- In an excerpt from his book, Living Out Loud, Craig Sager details how he prepared to accept the Jimmy V award at the 2015 ESPYs, from writing his speech to choosing his suit.
Excerpted from LIVING OUT LOUD: Sports, Cancer, and the Things Worth Fighting For. Copyright © 2016 by Craig Sager, Craig Sager II, and Brian Curtis. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I first met Jim Valvano in the 1980s when he was a frequent guest on our CNN “Coaches Corner” show based in Atlanta, as he was always in the area recruiting the next North Carolina State basketball phenom. Jim was gregarious, compassionate, and hysterical on the air and off. Born in Queens and raised on Long Island, Jim had that “it” gene, turning a room full of strangers into friends within minutes. Most of America knew Jim as the crazy coach who led N.C. State to the 1983 national championship and then ran around the court after the game-winning shot, searching for someone to hug. When Jim stepped away from coaching in 1990, he transitioned into the world of television and Turner hired him to be a color analyst at the Pan Am Games in 1991 in Cuba, and he was spectacular on air. When we weren’t courtside for a game, we would go out as a group in Havana and Jim was just as kind with the Cuban youth as he was with his colleagues, often stopping and shooting hoops on makeshift baskets on the sidewalks of the city.
In June 1992, Jim was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a deadly form of bone cancer. When I first heard the news, I got a pit in my stomach. He attacked life like I did, living every moment, cherishing every breath, looking for the positives in people and in events.
Jim’s cancer progressed rapidly, but he never lost his iconic jet-black hair from the chemo nor were there many visible signs of his pain and disease. In February 1993, he took the stage at the ESPY Awards to receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Many of us then, and since, have watched in awe at his remarkable speech. Some excerpts:
When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.
I just got one last thing; I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,” to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.
I know, I gotta go, I gotta go; and I got one last thing, and I said it before, and I want to say it again. Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you, and God bless you all.
Twenty years later, I think of my friend and his words almost every day. Don’t give up, don’t ever give up. I can’t give up; I won’t. I downloaded Jim’s ESPY speech onto my phone and pull it out when I need a pick-me-up. And I would need it many times over.
Back in May, when I was in Houston, my cell phone range while I was hooked up to a chemo IV and Stacy’s number appeared on my caller ID.
“Craig, my name is Maura Mandt and I am on the line with your wife, Stacy,” said an unfamiliar voice. “I am the Executive Producer of the ESPY awards and we would like to honor you this year with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.”
I can’t recall exactly my first response, but I am sure it was silence followed by something like, “No way.” The thought that I would be honored in the same manner that Jim Valvano and so many other courageous and brave men and women have been recognized was truly almost too preposterous to believe.
After accepting the reality of the invitation, I immediately began thinking of two things: what would I wear and what would I say. This would be a night above all other nights. A chance to stand on stage in Los Angeles with millions watching at home and encourage others to never give up, to fight and to raise awareness for cancer research. It was a platform that could not go to waste.
I settled on a suit from Rex’s Fabrics in Miami. It was a cheetah-patterned black, white and yellow suit jacket, to be worn with a yellow shirt and brown pants. Fertelli made a tie to match that was designed at Taghi in Houston. My friends at Nike made leopard-skin sneakers in matching colors with the words “Mr. Fancy” and “Suits” on the tongues. The ensemble was set and truly, was like none other that I had ever worn. Now, my attention turned to my speech.
I wanted to inspire, I wanted to let people know that no matter what they were going through, if they simply had the right attitude, they could make it. I watched Jimmy V’s speech again and again for inspiration. Hope is not a strategy, of course, but it is a foundation for taking challenges head on. As I thought about the best way to get my message across, I thought of a train set in the Children’s Hospital in Houston. I don’t know why it came to mind, but there was just something about the display, so I crafted a speech around the trains.
As a young boy, I had the usual hobbies—sports, baseball cards, model airplanes and trains.
