How I viewed my relationship with my dad and how I would come to view a world without him was being written during a heartbreaking sequence of silence and labored breaths.
Being there for the last moments of my dad’s life was still a gift to me. Because my father made the most out of the life he was given, pride was the antidote to avoid the paralyzing sorrow that could have otherwise defined those last moments spent together. And I was not only proud of him, but I was proud of myself. That encouragement came from knowing that I did everything I could to build the father-son relationship that we had at the end.
Throughout our relationship, and especially in recent years, my dad would tell me to focus on my own life and not to worry about him so much. I couldn’t help but think about what I would’ve been feeling at that moment if I took his advice. I also couldn’t stop thinking about this past April, when everything between us first began to change.
He had just been informed that his Leukemia was back for a third time in late March and the diagnoses put another frightening expiration date on his life. I walked into his house during an HBO Real Sports segment and found out that doctors gave him 3–6 months to live as he said it on camera. As I was digesting the news the following days, his battle reached a much larger audience and people began to follow closely and watch with amazement.
Living Out Loud
by Craig Sager
Sports, cancer, and the things worth fighting for.
April arrived and I heard he planned to try to work the entire NBA playoffs. I panicked because the past two years had been a whirlwind, and I could tell that the pace was only getting faster. I wouldn’t have been able to convince him to stay away from work if I wanted to, and I had to accept that I would now live each day knowing that he could be gone before I’d ever get the time I needed with him.
During a desperate phone call I told him our father-son relationship was nowhere near as close as it needed to be.
“Junior, you are 27 years old,” he answered. “Don’t worry about me. You have a great life ahead of you. Go live it.”
This was an extension of the unselfish reflex he flashed throughout his battle. He never wanted anyone worrying about him, and would take it personally if he felt like it was holding someone else back. I wasn’t going to let that stop me, but I needed to find out where to start. I was given less time to make a steeper climb each day.
Then I got an email from Brian Curtis, who wanted to know if my dad and I would write a book together with Flatiron Books. It would document his life story, his outlook on life, our relationship and his inspirational battle with Leukemia. I had just received my first opportunity to co-author another book the week before for the Atlanta Falcons, but I knew I couldn’t pass this up. Having no idea what it actually took to write a book, let alone two books at the same time, I said yes. I saw it as the chance to finally tilt the clock in our favor, steal time and team up with my dad. Despite a jam-packed schedule and the fact that he was literally fighting for his life each day, my dad agreed to write the book, too. We were going to somehow make it work and give it everything we had.
As soon as the writing process began, my dad and I began to understand one another in a completely new light as we weaved the story together. My dad could read what I was thinking at the time and during some other pivotal moments of our lives. Chapters that didn’t even go in the book were written just to communicate with one another as he went on the road and rotated from press conferences to bone marrow biopsies, and from experimental chemotherapy to some of his loudest suits yet. After living completely in the moment all these years, we were finally a team writing our story together. It wasn’t ideal, but that made it mean even more.
After spending May writing and sharpening the focus on our story in the midst of his battle and playoff circuit, we all went to Wrigley Field as a family for first time. We watched him throw out the first pitch in Ernie Banks's beloved No. 14 jersey with Sager written on the back, and it was honestly one of the best days of my life. The next month, we went out to the ESPYs together to celebrate his Jimmy V Award and had another unforgettable trip together. I had never felt more like a family than I did during the events that unfolded while we were writing the book.
As we wrapped up the final edits, my dad agreed to title his life’s story, “Living Out Loud: Sports, Cancer, and the Things Worth Fighting For.”
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I realized that the title, the suit, the smile and everything about the cover was perfect for the story inside. We all rallied together and my Dad’s fight gave the whole family a chance to be part of his life story. Having memories together is comforting, but working to achieve something together is life-changing. I felt that last Thursday especially.
Can the most difficult year of your life be the best year of your life? My answer is definitely no, but it sure as hell can teach you a lot if you keep your eyes open, take chances and find a good teammate.
My own determination to support my dad and put our relationship and family first has been the most important lesson I have ever learned. It can be a difficult needle to thread, but when you know someone is special and when it means that much to you, don’t give up. Time is precious. I am able to say I am proud of every second we spent together until the last one.
I said at my dad’s eulogy on Tuesday that my relationship with him was a combination of love and frustration. “Love because I loved every minute spent with him, and frustration because I could never get enough.”
While that remains true, when it mattered most, we made enough. That’s something I will always be proud of.