It was a night of mourning across the NBA. On Thursday, broadcasters, coaches and players paid tribute to long-time Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager, who died from myeloid leukemia aged 65. With Sager’s death, the game lost one of its greatest ambassadors – and one if its most colorful characters.
Over the course of a long career, Sager covered a wide variety of sports. He began covering baseball in the 1970s: as Hank Aaron noted, Sager was there waiting for him at home plate when he surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record. Through the decades, Sager covered the MLB playoffs, college football, tennis, golf, Olympic events and even the 1990 World Cup in Italy. However, he will be forever be linked with basketball, and achieved his greatest notability as a fixture on TNT’s NBA broadcasts.
Sager’s initial fame came as much from his distinctive wardrobe as it did from his undeniable skills as a reporter. His colorful suits, and ties that rendered the concepts of “matching” and “clashing” utterly meaningless, allowed him to stand out from his peers. Even as a fan buried deep in the cheap seats at Fenway Park, I recall picking him out of in a sea of players, reporters and cameramen that flooded the field following a walk-off Red Sox victory, solely due to the vibrancy of his bright orange sports coat.
While his outfits helped him receive a certain amount of attention, it also, initially at least, invited a certain amount of disrespect. But it never seemed to him. If anything, he seemed to appreciate being the target of the (mostly affectionate) mockery of his interview subjects, even when they told him to burn his entire outfit.
Sager’s ability to brush off even the sharpest of insults made him a perfect sideline interviewer, perhaps one of the most thankless jobs in sports media. The sideline interview, whether it’s with a harried coach busy trying to win a game, or an exhausted or player who has just finished playing in one, rarely provides the viewer with anything of any substance. At best, the subject will come up with a vaguely amusing soundbite or commit a notable faux pas that the network can twist into a controversy. Sager, however, was the master of the art form. His jovial nature and his network-abetted omnipresence had a way of putting his subject at ease.
Well, with one notable exception.
Sager’s most memorable moments came when he had the unenviable task of attempting in-game interviews with the notoriously prickly Gregg Popovich, the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Over the course of many many meetings, these interviews evolved into accidental comedy routines as Sager attempted to get anything, anything at all, from an increasingly agitated Popovich, who would mostly respond with curt sarcasm. Eventually, the Sager-Popovich dialogues became must-watch television, with the increasingly playful give-and-take between the two becoming as much of a contest as anything happening on the court.
Although they seemed to be exact opposites, the boisterous talkative reporter versus the stoic head coach, they shared the same force of will. That was the key to the act: no matter how big a wall Popovich would try to build between them, Sager would try his best to tear it down. No matter what defenses Popovich would put up, Sager would do his best to disarm them. There was a mutual respect and, eventually, friendship between the two, which only grew when Sager took ill.
It was this quality, this indomitable will, that Popovich notedon Thursday night when he paid tribute to his old sparring partner. Speaking before the Spurs’ game against the Phoenix Suns, Popovich said: “If any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every [day] as if it’s his last, well, you know, we’d be well off.”
Most of us didn’t realize just how tough Sager really was until we saw what he went through just to get back to work, even when he knew that his illness was terminal. A video tribute that played before he accepted the Jimmy V Preservation award at the ESPYs earlier this year documented the grueling chemotherapy he underwent, just to have the chance to return to the job he loved so much.
If you would listen to Sager, especially during his powerful speech at the ESPYs, his main message was not about the pain and the struggle. It was, instead, an appreciation of life: “I will never give up and I will never give in. I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the marrow out of life as life sucks the marrow out of me.”
After watching him accept the award, it was no surprise to learn that Sager was universally loved within the industry. Turner even did something rather unusual in the cut-throat media world by lending him to ESPN for a game earlier this year, giving him a chance to cover his very first, and his last, NBA finals. He could only work Game 6, having spent the previous eight days getting treatment.
After he was diagnosed with leukemia, players and broadcasters began wearing Sager-themed outfits to raise money for charity, under the slogan #SagerStrong. Somewhere along the way, Sager’s deliberately eccentric style of dressing transformed from a personal trademark, his way of standing out, into an outward reflection of the inward joy he took in life and, especially, in his work. When asked by HBO’s Real Sports if basketball helped him get through his illness, he quickly replied: “It’s the greatest thing ever.” His love of the game helped keep him alive.
And that’s why it was fitting that when, before last night’s nationally broadcast game against the Knicks, Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors head coach, called for a moment of joy in his honor, rather than a moment of silence. Craig Sager wouldn’t want us to mourn his death. He would hope, instead, we’d celebrate his life.