Craig Sager, TNT's Colorful Basketball Reporter, Dies at 65
He stood out in sartorial splendor on the sidelines during the network’s coverage of NBA games.
Craig Sager, the engaging sideline reporter known for his kaleidoscopic couture that captivated viewers, players and coaches during TNT’s coverage of NBA games, has died after a long and courageous battle with leukemia, Turner Sports announced Thursday. He was 65.
"Craig Sager was a beloved member of the Turner family for more than three decades and has been a true inspiration to all of us," Turner president David Levy said in a statement.
Sager received bone marrow transplants in each of the past three summers, the most recent one in August. He was diagnosed in April 2014 just before the start of the NBA playoffs and was unable to work any games that postseason.
“My favorite time of year — city to city, round by round, 40 games in 40 nights,” Sager said at that time in a statement. “A dramatic turn has matched me with acute myeloid leukemia. From the sidelines to being sidelined, 40 veins and 40 electrolytes.”
He managed to return to work only intermittently since then. But whenever he was in an NBA arena, fans took note and waved "Sager Strong" signs.
"Craig was as vital to the NBA as the players and coaches," the league's commissioner, Adam Silver, said in a statement.
More colorful in personality than in attire — if such a thing were possible — Sager served for three years as Willie the Wildcat, the mascot at Northwestern, while working toward a degree in speech; slept in Seattle Slew’s barn at Belmont the night before the colt completed the Triple Crown; bailed out the busty Morganna (“The Kissing Bandit”) after she was arrested for running on the field during the 1979 MLB All-Star Game (he received a bra for his effort); and married a Luvabull, Stacy, one of the Chicago Bulls’ dancers.
On TNT, Sager favored extremely bright colors and crazy patterns in all manner of fabrics for his wardrobe. Once, before a playoff game in Memphis, he visited Lansky’s, where Elvis Presley got his clothes, and had a suit fashioned out of material The King once wore — black with pink hickory stripes and a black velvet collar. Sager also had shoes made of crocodile, ostrich and stingray.“Craig Sager’s Suits” has their own Facebook page.
“I grew up in Batavia, Ill., a small town out in the corn fields, west of Chicago. It was boring,” Sager told Esquire in a 2012 interview. “For our senior picture, they said, ‘Black or navy blazer.’ And I thought, 'Why do I want to look like everybody else?' I was a big fan of The Monkees, and I had this electric blue Nehru jacket, like one Micky [Dolenz] would wear.
“So I wore that and showed up and they said, ‘We told you: a blue or black sportcoat.’ I argued that it was actually blue, created a little controversy. But, now, you look at the yearbook and everyone looks exactly the same. Except for me.”
Sager was honored July 13 with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPY Awards. The honor is named for the late North Carolina State basketball coach who died of cancer in 1993, shortly after giving an emotional speech at the event.
Sager noted that he had Valvano's speech saved on his phone. "Its impact lives on with me and countless others," he said.
One of Sager’s first broadcasting jobs was serving as news director at a radio station in Sarasota, Fla.; he jumped on the field to accompany Henry Aaron as he jogged home after hitting his record-breaking 715th career home run in 1974 during his stint there. He also was sports director at KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo., where he did play-by-play for the NBA’s Kings.
After joining CNN in 1981, Sager shifted to TBS and then TNT. He also covered college basketball and football, MLB games, golf and World Cup soccer for Turner and worked the Olympic basketball tournament for NBC at the 2012 London Games.
Sager felt ill while covering a game in Dallas in April 2014, and the Mavericks team trainer told him he needed to go to the hospital — immediately. In his battle against leukemia, he received the first two bone marrow transplants from his son, Craig Sager Jr., and once endured chemotherapy for 14 straight days, 24 hours a day.
"When you have that much chemo in your body, it usually shuts down your kidneys, shuts down your liver, shuts down your heart, shuts down your lungs," he told Bernard Goldberg on HBO's Real Sports in March. But he survived.
As testament to Sager’s popularity, NBA on TNT studio hosts Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal donned the worst suits they could find as a tribute to him. In June 2014, the top NBA Draft picks posed with an electric-blue-suited cardboard cutout of Sager after they were selected. And he got to work his first NBA Finals game ever when ABC hired him for the Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors series.
With Sager in the hospital, his son worked the sidelines of a San Antonio Spurs-Dallas Mavericks game and interviewed one of his father’s favorite coaches, the gruff Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, during a timeout. "We need your fanny back on the court," the coach told Sager. "I promise I'll be nice."
When Sager did return and interviewed Popovich, the coach said: "I can honestly say this is the first time I've enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview that we're required to do. It's because you're here and back with us. Now ask me one of those inane questions."
"There will never be another Craig Sager," Levy said. "His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports.
"While he will be remembered fondly for his colorful attire and the TNT sideline interviews he conducted with NBA coaches and players, it’s the determination, grace and will to live he displayed during his battle with cancer that will be his lasting impact."
"We packed a lifetime and then some into these 28 years together," his son tweeted. "Pay it forward time!"
In addition to his wife and Craig Sager Jr., survivors include other children Kacy, Krista, Riley and Ryan.