But I always had a distinct fascination with trains. The freight trains would run on the CBQ line from Chicago to Quincy or the Northwestern line from Aurora to Elgin and come by Batavia three to four times a day, slowing to a walk as they passed by—and occasionally stopping at the metal factory or lumberyard. The trains had first become a staple in Batavia after the devastating Chicago fire of 1871, as limestone was dug from a quarry just outside of town and transported to Chicago to help rebuild the city. Despite the slow speed of the trains, you could hear the roar of the engine and feel the rumble of the cars from the sandlots down Batavia Avenue to the classrooms of the elementary schools. For a tiny, non-descript Midwest town like Batavia, Illinois, in the 1950s and 1960s, the trains were a welcome diversion from the routine of small town life.
As a young lad, my best friends and I, including John Clark, Tom Cornwell and Greg Issel, used the trains as a diversion—as entertainment on slow summer days or late spring afternoons. There were days when we brought spare change we dug up from the sofas in our homes and placed the coins on the metal rails as the trains approached, hoping that the sheer force and weight of the rigs would provide us with a perfectly smushed nickel. It was a science really, as more times than not, the rumbling of the cars would knock the coin off before impact or the weight would simply crush it into an unrecognizable piece of scrap. But on one occasion, if we placed it just right and with a little luck from the train gods, we would have ourselves a souvenir.
But the trains provided more than just metal, as we would often jump into an open cargo car as we jogged alongside, hopping a ride to the nearby quarry to swim or for the brief two-mile lift to nearby Geneva. Or we would race alongside the freight as it sped up leaving town, the tracks winding parallel to the Fox River. When the tracks were empty, which was most of the day, we would challenge one another to see who could maintain their balance the farthest on the rails, or simply follow the still tracks out of town, one way or the other.
Like most boys, I had a model train set up in my bedroom, resting on a little-used ping-pong table upstairs. My first set was mainly Lionel cars, but as the Cold War became fashionable, many of my cars were replaced by blue and white military replicas, complete with rockets invariably aimed at the Soviet Union which could be “launched” by hand and a helicopter that “took off” with a push of a button. Many Christmases, Mom and Dad delivered me yet another car and the oval track attached to plywood kept growing in size. I could watch the train go round’ and round’ on the short circle track, time after time, as if expecting something would change. But it never did.
Almost fifty years later in Houston, I found myself once again mesmerized by a train at the Children’s Hospital and at night, on my walks back to the hotel after a long day of treatment, I would step inside and stand in the silence. Those moments would become the storyline of my ESPY speech.
All of my children, Stacy, my sister, Candy, my mother-in-law and one of Stacy’s brother’s and his family, all flew to Los Angeles on Monday evening, July 11th, courtesy of a private jet provided by ESPN. It was such a joy to see the younger kids’ wide-eyed smiles as they boarded the plane. As soon as we landed, I was driven to the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles to rehearse my speech. Producers previewed for me the six-minute video feature that ESPN had been working on for months and it brought me to tears. To see my son, Craig, cry on camera; to see Stacy so bravely talk about our fight, was overwhelming. But I collected my emotions and rehearsed the speech, trying not to rely on the teleprompters.
The following day I participated in the ESPY Golf Classic to raise money for cancer and that evening, we attended a pre-party at a hip club in Hollywood along with Dwayne Wade and other sports celebrities. Honestly, I was tired. It had been a long few days. By 10:40 p.m., we left to return to the hotel where I stayed up to rehearse the speech.
Wednesday afternoon was in the nineties in Southern California and it was hot as we stepped out of our cars onto the red carpet leading into the theater. As we walked through the gauntlet of reporters, I ran into my friends Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. It must have taken more than an hour for us to get through the red carpet and to finally take our seats.
