Craig Sager: Always on the bright side
By remaining defiantly optimistic and energetic during a grueling, two-year battle with cancer, TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager has evolved from the NBA's most colorful character into its most esteemed. Subscribe now for more in-depth coverage, only in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
On the fourth floor of the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, Mich., Craig Sager is unpacking his garment bag. A silken rainbow spills onto the bedspread: aqua and lilac blazers, purple and royal blue pants, yellow and sea-green shirts, one tie encrusted with red Swarovski crystals, another flecked with gold. “Put it to the light,” Sager urges, and he peers through the fabric like a kaleidoscope. Patterns are psychedelic: blue-and-green check, red-and-black plaid, yellow and orange swirls, pink and turquoise zigzags. As Sager pairs items on the bed he rattles off the origin story of each, from Rex in Miami or A. Taghi in Houston, resplendence off-the-rack or custom-made. He unfurls handkerchiefs and conceals price tags. “This might have been for a sofa or a curtain,” Sager says, pointing to one piece. “I thought it would make a nice coat.”
He has come to Detroit to cover a first-round playoff series, Cavaliers-Pistons, the top seed in the Eastern Conference against the bottom. He settles on the lilac jacket for Game 3 (“Not my A material,” he admits, “because it’s an ESPN broadcast”) and a black-and-red plaid for Game 4, when he will light up the sidelines for TNT, as he’s done the past 25 years. “It’s the playoffs,” the 64-year-old Sager crows. “I have to step it up—in terms of the bling.” Outfits are not put together at random. Each is the product of careful calibration, assembled according to home teams, host cities, times of year. “I can’t wear the linen paisley in Detroit that I wear in Miami,” he explains.
During the 2011 Eastern finals in Chicago, Sager grew disconsolate when a Bulls-themed ensemble didn’t return from the dry cleaner by tip-off, forcing him to deploy orange. “Sager!” fans bellowed as he strutted into the United Center. “That’s not our color!” “It’s Ditka Orange!” he chirped, and the mob cheered like it was 1985. He refuses to be seen in the same combination twice, which helps explain why former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin wound up in Sager’s blue velvet coat for a court appearance and why some underprivileged young adults in Atlanta stride to their first job interviews in ostrich shoes.
For a long time you probably just knew him for the clothes, bold threads connecting a colorful life. Boys at Batavia (Ill.) High were required to wear black or navy blazers for their graduation pictures. Sager showed up in an electric blue Nehru jacket, confounding the photographer. He was an athlete before he was a dandy, a walk-on football and basketball player at Northwestern who sustained two concussions returning kicks in his first fall camp, sending him to the cheerleading squad instead. Using his mini-trampoline, he did flips over cars during pub crawls. But cheerleaders didn’t travel, and Sager longed for the road, so he dressed as Willie the Wildcat for a showdown at Ohio State. After Northwestern won, the Buckeyes’ band took out its frustrations on poor Willie, stabbing his mascot fur with their instruments. The Cats sprinted from a victorious locker room to rescue Sager, making him Willie for good.
After graduating in 1973 with a degree in speech, Sager moved to Sarasota, Fla., where he worked as a sailing instructor, a bouncer at Big Daddy’s and a cub reporter at a radio station. A memorable audition tape—he rocked a blue-and-yellow seersucker suit—landed him on TV as a weatherman. From Tampa to Turner, execs tried to whitewash his wardrobe, going so far as to airbrush the bright hues from his jackets in promotional photos. Finally, they found a beat that could embrace his peacock sensibilities: the NBA. Alas, Kevin Garnett compared him to a Christmas ornament, Phil Jackson to the Good Humor Man, Charles Barkley to a pimp. He was heckled mercilessly. “There’s no way you bought that piece of s--- in Philadelphia!” one fan shouted in the City of Brotherly Love. Sager raised the garment bag from Boyds as proof.
“I put in a dress code for the players, but I should have put one in for the broadcasters too,” former commissioner David Stern once chided. At the 2001 All-Star Game in Washington, Stern commanded Sager to remove his double silk metallic silver Versace suit because it was reflecting arena lights. Not long after, at Madison Square Garden, Stern flashed Sager another dirty look for another outrageous getup. “Aw, he looks so nice tonight,” said Stern’s wife, Dianne. “He’s lively and fun, and isn’t that how sports are supposed to be?”
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. He should be perched on a barstool next to his wife, Stacy—a former Bulls dancer 21 years his junior—regaling strangers with a story about Dennis Rodman, who went AWOL from the Pistons in 1993 and planned to commit suicide, until Sager tracked down the Worm on the second floor of a Detroit strip club. “The Landing Strip,” Sager recalls. “He had the gun. He was going to do it. I told him how stupid that would be.”
