Editor's note: DT Slouffman is the Executive Producer and Show Runner for Sports Illustrated's SI Now.
“What’s he wearing?” These words rolled off the lips of Los Angeles Lakers Vice President of public relations John Black as Craig Sager awaited a post-game interview with Kobe Bryant after the Lakers had dispatched the Utah Jazz on their way to the 2008 Western Conference Finals. Sager, standing in a yellow suit coat that glowed so brightly my wife nicknamed it Craig’s “electric school bus” jacket, just flashed his trademark crooked grin and cackled. He knew he looked good.
It was Mark Twain who claimed, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” While clothing certainly cemented Sager’s influence among players and fans, the man and his thoughts laid bare before me in those moments sitting in airports together waiting for a flight, on neighboring barstools grabbing a Bud Light after a west coast game when neither one of us could sleep, or raiding team supply closets for bubble gum before players joined us for a pre-game interviews.
Over the nine years Sager and I crossed the country together, we covered it all. Religion. He was an on-again off-again practitioner of Methodism, but totally certain God had blessed him. The weather. “When it’s raining at a racetrack, bet the fastest horse,” he said. “The ponies in its wake will slow down as the mud flies into their faces.” He extolled the virtues of his mid-morning travel routine. After a mile run followed by a Diet Coke, Craig always read the local paper because as he said, “Local writers unlock the pulse of a team for the barnstorming national reporter.”
I asked him why he chose such an outlandish wardrobe (his self-proclaimed uniform)? He claimed it to be in tribute to broadcasting great and fellow Northwestern alum Lindsey Nelson. Later, he would admit, “The players love it. Flashy is sexy.” All of these things concocted the unique blend that was Craig Sager, but what really made him the man I knew and the reporter so many connected with every Thursday night as they watched the NBA was that he loved the idea of family more than sports.
In his tattered briefcase, Craig carried and was apt at any given moment to display a set of laminated pictures of his wife Stacy and five children, Kacy, Craig II, Krista, Riley, and Ryan. I am certain every concierge on the NBA trail has seen the snapshots. In addition, Craig knew no limit to familial borders. He routinely inducted new family members into the fold at a moment’s notice, like the afternoon he rang my mobile phone and asked me to vote multiple times in an online contest because Stacy had entered Ryan in a local competition to determine the neighborhood’s cutest toddler. He proclaimed, “I’m calling because I need your help. You’re family and our kid should win.”
Craig made certain Stacy and the kids joined him on the road, annually turning the NBA Conference Finals into a Sager family traveling caravan. With great pride, he shared Craig II’s schoolwork with me and other colleagues, postulating, “My kids are gonna do big things. All of them. It’s in the genes.” He believed this every day and wanted to believe it for others too.
In fact, family meant so much to Craig; he made it his mission to expand mine. When trapped with him in rental cars on our way to watch teams practice, Sager routinely admonished me to consider fatherhood. “Have a kid,” he’d say. “They’re the best. You won’t regret it. Look at me. I can’t stop!”
When I finally shared the news with Sager that my wife was expecting our first child, his excitement was on par with the energy generated by that electric school bus yellow blazer. Fourteen months later, when he met my daughter for the first time, you would have thought she belonged to him. He snatched her up and paraded her around the hotel lobby, bar, and restaurant, proclaiming to anyone who would listen, “Meet Holly Anne. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s the newest member of the family.”
Over the last week, it’s been said again and again that the loss of Craig to the NBA family and the Turner Sports family is great. This is true. The joy, fun, and vibrant colors that Sager brought to dugout interviews and courtside reports will certainly be missed by all of us who knew and worked with him, but I think the loss is really not ours. It’s Craig’s loss. For a man to whom family meant so much, there were still a great many “family members” left to be adopted.
Clothes may make the man, but it’s a man who understands the value of family whose influence lasts multiple lifetimes.