As the show got started, I grabbed Stacy’s hand. I knew that my segment was later in the show and during an early commercial break, I took the opportunity to get up from my seat and walk out of the exit to a concourse. I found an exterior door to a parking lot and asked the security guard to allow me outside for a few minutes. So there I was, in the middle of the ESPY show, standing alone in a parking lot, rehearing my speech three times, complete with hand gestures and pauses. I was determined to not use the teleprompter and to keep eye contact with the audience.
When I returned to my seat, NBA MVP Steph Curry took the stage to present the Author Ashe Courage Award to the family of Zaevion Dobson, a Knoxville, Tennessee fifteen-year old, shot and killed in December 2015 while saving the lives of two friends. His mother, Zenobia, and brothers, Zack and Makastin, made an emotional walk up to the stage while superstar athletes cried in their seats. As Zenobia gave a brilliant, emotional and passionate plea to end gun violence, I cried. I cried for Zaevion, I cried for his family, I cried for children everywhere, including my own.
A week before the ESPYs, I had received a call from a producer that I would be presented with the ESPY Award by Vice President Joe Biden. Vice President Biden had recently launched the “Cancer Moonshots”, a campaign to finally eradicate cancer across humanity. He had lost his eldest son, Beau, in 2015, to brain cancer, and the ESPYs gave him a platform to raise awareness. A few months earlier, at the Final Four in Houston, the Vice President pulled me aside to express his support in my battle and to remind me that he was working on the “Moonshots.”
He came to the stage at the ESPYs with Beau on his mind.
Like Jimmy V, my son, Beau, never let cancer touch his heart, or his soul. Till the end, my Beau worried about his family more than himself. He lived his entire life by my father’s code, which was: never explain, never complain, just get up. Just as Jimmy V’s life inspired the creation of the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, Beau Biden’s life and his concern for others, inspired the Cancer Moonshots, the national effort President Obama asked me to lead, to finally end cancer as we know it. Ladies and gentlemen, it won’t be easy, but it is possible because we are America, and like Jimmy, like Beau and like Craig Sager, and countless others, we never, ever, give up. Tonight we honor Craig, a man of courage and loyalty, with a hell of a team behind him. Like Jimmy had and Beau had, fans, coaches, colleagues, players, the country. But most importantly, Stacy, Kacy, Krista [sic], Riley, Ryan and Craig Junior. His home team, his family. Craig knows that every day, every hour, every moment matters and by his conduct, he teaches us about how to live with perseverance and passion. Fearless, hopeful, together.
As the video feature played for those in the theater and around the country, detailing my fight and unwillingness to give in, Stacy and I held hands. I was worried about breaking down during my speech, overcome with emotions and the moment. But that thought passed, as I wanted the ball in my hands with the shot winding down.
“Give me strength”, I asked her.
“You will do great,” she told me.
When the video piece ended, the audience rose to its feet in applause, and I made my way up the steps to the stage, where I gave the Vice President a hug, and acknowledged the kind applause from the audience.
Walking up onto the stage was surreal and uncomfortable in a way. Here I was, the guy who has spent his life asking questions of the biggest names in sports and hanging on their every word, about to speak to them. I spotted Kareem Abdul Jabbar and LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, all looking at me, staring in silence out of pity or inspiration.
Well, first of all, thank you Mr. Vice President, for the kind words and the struggles you had with your son Beau. Your amazing fight, your determination, dedication for your whole career, your whole life forward of finding a cure for cancer. I am confident in you that one day soon, we will wipe out cancer.
I’d like to thank ESPN for this honor. Jimmy V’s inspirational message is on my phone, a constant source of encouragement and inspiration and it is always at my bedside in the hospital and I can listen to it any time I want. So my thoughts are with the Valvano family because this honor means a great deal to me, so thank you very much.
I’d also like to thank my two families that are here. You saw their pictures. First, my beloved bride Stacy. She is my heaven on earth. In the darkest of moments, tears running down her cheeks, we embraced and we prayed. Please, don’t leave me, she pleaded, we can fight this together. There is no fear in love and your love is my strength. My children, Kacy, Craig, Krista, Riley, Ryan, my sister Candy, Stacy’s mother, Mary Jo, my battle has been your battle.