But he can’t go to Hooters right now. He is waiting on a phone call, and as he admires the gold crystals in his tie, he is interrupted by a shrill ring. “I think that’s the doctor,” Sager says. He excuses himself to the living room of the Park Suite and picks up. “What are my platelets today? They’re four today? O.K. What’s normal? 140? O.K. No, it doesn’t surprise me. I understand. I’m fine. I feel good. Don’t worry. I’m used to this.” He hangs up. “My platelets are at four!” he announces, with a grim laugh. “If I got cut right now I could bleed to death.”
Sager steps out of his producer’s rented Impala and ambles into The Palace for Game 3. He is wearing the lilac jacket, the purple pants, the striped shirt, the zigzag tie. “For Prince,” he says, as if the outfit wasn’t planned weeks ago. While he makes his way to the court, a receiving line forms around him: security guards, building workers, ushers. Local TV reporters who say they idolize him. Fans who say they pray for him. Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith daps him up. So does Pistons center Aron Baynes. Christine Cameron, the mother of Detroit center Andre Drummond, hugs him and holds on for a few extra seconds. He signs about 100 autographs. “Whenever Craig Sager is covering your game, you know it’s a big one,” says Cavs forward LeBron James. “But when I look over and see him covering our game right now. . . .” His voice tails off. “Talking about it makes me sentimental.”
NBA TV viewers watch Sager’s pregame stand-up, about a burgeoning feud between James and Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson, but they can’t possibly comprehend the hell he endured to step on this floor: chemotherapy treatments on Monday and Tuesday at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. A game on Wednesday night in Cleveland, a flight on Thursday morning to Detroit, constant reminders from Stacy to wear his surgical mask on the plane, wash his hands, take his 20 pills from the color-coded box. Lab work on Thursday afternoon at Detroit Medical Center—“The doctors looked at my numbers and freaked out!” Sager howls—prompting a platelet transfusion that night at Sinai-Grace Hospital.
He lay on a bed at Sinai too small for his 6' 4" frame, legs dangling off the end, a yellow IV bag attached to his left arm. He scrounged up a burger and a salad for dinner. “I don’t have a TV here,” he said over the phone. “What are the scores?” Doctors wanted to keep him overnight, but he protested, so they released him at 1:30 a.m. Sixteen hours later he was at The Palace, declaring himself dramatically improved. The new platelets had helped blood clotting in his mouth, on his face and on his hands. “If I didn’t agree to do that I might not make it through the weekend,” Sager says. “It’s keeping me alive.” He typically requires two transfusions per week.
Sager was diagnosed in April 2014 with acute myeloid leukemia, after he felt exhausted working a game in Dallas, and since then he has undergone two bone marrow transplants, 21 bone marrow biopsies and more than 20 chemo cycles—one that spanned two weeks for 24 hours a day. He has been hospitalized with pneumonia, influenza, C. diff (a bacterial infection) and gout. He has slipped out of remission twice, most recently in February, though he did not tell anybody for fear he’d get pulled off coverage of All-Star weekend. Sager still lives outside Atlanta, but he spends most of his time at the Marriott Medical Center in Houston, where he is in the midst of a clinical trial. Friends freaked in March when Sager told HBO’s Real Sports he had been given three-to-six months to live, but that was the prognosis for a patient without treatment, and he is receiving the best care available. “A patient who battles this past a year is amazing,” says his doctor, Naveen Pemmaraju. “What he’s done is almost miraculous.”
Another phenomenon, nearly as astonishing, has unfolded at the same time. The sideline reporter famous for being mocked by Garnett (“You take this outfit home and you burn it”) and stonewalled by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (“That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard”) has become perhaps the most revered figure in the league. After the diagnosis KG sent the biggest bouquet. Pop sent the warmest note (“You could be on my team any day”). Commissioner Adam Silver came to visit. “You have bigger things to do,” Sager said.
“No, I don’t,” Silver replied. “You’re as important to the NBA as players or coaches or owners.”
You can’t walk into an arena during a TNT broadcast without seeing sager strong signs. In the past month alone Rockets center Dwight Howard hosted a blood drive in Sager’s honor; Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell persuaded his counterparts across the league to don their most brazen attire for a night; and Warriors guard Steph Curry interrupted an interview with Sager—specifically, a question about fatigue—to point out the irony. “Seeing you and what you’re doing, we’ve got no excuses,” Curry said. “You’re an inspiration for us.” On April 20, Stacy attended the CancerCare gala in New York City, and the next morning she took a town car to LaGuardia Airport. The driver asked her to call Craig so they could pray together.
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 or 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.
