THERE ARE THINGS that Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager and ESPN reporter Shelley Smith share—a love of family and laughter, battle scars from interviews with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and long tenures with the same media outlets. (Sager has been with Turner for 34 years; Smith is in her 19th year at ESPN.)
They are also cancer survivors.
Sager and Smith share the 2015 SI Media Person of the Year honor not only for their sustained excellence on camera but also because their public battles with cancer inspire others.
Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014 and returned to the NBA sideline last March after an 82-day hospital stay. He worked for just three weeks before a recurrence of the cancer forced him to take another sabbatical. Over the last 21 months Sager has been to five hospitals and endured 14 rounds of chemotherapy. He travels to Houston's MD Anderson once a month from his home in Atlanta for aftercare maintenance. "Obviously I am not cured," Sager said in early December. "We still have ongoing battles. But everything is going good and I feel great."
December 28, 2015
On Dec. 3, Sager worked his first Spurs game since he finished his second round of leukemia treatments, which meant a return of the NBA's most enjoyable sideline duo: Sager and Popovich. The Spurs' coach hugged Sager and told the reporter it was the first time he "enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview we are required to do because you are here and back with us.... Now ask me a couple of inane questions!"
Says Sager, "I spent months in a hospital hoping to go back to work. I love my job, and the one thing that people ask me about most are my interactions with Pop. I didn't know what I would say or ask him or what he would say. When he gave me a hug, it was one of the most touching moments I can remember in my 34 years at Turner."
Smith announced on Oct. 1, 2014, that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and over the next six months the reporter underwent multiple radiation treatments. She returned to ESPN last April—opting not to wear a wig—for coverage of the 2015 NFL draft. "My bald head means I have a fight, and I look at it as being fortunate to have a battle," she said at the time."
Smith finished her treatments last June. "You are never really cancer-free, but right now there is no evidence of disease," Smith says.
Smith and Sager are longtime press-row mates, and both are scheduled to work the 2016 All-Star Game on Feb. 14 in Toronto. "She gives me a lot of inspiration, and she's been very courageous through her battle," Sager says. "When we are together, she's always fun and lively, just a person who is very likable."
"I always make it a point to sit next to Craig because he's so much fun," Smith says. "He has a passion for what he does, and I love having it rub off on me. He's also had it much harder than me because of his reoccurrence [of cancer]. His strength really helps me. He's fighting so hard, and I say to myself: I can do this. I can't wait to see him. I'm also hoping my hair will be looking better than his by then too."