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To those of us watching at home, for years, Craig Sager and Gregg Popovich were between-quarters adversaries, a technicolor marvel perpetually trying to coax something bright out of the NBA’s most drab and dour figure. As time wore on, though, it became clear that the two were a classic comedy team, fully committed to the bit … and, more than that, true friends with a strong, deep relationship underneath all the on-camera ribbing.
Popovich lost his partner in the act on Thursday, after a years-long battle with acute myeloid leukemia. With the entire NBA community offering tributes to one of the sport’s iconic figures, it wouldn’t have seemed right for Popovich to speak with reporters about anything else in the hours before his San Antonio Spurs took the floor in Arizona to face the Phoenix Suns. So he didn’t. He just talked about his friend.
I guess on a day like this, basketball has to take a back seat as we all think about somebody who was very unique, very special. Whether you really knew Craig or not, you got the feeling that he was a special person in a lot of different ways. And right now, I just feel for his family.
To talk about him being a professional or good at what he did is, you know, a tremendous understatement. All of us who knew him understood that that fact was what he was all about, as far as work was concerned. But he was a way better person than he was a worker, even though he was amazing in that regard. He loved people. He enjoyed pregame, during games, postgame — he loved all the people around it. And everybody felt that.
The most amazing part of him is his courage. What he’s endured, and the fight that he’s put up, the courage that he’s displayed during this situation is beyond my comprehension. 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. We all miss him very much.
While their sideline sparring sessions got the attention and elicited the laughs, their friendship behind the scenes was as real as it gets. When Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in April of 2014, shelving him for the postseason and preventing him from linking up with Pop during the Spurs’ playoff run, TNT brought in his son, Craig II, to work the first game of San Antonio’s series with the Dallas Mavericks. Pop treated Jr. well, but took the opportunity to speak directly to Dad watching at home … and even promise to ease up on him if he came back.
But Popovich just … wouldn’t … leave … the Sagers … alone.
“He called me four or five times in the next month to check on me and my dad,” said Junior, and remember, Pop and the Spurs were in the heat of the playoff run. Pop’s timing was downright surreal, too.
“He called the day of my sister Krista’s graduation from the University of Georgia, because my dad couldn’t make it,” said Junior. “And this was before a game against Portland.”
About a week later, Junior was involved in a hit and run accident on the Georgia 400 highway that gave his car a serious thrashing (he was OK). As he stood on the side of the road, waiting for help, his cell rang. Popovich. The Spurs in the midst of playing the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
“Everything OK?” asked Pop.
“Well, come to think of it …” replied Junior.
Popovich kept calling and writing the father, who savored it all. Sager won’t reveal much of what Pop said to him, choosing to keep such matters private, except to say the calls and letters “were beyond belief.” Sager did allow that Pop mentioned how “we’re a team.” Meaning, Pop and Sager. Cranky coach (but a softie underneath) and sideline reporter. Imagine that.
Sager said returning to work was a huge motivator as were all the well wishes from professional colleagues and fans (he received a lot of cards). Last week while at home, the phone rang from a familiar voice. He recounted the dialogue:
“It’s Coach Pop,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “How you doing, pal? I see you are coming back to work?”
“Yeah, I am,” Sager replied.
“Does that mean that this is pity party is over now?” Popovich bellowed. “Does this mean I can go back to not answering your questions and making fun of your clothes?”
Said Sager: “I wouldn’t have it another way.”
When the moment did come, during a December matchup between the Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies, it was perfect:
“I gotta honestly tell you: this is the first time I’ve enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview we’re required to do,” Popovich said. “It’s because you’re here, and you’re back with us. Welcome back, baby.”
“Thank you very much,” Sager said, as Popovich hugged him. “I laid in the hospital for months hoping to do this again.”
“Now ask me a couple of inane questions,” Pop replied, snapping back into character.
Their best moment that night, though, came off the court.
Before Thursday night’s nationally televised TNT game between the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr — who played under Popovich for four seasons in San Antonio, and who worked with Sager at TNT for several years — brought both teams together to honor Sager’s memory … but decided to break from the script when it came time to call for a moment of silence, because, well, that just didn’t seem like it would be Sager’s style:
It’ll probably be awfully tough to put a smile on Pop’s face tonight. If anything could, though, that just might.
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