Beloved broadcaster and longtime NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2016 ESPY Awards on Wednesday night. The award, given each year to “a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination,” is named for the legendary basketball coach and commentator Jim Valvano, whose unforgettable acceptance speech while battling cancer at the 1993 ESPYS became an inspiration to millions.
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Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, and has gone through multiple courses of treatment, including chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, to try to beat back the illness. After missing nearly a year, he was cleared to return to television in March of 2015, only to see the illness return, forcing him to once again step away from his duties.
After several more months of treatment, including a transplant of bone marrow donated by his son, Craig II, Sager came back for the NBA’s 2015-16 Media Day in September, returned to work on Opening Night a month later, and had his first televised post-treatment tete-a-tete with Pop in December. Sager has continued to make monthly trips to Houston for treatment throughout the season, and was healthy enough to resume his responsibilities at the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend in Toronto. His status took a turn shortly thereafter, though, and Sager revealed in a March interview with HBO that his leukemia was no longer in remission.
Undaunted, he continued to work, juggling treatment through clinical trials, travel and broadcasting responsibilities in an inspiring effort captured at Wednesday’s ceremony in a short film package narrated by Ron Howard detailing just how much goes into keeping Sager at work on the sideline these days:
“Craig knows that every day, every hour, every moment matters,” said Vice President Joe Biden in his introduction. “And by his conduct, he teaches us how to live with perseverance and passion. Fearless. Hopeful. Together.”
Sager set about reinforcing that lesson as he strode to the stage to accept his award.
“When you are diagnosed with a terminal disease like cancer, leukemia, your perception of time changes,” Sager said. “When doctors tell you you have three weeks to live, do you try to live a lifetime of moments in three weeks? Or do you say, ‘To hell with three weeks?’ When doctors tell you your only hope of survival is 14 straight days of intense chemotherapy, 24 hours a day, do you sit there and count down the 336 hours? Or do you see each day as a blessing? Time is something that cannot be bought. It cannot be wagered with God. And it is not an endless supply. Time is simply how you live your life.
“I’m not an expert on time, or on cancer, or on life itself. I’m a kid from the small Illinois town of Batavia, who grew up on the Chicago Cubs, and made sports his life’s work, although there’s never been a day where it actually seemed like work. I have run with the bulls in Pamplona. I have raced with Mario Andretti in Indianapolis. I have climbed the Great Wall of China. I have jumped out of airplanes over Kansas. I have wrestled gators in Florida. I have sailed the ocean with Ted Turner. I have swam the oceans in the Caribbean. And I have interviewed Gregg Popovich. Mid-game. Spurs down seven.
“If I’ve learned anything through all of this, it’s that each and every day is a canvas, waiting to be painted — an opportunity for love, for fun, for living, for learning. To those of you out there who are suffering from cancer, facing adversity, I want you to know that your will to live and to fight cancer can make all the difference in the world. The way you think influences the way you feel, and the way you feel determines how you act.”
Sager credited his family and his colleagues at Turner Sports for their strength and aid in his fight, and praised his parents, Coral and Al, for raising him “with a positive outlook on life.”
Thanks to them, “I always see the glass half full,” Sager said. “I see the beauty in others, and I see the hope for tomorrow. If we don’t have hope and faith, we have nothing.
“Whatever I might have imagined a terminal diagnosis would do to my spirit, it’s summoned quite the opposite: the greatest appreciation for life itself. So 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.”
Sager’s message hit home with an awful lot of observers, starting with the one standing just a few feet to his right as he delivered it:
Honored to have shared the stage with Craig Sager during his moving speech at the ESPYs tonight. A lesson on how to live. #SagerStrong
— Vice President Biden (@VP) July 14, 2016
Sager should yank that mic up out of the stage and drop it #SagerStrong
— Lang Whitaker (@langwhitaker) July 14, 2016
— Freddie Coleman (@ColemanESPN) July 14, 2016
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) July 14, 2016
— Jensen Karp (@JensenClan88) July 14, 2016
“I will live my life full of love and full of fun,” Sager said. “It’s the only way I know how.”
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