I would also like to thank my Turner Sports family, many of them are here tonight. David Levy, Lenny Daniels, Craig Barry, Scooter Vertino, Matt Hong, Nate Smeltz. Your love and support since my first diagnosis has been incredible, and your willingness to adapt to let me keep doing what I love, is something I will never forget.
And the truth is that the Turner family is just part of a bigger family, all of you, the sports family. Sports are who I am in my soul, they have guided my life and I have had the good fortune to witness all of your amazing feats. And I am confident that I will continue to watch those amazing feats.
I have spent most of the past year and a half at the most impactful cancer hospital in the world, M.D. Anderson in Houston. And many nights I don’t get out of the hospital until well after midnight and I always take the same walking path back to the hotel. The sidewalks wind through a maze of buildings, including the Texas Children’s Hospital. Many nights, I will stop, pause, and I will go inside. And a few feet inside the hallway, is this large model train display covered by glass. There are seven buttons on the outside, they activate the trains, the circus, the toys and the trolley. And many nights, alone, in the stillness and solitude of the hospital, I push those buttons and I watch the trains as they disappear through the tunnels and emerge full steam on the other side; I watch the trains as they pass by the town square, the dinosaur canyon, the pirates cove, Santaland and the ice skating rink. And I sit there, and I watch and I listen. I listen to the sounds of the circus, of the kids laughing and of the train chugging along.
Now I don’t know why I am so drawn to the train set. Perhaps, it’s my life coming full circle. Maybe it’s just the kid inside all of us. Or perhaps it is a few minutes of my life, that leukemia cannot take from me.
The train actually takes two minutes and twenty seconds to make a full loop. But what is time, really? When you are diagnosed with a terminal disease like cancer, leukemia, your perception of time changes. When doctors tell you, you have three weeks to live, do you try to live a lifetime of moments in three weeks or do you say, the hell with three weeks? When doctors tell you that your only hope of survival is 14 straight days of intense chemotherapy, 24 hours a day, do you sit there and count down the 336 hours or do you see each day as a blessing? Time is something that cannot be bought, it cannot be wagered with God and it is not in endless supply. Time is simply how you live your life.
I am not an expert on time or on cancer or on life itself. I am a kid from the small Illinois town of Batavia who grew up on the Chicago Cubs and made sports his life’s work, although there has never been a day where it actually seemed like work. I have run with the bulls in Pamplona; I have raced with Mario Andretti in Indianapolis; I have climbed the Great Wall of China; I have jumped out of airplanes over Kansas; I have wrestled gators in Florida; I have sailed the ocean with Ted Turner; I have swam with the sharks [sic] in the Caribbean; and I have interviewed Greg Popovich mid-game, Spurs down seven.
If I have learned anything through all of this, is that each and every day is a canvas waiting to be painted; an opportunity for love, for fun, for living, for learning.
To those of you out there who are suffering from cancer, facing adversity, I want you to know that your will to live and to fight cancer can make all the difference in the world. The way you think influences the way you feel, and the way you feel determines how you act. And to everybody out there, we are making progress—incredible progress, as the Vice President said. The Moonshots program, we are going to find a cure for cancer but we need your help. We must continue to donate, we must continue to fight and we must continue to do this together.
I am grateful to my parents, Coral and Al, they raised me with a positive outlook on life. I always see the glass half-full. I see the beauty in others and I see the hope of tomorrow. If we don’t have hope and faith, we have nothing.
Whatever I might have imagined a terminal diagnosis would do to my spirit, it summoned quite the opposite--the greatest appreciation for life itself. So I will never give up and I will never give in. I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the marrow out of life as life sucks the marrow out of me. I will live my life full of love and full of fun, it’s the only way I know how.
Thank you and good night.