Craig Sager is on the phone from his home outside Atlanta, excited about doing something most people don’t think twice about.
Getting a haircut.
“After not having any hair for many months, it finally grew back,” said Sager, the longtime Turner Sports reporter. “Now, it hasn’t grown back totally but I did have to get a little trim to smooth it out a bit.”
Sager is laughing as he says this, and that laughter should be music to the ears of NBA television viewers.
Nearly a year and a half ago, on April 10, 2014, Sager was in Dallas to work a Spurs-Mavericks game for TNT when he started feeling ill. He contacted Dr. Tarek O. Souryal, a longtime friend and the Mavericks' team physician, who asked him a series of diagnostic questions. Upon hearing the responses, Souryal made a quick diagnosis.
“You have to go the hospital now,” Souryal told Sager. At a Dallas-area hospital, Sager said he was told his hemoglobin had dropped to dangerous levels. He was immediately given a series of blood transfusions and additional testing, which eventually revealed a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. Endless chemotherapy followed, as did a bone marrow transplant on July 3 from his son, Craig Jr.
Sager returned to work for Turner last March, as SI.com chronicled here, but bad news soon followed: His leukemia had returned. He underwent more rounds of chemotherapy, and his doctors were not initially optimistic about his prognosis. “They told me my days were numbered but we were able to bounce back,” Sager said. “That’s not a time I hope to live through again and I don’t really like rehashing and thinking about it.”
Three months ago, on July 17, Sager underwent a bone marrow transplant and stem cell transfer at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The donor was son, Craig Jr., a sports writer, and he proved to be a perfect genetic match for the transplant.
After 82 days of a 100-day maintenance program, his doctors at MD Anderson released him to go home to Atlanta. Sager is still seeing Houston doctors for aftercare maintenance and he recently had his blood work done, which checked out great. “All my numbers are good, my body is developing its own white blood cells, my platelets are high,” Sager said.
That sets up an exciting return to work for Sager, who will be on the sidelines Tuesday for the second game of TNT’s opening night NBA doubleheader, New Orleans at Golden State (10:30 p.m. ET). After his assignment in Golden State, Sager will work NBATV’s regular-season debut on Oct. 31 (Warriors at Hornets.) He will then be in Chicago for Thunder-Bulls on Nov. 5 for TNT, followed by Nov. 19 (Bucks at Cavs on TNT) and Celtics at Hawks (TNT), where Sager has purchased a suite for his local friends to watch him at the game. He’s also assigned to San Antonio at Memphis on Dec. 3.
• FAST BREAKS: Video previews for all 30 NBA teams
Doctors said Sager is free to travel and he also has designs on working for NBC as a basketball reporter at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “I have no restrictions as of now,” Sager said.
But he is by no means done with treatment. On Nov. 9 Sager will return to MD Anderson to receive two daily Vidaza injections in his stomach. The medication is used to treat a group of blood/bone marrow disorders in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells. It is believed to work by helping bone marrow grow normal blood cells so patients will need fewer blood transfusions.
The sartorially famous Sager said his TNT opening night outfit is already picked out. He wanted something special so he called up A. Taghi in Houston, one of his favorite clothing stores, and it shipped in some silk from Italy for a custom-made orange jacket and rust-colored pants to honor breast cancer and leukemia survivors. His tie will be orange and black with some bling to it. “The color of beating breast cancer is pink and beating leukemia is orange so I wanted something with an orange/pink tint or hue to it,” Sager said. “It’s also just a few days from Halloween.”
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.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week
1. If you have endured layoffs at your place of employment, you know how extraordinary awful they are, and last week ESPN employees experienced the lowest moment in company’s history regarding losing colleagues. The company cut the jobs of around 300 employees, about 4-5% of its workforce, a particularly brutal act of gutting given the long tenures of many of those who were cut. Particularly hard hit were members of the production, technology staff and talent office. Many of these employees helped build the foundation of ESPN and had given their professional life to the company.
Most of you have never heard the names but they were vital to ESPN employees. People such as longtime OTL coordinating producer Steve Vecchione, senior coordinating producer Gerry Matalon, Jay Levy, who coordinated ESPN's men's college basketball coverage, longtime senior coordinating producer (College GameDay, SportsCenter, college sports wraps) Barry Sacks, and longtime SportsCenter producer Gus Ramsey, who penned this honest and poignant post on his blog. There are many, many more names on the list, especially male employees over 40 and 50.
