Craig Sager, 1951-2016
Basketball was lucky to have him
“You don’t know how much fun I’m having right now. I’d crawl to get here. It means that much to me.” — Craig Sager
Not only did longtime Turner Sports NBA sideline reporter/fashion luminary Craig Sager die Thursday after a long battle with leukemia, a portion of the league’s soul did, too. Many of the words — from Vice President Joe Biden to superstars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade and, yes, even Drake — you’ll read about Sager in the coming days will be personal. That’s a testament to the man he was and the icon he’ll be canonized as — a giant who made every person he came in contact with feel like they had just hit a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals.
I won’t make this all about me, because this is really about celebrating a man who became basketball’s voice box. But a personal highlight in 2016 was meeting Sager after the All-Star Game. We were in a hallway in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. My colleague, Mike Wise, had known Sager for years. They hugged, rehashed old times, and laughed. Then Wise introduced me.
Keep in mind, at this time, The Undefeated hadn’t yet launched. There was always this paranoid apprehension on my part in the pre-launch days when it came to possibly discussing the site. Sager either didn’t know about my reservations or he didn’t care. We shook hands and talked as if we’d been homies for decades. I had no byline, or name recognition and Sager had no reason to chop it up with me other than kindness.
The conversation felt like 20 minutes, though it was probably only two. Three at the most. He did most of the talking. I just listened. And while he dropped gem after gem, what I remember the most is his stance on love. Particularly love in a media industry that can suck the soul right out of a person if he or she isn’t careful.
“Just stay in love with what you do,” he said. There was honesty in his eyes and conviction in his voice. Maybe he knew something then. Mortality, much like cancer, plays no favorites. He knew then that more life resided in his rearview mirror than his dashboard. Though we all prayed for his recovery, he was more focused on one final victory lap. “Love will take you places the mind can’t see,” he concluded. “Love is what keeps me alive.”
Sager wasn’t lucky to find basketball. He’d long since carved out a name for himself in sports. At 22, Sager was first reporter to speak to Hank Aaron after his historic 715th home run. Instead, basketball was lucky to have Craig Sager.
His commentary and coverage proved as vital to the evolution of the NBA as Michael Jordan’s fadeaway, Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake,” Allen Iverson’s crossover, James’ chase down block or Stephen Curry’s jumper. His heart talked Dennis Rodman out of committing suicide at “The Landing Strip,” a Detroit strip club, in 1993. Sager humanized Gregg Popovich — and now nationally televised San Antonio Spurs games just won’t be as fun anymore. Sager miraculously made the game more colorful than his army of now-legendary suits and gators, and his smile reminded all of us that while we preach “ball is life,” basketball is, in fact, still a game. And we can never lose the innocence the game thrives on.
We’re constantly evoked of one of Sager’s final public statements. “I see the beauty in others, and I see the hope for tomorrow. If we don’t have hope and faith, we have nothing,” is how he signed off at The ESPYS earlier this year as he accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, a la Stuart Scott in 2014. “Whatever I might have imagined a terminal diagnosis would do to my spirit, it’s summoned quite the opposite: the greatest appreciation for life itself. I will never give up, and I will never give in. I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the barrel 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.”
That’s why I believe he told me what he did that frigid February night in Toronto. And why I believe love made his final moments easier to accept for himself and his family — whom he credited with keeping him alive as long as he did. Time is simply how you live your life, he said. Sager’s dash — the one on his tombstone between the day he was born and the day he died — helped changed a game that helped change the world.
James Dean once said, “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, I mean, if he can live on after he’s died, then maybe he was a great man.” There will never be another Sager, and perhaps that’s what Dean meant when he defined a great man’s DNA. Being a one-of-one renders it impossible to be forgotten. If you love basketball — like truly, truly love it — we all lost a family member in Sager. But Sager’s life, his passion and ultimately Sager’s positivity was his gift. And Craig’s gift was our blessing.