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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 evolved from the NBA's most colorful character into its most esteemed. On Thursday, Sager's valiant battle came to an end, with the iconic broadcaster passing away at age 65.

Editor's note: By remaining defiantly optimistic and energetic during a grueling, two-year battle with cancer, TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager evolved from the NBA's most colorful character into its most esteemed. On Thursday, Sager's valiant battle came to an end, with the iconic broadcaster passing away at age 65. Below is Lee Jenkins's Sports Illustrated profile of Sager from April. 

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.

• MORE NBA: Ernie Johnson: Craig Sager's spirit hasn't changed 'one iota'

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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.”

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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.