“We’re just another company now,” one longtime ESPN-er told me this week. “And that was never the narrative, nor the reality here."
1a. Former SportsCenter anchor and current Dodgers broadcaster Charley Steiner wrote a post about the layoffs on his blog, calling his old employer a “soulless monolith.”
1b. ESPN president John Skipper addressed the staff cuts here.
1c. I wrote a piece Sunday on Yahoo’s live-streaming the Bills-Jaguars game.
1d. Michigan State’s last-second win over Michigan averaged 7.4 million viewers and peaked with 11.5 million for the game’s final play (7:15–7:24 p.m.). The network said it was the best October Saturday viewership for the network dating back to 1994 and ESPN’s most-viewed 3:30 p.m. game ever and ESPN’s most-watched October college football game in more than 20 years.
1e. Jason Lisk of The Big Lead had a strong piece on ESPN soft-balling Ray Lewis as part of his book tour.
2. ESPN’s World Series coverage plans include an onsite Baseball Tonight set featuring Jessica Mendoza and Curt Schilling. Both will travel to Kansas City and New York, along with host Karl Ravech, analyst John Kruk and Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who was terrific in the ESPN booth for the AL wild-card game. (Archer will appear on the show for Games 1 and 2, and 5 through 7 if necessary.) It’s the first time Mendoza and Schilling will work together since Schilling was suspended (which included assignments for the Little League World Series, Sunday Night Baseball and the wild-card playoff game) for sharing a Twitter meme about extremist Muslims and Nazis. Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone will work the Series for ESPN Radio.
2a. Fox’s longtime MLB director Bill Webb will miss this year’s broadcast as he battles Stage 3 cancer.
2b. TBS said its MLB postseason viewership averaged 6.3 million total viewers, the network’s most-viewed postseason coverage of all time, according to Nielsen Fast Nationals. Games were up 48% in total viewers. Tops among series were the Mets-Cubs which averaged 7.9 million total viewers and was the most-watched NLCS across all of television since 2010
2c. FS1 MLB studio host Alex Rodriguez, giving his FS1 colleague Pete Rose some social media advice: "Pete, it's never good to be trending on Twitter.”
2d. The Big Ten Network had some remarkable images of the final play of Michigan State-Michigan.
2e. Here’s Georgia Tech radio announcer Brandon Gaudin's call of Georgia Tech’s game-winning kick block and return.
3. The 25th episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features guest James Andrew Miller, the best-selling author of These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN. With Grantland facing more uncertainly than ever after an exodus of multiple staffers and others actively looking to jump ship following the departures of Bill Simmons and editorial director Daniel Fierman, I spoke with Miller for 65 minutes on the current climate of Grantland, its prospects for survival amid ESPN’s empire and covering ESPN overall. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me here.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne traveled to Nevada to reconstruct what happened to Lamar Odom.
• Washington Post ports columnist Sally Jenkins, in full Captain Louis Renault mode, on Rick Pitino.
• SI’s Tom Verducci on how Carlton Fisk's home run altered baseball and TV.
• Great work from Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan after Game 6 of the ALCS.
• Terrific of reporting by Nathan Fenno and Paul Pringle of the Los Angeles Times on Pat Haden’s outside income from his current job as USC athletic director.
• SI’s Dan Greene on what happens after an umpire blows a World Series call.
• Via Vice Sports: How to catch a match fixer.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Savoring life and canine companionship. Fantastic work from one of the best newspaper writers in the country, Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz.
• She told the family of a severely disabled man that she could help him to communicate with the outside world. The relationship that followed would lead to a criminal trial. Remarkable work by the NYT Magazine.
• Via The New Republic’s Jamil Smith: No matter how many signs you hold up, dude, rapists can look like you. http://on.tnr.com/1LIkZQy
• Via NYT: The last time she saw her husband was 65 years ago. This time, she brought their 64-year-old son.
