Craig Sager, in His Own Words, Inside His Recovery and the NBA World He Misses

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Craig Sager, in His Own Words, Inside His Recovery and the NBA World He Misses
Courtesy of Craig Sager

For the past few weeks, "America's Sideline Reporter," Craig Sager, has been working on his golf game in an Atlanta hospital room.

His wife, Stacy, bought him a putt-putt mat, and on Wednesday, Nike surprised him with a custom-made putter with an imprint of one of the flashy sports jackets he has worn as a reporter for the NBA on TNT for the past 17 seasons. That's mostly how Sager has stayed active while receiving treatment for adult acute myeloid leukemia.

The rest of the time, he hasn't missed watching a playoff telecast yet. While he has no return date—he might need a bone marrow transplant at some point—he's making progress. For now, he says he's doing "the old Tom Thibodeau: I'm day-to-day."

Speaking with Bleacher Report this week, Sager shared what his hospital stay has been like, some intimate moments with Charles Barkley, a surprise gift from Kevin Garnett and much more. With his consent, his story is presented here from his perspective, edited for clarity and length.

 

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Tuesday was my best day since I started treatment. I turned the corner, as I'm now building my own white blood corpuscles. All the doctors say I'm doing remarkable, doing the best I can possibly do, no bad reactions. I haven't had any aftereffects from the chemo, and I'm staying healthy. The doctors said that being in good shape is a big factor, and I'm not on any oxygen, all my organs are good, my heart is perfect. So they're very pleased with what's going on.

The best therapy for me has been the playoffs; thank God for that. They do chemo right there at your bedside, so right from day one I was watching the games.

On Saturday, April 19, the first day of the playoffs, I was sitting there getting my first chemo treatment and the Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Clippers game comes on. I'll never forget it. The score was 47-47 with a little over three minutes to go in the second quarter and Mike Breen announces my name, and I look up and he talks about the fact that I was undergoing treatment, and then he and Jeff Van Gundy expressed their concern and sent me their best wishes. I'm like, "Oh my God."

Then it was Easter Sunday, April 20, and I had my family at the hospital. But my son, Craig Jr., wasn't there because he said he had to work. We were watching the Dallas Mavericks-San Antonio Spurs game, and they announced that he's there and was going to interview Gregg Popovich. I didn't know anything about it. I was like, "Oh, Jesus."

Off the court, Popovich is terrific. He's different on TV. He doesn't want to be bothered in the middle of his job. People always ask, "Do I say something bad about Pop?" And I say, "No, I have the utmost respect for him. He's doing his job. If I were him, I wouldn't want to talk to me either." Those are the parameters of TV, and I'm happy to do it, but it's uncomfortable for him.

Junior tried to be prepared. It's a hell of a lot easier if the Spurs are winning, but not only did the Spurs lose their lead in the third quarter, but Tim Duncan also got hurt, banged his knee, and he was out of the game. I was cringing, but he did such a great job and Pop was fantastic, making his comments afterward about getting me back there. That brought tears to my eyes. It couldn't have been a better start to my therapy to see something like that.

It was also great to hear Tom Thibodeau's comments and see players like Taj Gibson and Bradley Beal hold up "#GetWellSager" posters. Beal is one player I'd like to report on right now; he has really come on strong. His mother would always tell me, "He needs to work on his shot." She said he's doing things wrong with his elbow. Now, with him playing so well, I'd like to follow up with her about what she thinks—if she's helped him or if he's done it on his own.

I'd also like to interview Damian Lillard—that shot he made in Game 6 against the Houston Rockets, oh my God. I met him for the first time at the 2012 draft, and you just got that feeling that this kid has got something special. He's been so well grounded and so ready for his first playoff experience, and it would be great to talk to him about that.

Courtesy of Craig Sager
Ernie Johnson and Sager.

***

The tribute that TNT did for me was fabulous, even Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson dressing up as me and making fun of what I wear. Chris Carmody, a senior producer for Turner Sports, put together a tape for me—with stuff I hadn't seen on TV, like players from the press conferences holding up signs. The tape also included fans talking about me, fans drawing pictures, and some Hooters girls giving me some get well wishes.

I've been getting tons of visitors at the hospital. Ernie has been here several times. He went through outpatient with his chemo in 2006, so he was talking to me about losing my hair, which he did. He said, "You have to shave it." I might lose it soon, but I'm glad I didn't shave my head like he told me to because I haven't lost any hair yet.

Charles stopped by last Friday. He got a big kick about my catheter, and he was squeamish and ready to pass out in the chair. And Kenny came by this week. He just knows me from always being on the road, and he couldn't believe I was just sitting there. He said, "Sager-vision, we need you out there. What are you doing laying here? You look fine, get back to work. You don't even look like you've got a cold." I said, "Kenny, I'd like to. If you want to tie some sheets together with me, we'll put them out the window and I'll try to get out of here."

Beyond visits, I've got a whole stack of cards and presents, including ones from USA Basketball, CBS Sports and other TV networks. It's all been really heartwarming and uplifting and therapeutic. I even got a huge flower arrangement from my close friend Kevin Garnett. To think that this is the most competitive player I've ever met in any sport in my life who's right in the middle of a first-round series, that was amazing. I just couldn't have it in my room because of the possibility of a fungus.

