Of course Craig Sager had a special outfit planned for his return and this one had all the traditional Sagarian savoir faire–an orange and white striped sport coat made of 100 percent linen. The shoes? Oh, they were magnificent too--orange-trimmed and made of… wait for it… ostrich. The plan was to debut the duds for the baseball playoffs, which was later pushed to December, and then the NBA All-Star Game. The schedule changed as the longtime Turner Sports broadcaster learned what many have before him: Cancer has its own schedule.
Cancer, that awful word. Nearly a year 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 last July 3 from his son, Craig Jr.
But the 63-year-old kept his spirits up thanks to a strong support system led by his wife Stacy and a boatload of family and friends. Sager also reacted well to treatment. On Thursday night, 11 months after last working the sidelines, Sager returns to TNT’s airwaves for the Bulls-Thunder game in Chicago. The disease took 50 pounds off his frame to a low of 168 pounds, though he is now back up to 184. (Sager weighed 222 pounds before the diagnosis.) One of the casualties of a smaller frame is that the orange linen sport coat is now too big.
“I lost so much weight that it doesn’t fit anymore, Sager said, laughing. “Also, wearing an orange-and-white-striped linen coat in Chicago during the first week of March when the temperature is five degrees might not cut it. Those ostrich shoes also don’t fit well because throughout the chemo I developed neuropathy, so my feet are a little swollen. So I went out and had another coat made.”
The comeback outfit is now a red, black and gray wool sport coat. The shoes are custom-made Nike sneakers to match the coat.
As he starts a new beginning, Sager’s story is by no means over medically. His doctors allowed him to go back to work upon the conclusion of his Prograf regimen. Prograf is a prescription medicine used with other medicines to help prevent organ rejection in people who have had a kidney, liver, or heart transplant. The drug lowers your body's immune system, which helps your body fight infections. Sager was on the drug for several months, along with other antibiotics. and his final dose came on March 1. Earlier this week he went in for blood tests week and got good news.
“Everything came out shining and they said they were proud of me,” Sager said. “I said thanks and told them they obviously knew what they were doing. Physically I am good to go and I feel good. It’s like checking a new car before they send it out on the road. They wanted to make sure everything has been tested.”
[daily_cut.nba]Sager said he has no travel or work restrictions but as a precaution he has to wear a mask on airplanes and in airports. He also has to wash his hands and stay away from anyone with a cold. He will have a full NBA and March Madness schedule including a hectic four games on the first weekend for CBS/Turner. His doctors will continual to do blood work to see how his body reacts to stress and travel. There are also more CT scans to come as well as additional biopsies.
In Chicago, Sager said he plans on arriving at the United Center three hours before the game so he can say hello to familiar security guards and equipment managers as well as the players and coaches. The city was once home and Sager graduated from Northwestern in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in speech. Sager said he was tipped off that eight of his golfing friends from Atlanta are making the trip to Chicago to surprise him. His wife will fly down with him from his current home in Georgia so he’s going to be surrounded by a lot of loved ones for his first gig back.
“It’s an environment I am looking forward to and one I missed dearly,” Sager said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
When he gets home from the Bulls-Thunder assignment, Sager said he will take his two youngest children, son Riley and daughter Ryan to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Sager said his youngest kids had to make sacrifices during his treatment including not having friends over for play dates (for the possibility of germs) and changing their clothes and washing hands before hanging out with Dad after school.
Something NBA fans will be anticipating is Sager working a San Antonio game so they can see the resumption of one of the NBA’s great vaudeville acts in Sager asking Spurs coach Gregg Popovich questions during the game. Sager said Popovich reached out a number of times during his absence including phone calls and handwritten cards of encouragement.
“Of all the stuff I have gotten, the letters and cards, his have been so thoughtful, and were handwritten,” Sager said. “People want to know what he said and I say Pop is kind of private person and if he wanted me to share it, he would have tweeted it out. I have kept quiet what he said to me but I will tell you what he said gave me goose bumps. He said he is looking forward to seeing me. At least that’s what he says.”