“As a player, you knew when he was in the building,” says Kenny Smith, analyst for TNT’s Inside the NBA. “And you knew, if Craig Sager was talking about you, that you were official. Your family taped it. You watched it over again. It was a validation.” Clippers coach Doc Rivers eyes rookies summoned for their first interview on Sagervision. “I know what they’re thinking,” Rivers says, “ ‘I just made the NBA.’ ”
In Detroit, Sager tried to call Matt Holsworth. Sager met Matt more than two years ago while reporting a feature on his daughter, Lacey, who befriended Michigan State forward Adreian Payne while suffering from fetal-nerve cell cancer. Lacey died at age eight. Sager thinks about her a lot. “I’m 64,” he says. “I’m lucky I’ve had such a full life, such a charmed life.” Sager’s father, Al, was a veteran who worked for Yank magazine (a World War II Army publication), produced The Army Hour radio show and wrote speeches for Richard Nixon on campaign stops in Illinois. Sager inherited his eloquence from his dad. But he got his spirit from his mom, Coral, who once grew so incensed over the officiating in one of his basketball games that she ran onto the court at West Aurora High. Police took her to jail.
Sager interviewed Hank Aaron on the field after his 715th home run. He broadcast Deion Sanders’s Pop Warner games in Fort Myers, Fla., when he heard the 12-year-old had talent. He assumed Popovich always considered him a nuisance, until they crossed paths in Puerto Rico during a 2003 USA Basketball Olympic qualifier, and Sager shared a piece of personal history. He was supposed to go to Air Force and play hoops for the Falcons. At the last minute his congressman redirected him to West Point, and he chose Northwestern instead. Pop and Sags could have been teammates in Colorado Springs.
Sager has five children from two marriages: Kacy, 30; Craig Jr., 27; Krista, 24; Riley, 10; Ryan, nine. Stacy shares details of her husband’s condition that he will not. He’ll tell you, for instance, that he played 21 holes at Wildcat Golf Club in Houston last Friday. He won’t tell you that a friend accidentally rammed his cart, popping blood clots that sent him to the ER. “I don’t like to complain,” Sager says. “I don’t want people to go, ‘Look what happened to Sager, that’s so sad, that’s not the guy I knew.’ Then they won’t come see me.”
Sager’s visitors rarely catch him lying in bed. He stands for pictures. He combs his hair. His feet are swollen from the chemo, making his stingray loafers tight, so Nike sent him four animal-print sneakers modeled after Kevin Durant’s line. Emblazoned under one tongue is mr. fancy and under the other is suits. “You go in there trying to give him a lift,” says TNT’s Ernie Johnson, who beat non–Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, “and you leave all fired up.” Sager’s gear helps him stand out in a crowded field and break the ice with chilly subjects. But that’s not why he buys it. He doesn’t have a stylist or a clothing allowance either. “I just like it,” he says. “I feel comfortable in it. It all looks good when I pick it out.” He cares less about fashion than color. In Fort Myers he delivered pep rallies while decked out in school colors: Fort Myers High green, Cypress Lake purple, Riverdale maroon. He often takes notes with colored ballpoint pens, using purple ink for the Lakers, red for the Rockets and so on. His former producer D.T. Slouffman once asked Sager to sign a baseball for his daughter’s fourth birthday. He knew her favorite color was pink. “To Holly Anne,” Sager wrote. “Happy Birthday Let’s Party! You Wear Pink I’ll Wear Purple. Your Daddy’s Friend, The Man In The Funny Coats.” The message included both pink and purple ink.
He is still that color man, even if the coats are a few sizes smaller. But why in the world is he in Detroit, working a predictable first-round series, when his platelets are at four and his hemoglobin is falling and a paper cut could do serious damage? “What do you mean?” Sager asks. He sounds like Pop, rejecting the premise of the question, that there is such a thing as an insignificant assignment. “But it is the essential question,” says Pemmaraju, his doctor. “What he’s doing has danger. It has risk. Then again, we talk a lot about the mental aspect. Where do you go for your inspiration, for your drive? For him, it’s this job. If he can’t do it, then that could be harmful too.”
Sager and Pemmaraju are hoping that the clinical trial—a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy—puts him back in remission and eligible for a third bone marrow transplant, not unprecedented but extremely uncommon. Craig Jr. donated his marrow for the last two procedures, which were successful, though not lasting. “Am I naive?” Sager says. “Maybe. Am I in denial? No. I know the severity. But I have faith. I have support. I have hope. Hope is as important as breath.”
By Sunday afternoon Sager is bored in the hotel. He can’t reach Matt. He can’t take his usual trail run. He waits impatiently for Game 4, followed by a flight to Atlanta on Monday morning and a blood and platelet transfusion. Sitting there with another IV in his arm, he finally hears from Matt, who was in Hawaii to mark the two-year anniversary of Lacey’s passing. “I was getting worried,” Sager says. He is relieved.
“I call him the Miracle Guy,” says Bruce Teilhaber, owner of Friedman’s Shoes in Atlanta, which sold Sager his vibrant kicks for nearly three -decades—alligator and crocodile, lizard and snake, pink and peach, bloodred and money-green. The size 12s were for Sager. The size 22s Sager delivered to Shaq.
“All I want,” Teilhaber says, “is to sell that Miracle Guy another pair of purple shoes.”