And then you've got Doc Rivers, who's dealing with the off-the-court problems that Donald Sterling had caused, taking the time to send me a huge fruit basket with his best wishes. Calling every day to see how I was doing speaks volumes. Doc is actually my business partner, along with Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman, in this bar I've had for 26 years called Jocks & Jills Sports Grill.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

***

It's now been more than three weeks since I was diagnosed with AML. I started to feel tired on April 9, the day after I worked the Miami Heat-Brooklyn Nets game. But I've worked at Turner for 33 years and never missed a day of work in my life, so I didn't think anything of it. I was flying to Anderson, Indiana, to give a speech at the Anderson High School Wigwam, the second-largest high school basketball arena in the state, and I was short of breath when I walked up to the plane. I felt the same way in Dallas, where I landed later that day to work the Spurs-Mavericks game on April 10.

The morning of the game, I went to our TNT production meeting at 9 a.m. and then was going to run after—I always run then and I'm pretty big into that; I've run 32 straight AJC Peachtree Road Races—but I didn't feel real good. I said, "Well, maybe I'll walk it," but I didn't feel like walking. I went back to the hotel, and it was the first time working for Turner that I took a nap the day of a game. I never take naps.

I felt a little weird during the game, but I handled it all right. Then I had to do postgame interviews and I was really feeling tired and weak, and it was hard to walk back and forth without stopping and catching my breath. So I talked to Dr. Tarek O. Souryal, the Mavericks' team physician. He did my knee surgery about 12 years ago when I was skiing, so we've been friends. He said, "You've got to go to the hospital. Emergency room." And I said, "When?" He said, "Now."

So I went to the hospital, and they checked my hemoglobin and said I was 4.6, and you're supposed to be between 13 to 16. They said, "You're walking dead"—that they never had anybody functioning, let alone standing, with a hemoglobin that low. Usually somebody who's that low has been in a car accident and lost tons of blood or had some type of trauma. The doctors told me the fact that I was in good shape pushed me through the illness, but my body finally just had enough and it hit a brick wall. The next thing that could've happened is my body would've shut down and I might have had a heart attack.

Courtesy of Craig Sager
Stacy and Sager in his hospital room.

After I was in Dallas for three days for tests, I flew back to Atlanta, where I had two bone marrow biopsies, and it was eventually determined that I had leukemia. Since then, I've been mostly in isolation in a private room within the blood and bone marrow transport unit of a hospital in Atlanta. The room has special ventilation, and there can't even be any lettuce or fresh vegetables inside because they might have some type of bacteria on them.

One of the weirdest things is the staff weighs you twice a day—at 4 p.m. and at 4 a.m. I tried to figure out why I have to do it at 4 a.m., but it's for consistency, and that way if you had an averse reaction to the chemo or they needed to do something before you got your treatment the next morning, they had time to do so. Then, every four hours during the day, they test all of your vitals to make sure you don't have a fever. I also get blood-platelet transfusions and red-blood transfusions. I've probably had over 30-something red-blood transfusions.

***

What I miss in covering the NBA is plain and simple: I've got the best job in the world. I get paid to do what everybody else wants to do, and that's to be at the best games. I don't take it for granted to have the opportunity to be there and do the games.

When I'm at the games, I'm always there three-and-a-half hours ahead of time, and I love talking to the fans, I love interacting with them. I love being around the shootarounds and all of the practices and just being part of the whole atmosphere. I want to be everywhere. I miss the travel, I miss games, I miss the fans, I miss meetings with the coaches, I miss talking to the players while they're warming up. I miss all of it.

I even miss all of the good stuff I planned to wear for the playoffs. Actually, on April 7, the day before the Heat-Nets game, I had picked out about a half-dozen patterns from Rex Fabrics, where I get a lot of my stuff made. It's well known internationally, and I don't even look in the men's section.

Wherever I shop, I pick out stuff from the women's or interior design sections, and they turn bridesmaid dresses and drapes and curtains, respectively, into my sports jackets. I don't have a specific taste—whatever is bright and lively and catches my attention. I also like a lot of Versace and anything Italian-made. As the rounds get more important, I bring out bigger and better things.

With my shoes, I wear a lot of ostrich and alligator. I even have a pair of alligator shoes and an alligator belt, both with the actual eyeballs on them. That freaks out Stacy, who still can't believe I have more shoes than her. I have hundreds and need my own closet for them.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

***

To be honest, I haven't thought of the reception for my first game back. I still don't know when I'll return to the sidelines because I might need a bone marrow transplant after I get out of the hospital in a week-and-a-half. But when that time comes, I'll be ready to go. 

Marv Albert had a funny comment when he was here visiting. He said, "I was talking to Steve Kerr and he was saying it's getting kind of annoying at all these games where everybody keeps asking about where you are." He said, "When you get back, there may be a time where you go into one of these arenas and you may get a standing ovation—and that could be pretty obnoxious." And I said, joking, "Well, thanks Marv." I don't care where they send me or what—just the sooner, the better. I appreciate everything that's come my way recently and can't wait to get back.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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