5. Stephanie Ready debuts this week as a color analyst on Fox Sports Southeast's coverage of the Charlotte Hornets, making her the NBA's first full-time female game analyst. She will work with Eric Collins and Dell Curry on the broadcast. I checked in with the former Coppin State University player and NBA D-League coach via email on the eve of the regular season.
SI.com: At what point of your professional career did you think landing an NBA analyst job was possible and why?
Ready: My first year as the sideline reporter for the then Charlotte Bobcats. On occasion I would be the analyst on the radio broadcasts with Steve Martin performing play by play duties. The feedback was very positive, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that role at the NBA level. That's when I realized it was a possibility. It was still another few years before it became an actual career goal.
There have been women who have served as game analysts at the NBA national level (Doris Burke) and at the local level (Ann Meyers and Nancy Lieberman) but your post is unique given we have never seen a women in the NBA analyst chair for 82 games (and potentially more). I know people often use the word "pioneer" in such roles but how much responsibility do you feel to those young women behind you in the business and why?
I hate that we are still using the term ‘pioneer’ as it relates to women and their chosen career paths in 2015. However, I do understand the importance of having a ‘first’ to lead the way. I was fortunate enough to have some women who came before me in the role of analyst for an NBA game like Cheryl Miller and Ann Meyers. The successes they experienced allowed me to set my career goals. Having said that, I am aware of the amount of eyes on my new position with The Hornets on Fox Sports Southeast. I hope that having my new role as full time analyst will allow young people to dream and have the confidence to pursue those dreams.
What kind of feedback have you gotten on your professional work from male NBA fans?
The feedback from male NBA fans has been outstanding! The Hornets/NBA fans have been extremely supportive and encouraging. Whenever I had the opportunity to fill in as the analyst on the Hornets television broadcasts in the past, the fans would ask for me to work more games. I am not so naive as to think that everyone is as excited as I am about my new position. For every few hundred positive comments, there has been one negative or misogynistic one.
How realistic, in your opinion, are the prospects of Becky Hammon being hired as NBA head coach and why?
I think it's perfectly realistic. She is already on the right path. If she is worthy, she will get the appropriate promotions as she already has. The NBA has always been inclusive and leading the way in terms of diversity in the workplace.
5a. The folks at Awful Announcing are starting a new site and hiring writers. Check it out.
5b. John Ourand of Sports Business Daily reported that NBC will shut down the Universal Sports TV channel on Nov. 16, a major disappointment for Olympic fans.
5c. Yankees radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman discussed the obstacles she faced early in her career on the CBS Sports Network show, We Need To Talk.
5d. ESPN said September was most-watched month ever for ESPN2’s weekday morning show First Take, averaging 458,000 viewers, up 50% from Sept. 2011 ratings (304,000 in September 2011). October highlights for the show include one of the hosts threatening Thunder star Kevin Durant not to talk badly about him. Or else.
5e. The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie interviewed Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred including some of his thoughts on baseball broadcasting.
5f. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will run in the Breeders Cup Classic on Oct. 31. The coverage on NBC begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, part of 8.5 hours of Breeders’ Cup World Championships coverage next week on NBC and NBCSN from Keeneland in Lexington.
5g. As part of its annual report of the sports industry, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that media rights will account for 28% ($20.6 billion) of the total measured sports industry revenue in 2019, up from 17% ($7.0 billion) in 2005.
5h. Play-by-play broadcaster Kenny Albert’s versatility has been on display again this month. Over a nine-day stretch from Oct. 14-23, Albert called the Blue Jays-Rangers Game 5 (MLB), Rangers at Montreal (NHL), Redskins at Jets (NFL), Sharks at Rangers (NHL), and Knicks at Celtics (NBA).
5i. Liz Mullen of Sports Business Daily reported that Steve Spurrier, who this column wrote about last week, as a potential broadcasting candidate, has signed with CAA for representation all areas including broadcasting.
5j. Tina Cervasio, who just turned 40, was jettisoned by the MSG Network after working as that network's Knicks courtside reporter since 2008. Perhaps she was too popular with viewers. Here’s Newsday’s Neil Best with the story.
5k. The late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott was inducted into UNC's Journalism Hall of Fame.
5l. In memory of the passing of Flip Saunders, this from Steve Rushin in 2006.