Craig Sager, the legendary sideline reporter and NBA announcer whose years-long battle with acute myeloid leukemia inspired countless fans and basketball lovers, died Thursday. He was 65.
“Craig Sager was a beloved member of the Turner family for more than three decades and he has been a true inspiration to us all,” Turner President David Levy wrote in a network statement. “There will never be another Craig Sager. His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports.
“While he will be remembered fondly for his colorful attire and the TNT sideline interviews he conducted with NBA coaches and players, it’s the determination, grace and will to live he displayed during his battle with cancer that will be his lasting impact.”
Shortly after news of his passing began to circulate, stirring scores of tributes from figures throughout the sports world, Sager’s son and daughter, Craig II and Kacy, shared heartfelt but upbeat tributes to their father via Twitter:
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that he, “along with the entire NBA family, [is] deeply saddened by” Sager’s passing.
“A true original and an essential voice on Turner Sports’ NBA coverage for 26 seasons, Craig chronicled some of the most memorable moments in league history and was a ubiquitous presence with his splashy suits and colorful personality,” Silver wrote. “Craig earned widespread respect for his insightful reporting and inspired so many recently with his courage.”
Silver also announced that NBA teams will observe a moment of silence before their next games in Sager’s memory.
Born in Batavia, Ill., and a graduate of Northwestern who proudly served as Willie the Wildcat, the football team’s mascot, during his tenure on campus, Sager’s career spanned five decades and countless events, from spring training games in Sarasota, Fla., to the field at Fulton County Stadium, where he famously ran onto the grass to get an on-field interview with Hank Aaron moments after he’d clubbed his record-breaking 715th career home run, pushing him past Babe Ruth to the top of Major League Baseball’s all-time list.
Sager died just two days after being inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, taking his deserved place alongside a slew of other luminaries who have helped shape and color the way we watch, listen to and love sports over the years.
Speaking of “slew,” this passage from a spring 2016 feature on Sager by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins offers some sense of just how vast and vibrant a career Sager enjoyed:
Sager is not the guy who provides dissertations on pick-and-roll defense. He is the guy who once slept next to the stall of Seattle Slew the night before the horse won the Triple Crown, who bailed Morganna the Kissing Bandit out of jail, who surprised Shaquille O’Neal by boat at his Isleworth home. An interview with Sager should really be conducted at the dog track, where he used to own greyhounds, or a Hooters, where servers clad in Sager Orange bring him Bud Light and buffalo shrimp. […]
Sager writes the names and numbers of everyone who calls him on three-by-five index cards. He walks around with a stack. Rodman calls all the time. Karl Malone called. Phil Mickelson called. “I don’t really even know Phil Mickelson,” Sager says. “The response is so surprising to me.” It is not surprising to LeBron [James] or [Adam] Silver or Chris Paul, who has introduced Sager to his parents and in 2013 asked him to appear in one of his Jordan Brand commercials. “He gives everything realness,” Paul says. At some point Sager became part of the league’s fabric, double silk to be sure.
Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, and went 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 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 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 his longtime foil and close friend, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, less than two months later. Sager 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 he later 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. Thanks to some quick thinking and across-the-aisle partnership, the veteran reporter got to work the NBA Finals this past summer for the first time in his storied career, joining ESPN’s broadcast crew for Game 6 of the 2016 Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers … and loving every minute of it.
In recognition of his tireless fight, Sager was recognized this past summer with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2016 ESPY Awards, where he delivered a stirring acceptance speech in which he reaffirmed his commitment to savoring every moment of his life for as long as he had left:
“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.”
“I will live my life full of love and full of fun. It’s the only way I know how.”
Sager’s fight continued the following month, as he underwent a third stem-cell transplant aimed at beating back the advancing leukemia.
“I’ve already had two stem cell transplants,” the 65-year-old Sager said during a March interview with HBO’s “Real Sports.” Very rarely does somebody have a third. So I have to maintain my strength, so I can go through this.”
In order to reach the point where he could undergo a third bone marrow transplant, Sager needed to embark on a new round of chemotherapy, which prevented him from traveling to Rio de Janeiro to cover men’s and women’s basketball during the 2016 Summer Olympics. That course of action frustrated Sager, who had hoped to hold off on the new round of treatment until after the Olympic fortnight, but the doctors who helped him keep the disease at bay for the past two-plus years determined that time was of the essence.
Despite the long odds of success with the new round of treatment, Sager remained committed to pushing his luck — “OK, third time’s the charm,” he said shortly after the transplant began — and to taking the fight to his adversary, according to Kristie Rieken of The Associated Press:
“I like to gamble,” he told The Associated Press. “I like to bet on horses, I like to bet on dogs, I like to bet on a lot of things. I’ve bet on a lot of things with a lot higher odds than this.” […]
The latest of nearly 100 procedures Sager has endured in his well-publicized fight was performed at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and took more than 10 hours to complete. Dr. Muzaffar Qazilbash, Sager’s stem cell transplantation physician, researched thousands of such transplants at MD Anderson over the last 15 years.
“It’s less than 1 percent of the total number of transplants,” Qazilbash said. “It’s very rare to have three transplants.”
That perseverance and commitment to positivity struck so many throughout Sager’s fight, and helped turn his individual fight into something that had a much greater impact on a much broader community. He inspired us, presenting an indefatigable example of grace under pressure and reminding us that while you can’t always control what happens to you in life, you can control how you respond — even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Man, life is too beautiful, too wonderful, there’s just too many things,” he said. “It’s not just you. It’s your family and kids and all. Fight. Fight until the end. Fight as hard as you can.”
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