finally succumbed to the leukemia that had been eating away at him. It has resurfaced in March, before his first NBA Finals game, and before he was awarded the Jimmy V Perseverance award at the ESPY’s. He remained a model of energy, passion and zest for life, and going to work despite all possible setbacks.
I came to know Sager as the guy who wore the funny suits while telling you interesting facts about the game that was happening. It was an eyesore to see some of his suits, but he was a remarkable figure of consistency and entertainment on the sidelines. Everyone knew him, loved him, enjoyed making fun of his suits, and were inspired by him. No one could pull off his look, and even fewer could make the broadcast so entertaining and make it look so easy.
Sager is a model for how all young, aspiring broadcasters, myself included, should carry themselves. I will take inspiration from his example and be sad about the loss in the NBA community. Many will try and pull off Sager’s style, but no one will make it work. No one will wear those suits well again. No one will make it look so easy while looking so outlandish. And no one will replace the giant shoes that Sager is leaving behind. An institution is gone from the game, but the memories he gave live in and will entertain forever. May God welcome Craig Sager in heaven and comfort his family. Lord knows they need it today.