Remembering the life of NBA reporter Craig Sager of Batavia
Craig Sager, a television sportscaster whose outlandish outfits, decades interviewing the biggest names in basketball and public fight with cancer made him a beloved personality in the National Basketball Association, has died, within days of his induction into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame on Dec. 13. He was 65.
His death was announced by Turner Sports, where he worked as a broadcaster. Other details, including the date and place of his death, were not immediately available.
Sager, a native of Batavia who covered NBA games for TNT for 26 years, was diagnosed in 2014 with acute myeloid leukemia. He missed 11 months while undergoing treatment, and his absence from the cable network turned the already popular figure into a sympathetic and inspiring one. In an April 2016 cover story, Sports Illustrated called Sager "perhaps the most revered figure in the league."
Known mostly for his work on the NBA sidelines, Sager also traveled the world to cover the Olympics, World Cup soccer, the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Super Bowl and the World Series, among other sporting events.
His flair for the dramatic was a hallmark of his earliest professional appearances.
When he was 22 and working for $95 a week at a radio station in Sarasota, Florida, Sager talked his boss into letting him cover an Atlanta Braves baseball game on April 8, 1974. After Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's career record that night, Sager ran onto the field and was at home plate by the time Aaron arrived.
As he interviewed Aaron and family members on the field, Sager wrote at BleacherReport.com, "The TV people were yelling at me to get out of the shot because when they cut to Hank, I was right there with him."
He remained conspicuous after that, not the least for his deliberately awful choice in clothing.
Sager understood his role was to entertain, and what he called his "lively" wardrobe served that purpose. He wore loud ties and louder jackets. He was often the target of teasing from players and coaches, who compared him, in no particular order, to a pimp, a Christmas ornament and an ice cream man.
He rarely, if ever, wore the same outfit twice. He said a reporter once counted the sport coats in his house and stopped at 137 without even checking all of his closets. For big events, Sager picked out especially wild ensembles - the suit he wore for the Sports Illustrated cover was a vivid turquoise.
"Sports are supposed to be fun, and so I have fun with the way I dress," Sager told BleacherReport.com. "I used to get reprimanded, but then at the 2002 All-Star Game, Commissioner [David] Stern was making fun of me, and then his wife says, 'David, stop that. I like those suits.' And once I won the commissioner's wife over, it all changed. It was a huge breakout moment."
Jalen Rose, who played in the NBA for 13 years and is now an analyst for ESPN, said in an interview that Sager was highly respected among players because underneath his garish get-ups was a reporter who spent hours on the phone and at the arena digging for information.
When Rose was drafted as the 13th pick in 1994 by the Denver Nuggets, he was disappointed because he expected to be chosen earlier. During their first interview, Sager asked about his frustration, without sugarcoating the issue.
"He's really knowledgeable about the sport and diligent in getting his job done," Rose said, adding that NBA players viewed getting interviewed by Sager as a sign they had arrived in the big time.
Craig Graham Sager was born in Batavia, Illinois, on June 29, 1951. He told Sports Illustrated that he got his joie de vivre from his mother, who was once arrested at one of his high school basketball games for going onto the court to complain about the referees.
Whatever his high school skills, Sager was unsuccessful in making the football and basketball teams when he entered Northwestern University. He settled instead for a job as the team's mascot, Willie the Wildcat.
He lived the mascot persona even when it was not game time, often carrying a small trampoline in the trunk of his car. "I'd go to bars and get hammered and take it out and show off, do these flips," he once told The Washington Post.
He moved to Florida after graduating in 1973, working at times as a bouncer and sailing instructor to flesh out his meager radio salary. Eventually, he switched to sports broadcasting and landed at CNN in the early 1980s when the cable network was in its infancy. He spent the rest of his career at sister networks owned by Turner Broadcasting, later part of Time Warner.
Sager owned a large collection of sports memorabilia, including a piece of horse dung that he took from the stall of Seattle Slew, winner of the Triple Crown in 1977. To obtain it, Sager said he slept the night before the race in a neighboring stall at the invitation of Seattle Slew's trainer after the two of them spent the evening drinking vodka tonics and Budweiser.
He also owned a bra from Morganna, the infamous and pneumatic "kissing bandit" who ran onto baseball fields to kiss players. She gave it to him because he bailed her out of jail after she was arrested for running onto the field during the 1979 Major League Baseball All-Star game.
His first marriage, to Lisa Gabel, ended in divorce. In 2001, he married Stacy Strebel, a former dancer for the Chicago Bulls. Besides his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage and two children from his second.
Sager received stem cell transplants from a son, Craig Sager Jr., and returned to work in 2015. But the cancer returned, too. Sager often flew from Houston, where he was undergoing treatment, to whichever game he was assigned to cover, all while living in Atlanta.
Because of network broadcasting contracts, Sager never covered the NBA Finals for TNT. ESPN agreed to let him work the 2016 finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. John Ourand, who covers the media for Sports Business Journal, said the "unheard of" decision by ESPN to put Mr. Sager on the air while he was still working for TNT revealed the respect in which he was held in the broadcasting industry and in the NBA.
Throughout his career on the sidelines, Sager often interviewed Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs' gruff head coach, who usually bridled at reporters' questions. The two were friends off-camera, but Popovich seemed to take particular joy in jousting with Sager on the air.
Once, when Sager asked Popovich to explain his team's defensive success, the coach responded that the opponent was probably distracted by Sager's hideous black suit with white specks.
When Sager returned to work after his cancer treatment, he interviewed Popovich in December 2015. Popovich dropped his tough-guy act, saying, "I've got to honestly tell you, this is the first time I've enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview that we're required to do," before Sager could ask a question.
Popovich hugged Sager, then said, "Now ask me a couple of inane questions."