Craig Sager says he doesn't want Gregg Popovich to go soft. A snarling Pop makes for good television, Sager admits. But watching the Spurs' coach give him a national shout-out Sunday during an in-game interview with his 25-year-old son, Craig Jr., Sager said it was a moment he won't soon forget.
"It was just fabulous, an uplifting, tremendous thing for me," Sager told SI.com Monday afternoon from his hospital room in Atlanta, where the longtime Turner Sports broadcaster is undergoing treatment for adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
"Pop saying he wanted me back and then promising to be nice? I was like, Oh, my God, that's unbelievable, what an honor," said Sager, whose exchanges with the curt Popovich have become a much-anticipated part of TNT's NBA telecasts. "But then I started thinking about it: If I come back and Pop starts being nice to me, it just wouldn't be right. I want him to go Serbian [Popovich was born to a Serbian father] on me."
After two days of chemotherapy, Sager was in high spirits when SI.com checked in with him. In an effort to add color to the traditional patient couture, the always sartorially splendid Sager said he was wearing a Captain America gown and lemon-colored socks.
On April 10, Sager was in Dallas to work a Spurs-Mavericks game 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. "I was walking dead," Sager said. He was immediately given a series of blood transfusions and additional testing. Sager's wife, Stacy, flew in for support and together they later returned to their hometown of Atlanta, where Craig underwent a bone marrow biopsy.
The first report back revealed a cancer-free diagnosis. Four hours later at another hospital, though, Sager learned that he had AML. The couple went for a third opinion, and last Thursday the leukemia was confirmed. Doctors started five days of chemotherapy on Saturday, and Sager said he will undergo three treatments each day through Wednesday. He is staying in a blood and bone marrow transplant unit and working on winning the nurses over in his ward.
"After a few of my jokes, I think I have gotten to them," Sager said. "My personality has not been affected. I'm trying to stay positive and I feel pretty healthy. I feel obviously better than I did last week. Thank God for the NBA on TNT, because I am watching all the games and it is therapeutic.
"Getting my first chemo was very emotional. I'm thinking, What is this going to be like, how will it feel, what effects will it have on my body -- a total unknown. I have never been sick a day in my life. All of sudden they are administering the first chemo and [ESPN/ABC play-by-play announcer] Mike Breen gets on the air and says, 'Hey, we just want to say we miss Craig Sager.' That happened right as the first chemo came. I was like, Wow, I feel better now from the love and support of the airwaves!"
Sager said he is aware of all the tributes, including his Turner Sports colleagues Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Steve Kerr, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith dressing up in Sager-like outfits. He does not use Twitter because he feels it would violate his relationship with players and coaches, but his family has sent him messages from the social media service. He also has seen the well wishes from players such as the Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and coaches such as Miami's Erik Spoelstra, Washington's Randy Wittman and, of course, Popovich.
After the Spurs' coach told Sager Jr. that he did a great job during their exchange between the third and fourth quarters of San Antonio's 90-85 victory over Dallas in Game 1 of a first-round series, Popovich said, "But I'd rather have your dad standing here.'' He then turned to the camera and shared this message for his father: ''Craig, we miss you. You've been an important part of all this for a long time, doing a great job. We want your fanny back on the court, and I promise I'll be nice. Get back here. Good luck.''
Sager Jr., the assistant manager editor of Score Atlanta, used a sportcoat his dad had not worn on the air yet.
"When they said my son was going to interview Pop, man, I was nervous," Sager said. "I knew he was going to do a good job, but I was fidgety. So it's the end of the third quarter, Tim Duncan gets hurt and we don't know what is wrong, and the Spurs have lost their lead. When you interview Pop, you have to be prepared, and it's usually better to interview Pop if they are winning. So I was nervous for Junior."
Sager said his doctors told him that he will be in the hospital for at least four weeks. If everything goes well with the chemotherapy, Sager responds to treatment and his cells start coming back without cancer, he would be able to return home but would be tested daily. His immune system is vulnerable so he will have to stay away from crowds. "And that is not me," Sager said. "I want to get the hell out of here and go to Vegas." Sager says cancer or leukemia does not run in the family and he could not remember missing a day of work since graduation from Northwestern in 1973.
On Monday, Sager laughed when Pelicans coach Monty Williams, a former Popovich assistant, told him over the phone that Popovich was just being nice and he'll soon be going back to the old Pop.
"This support has been overwhelming," Sager said. "I just want everyone to know I am hanging in there. I miss being on the sidelines, but I have no choice: I am sidelined. So instead of the 40 games in 40 nights, I have 40 veins and 40 electrolytes."