Craig Sager's Harrowing and Emotional Journey Back to the NBA

Lars AndersonSenior WriterMarch 5, 2015


The sideline reporter walked out of his house in Canton, Georgia, a free man at last, intent on doing the things he’s missed oh so much in the last 11 months.

It was March 1, half past noon, and Craig Sager ambled toward his black 1990 Corvette parked in the driveway. Minutes earlier, he had swallowed the last of his medication to suppress his immune system so that it accepts his new bone marrow—“I’m done!” he proclaimed as he stood in his kitchen after polishing off his final bottle of the foul-tasting drug Prograf. Now, as he approached his car, he sensed things most of us overlook: birds chirping, the fragrance of wet grass, the cool wind feathering his cheeks. With every step into the gray winter afternoon, he silently sampled the full buffet of life.

The 63-year-old cancer survivor slid into his Corvette, flipped the ignition and rumbled through the sleepy streets of Canton, a town of 24,000 located on the northern outskirts of Atlanta. Sager hadn’t been among strangers since that harrowing hour last spring when he was issued what could have been his death sentence: a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. But now, in four days, he was slated to return to the NBA sideline—on March 5, in Chicago, for the Bulls-Thunder game—and return to his life that was ripped away from him last April.

“I probably should have been dead,” said Sager, a gleam of wonder in his brown eyes, as he waited at a stoplight behind the wheel. “But this is the truth: I never had a bad day. Never. Never said, ‘Why me?’

"I’ve had a charmed life. I won the lottery in marrying my wife, Stacy. My kids are a joy. I figured it was just my turn for some bad luck. I didn’t volunteer for it, but I accepted it.”

Sager—the 34-year veteran of Turner Sports (Bleacher Report’s parent company) who perhaps is best known for his, uh, colorful wardrobe of bold suits—then piloted the Corvette into the parking lot of Cherokee Tennis Center in nearby Woodstock. Within minutes, the sideline reporter was prowling around the court, his eyes locked onto his eight-year-old son, Ryan, who was playing in a tournament.

Craig Sager and son Ryan at the Cherokee Tennis Center in Woodstock, Georgia.
Craig Sager and son Ryan at the Cherokee Tennis Center in Woodstock, Georgia.Photo by Sam Bennett

The little moments are freighted with so much meaning now. Ryan won his match in straight sets, causing the father to whoop and holler like his boy had just captured a Wimbledon title. Sager whipped out his cell phone and took pictures of Ryan. As he snapped away, his 10-year-old daughter, Riley, wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him hard, as if her dad was her buoy in the middle of an ocean.  

My, how his youngest kids ached for their dad when he was gone. For six weeks after Sager received a bone marrow transplant last July 3, Ryan and Riley weren’t allowed to see their father while he was in the fourth-floor isolation unit at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. He returned to their house on Aug. 15, surprising his children.

“Daddy’s home!” Ryan yelled when he spotted his dad at the doorway. “Now I don’t have to see you in my dreams anymore!”

And just then, hugging his two youngest there in the entryway, Sager melted into a puddle of tears. He was home—but his ordeal was far from over.

Left to right, Craig, Riley, Stacy and Ryan Sager
Left to right, Craig, Riley, Stacy and Ryan SagerPhoto by Sam Bennett

He knew something was wrong last April 10. Sager was with the TNT crew in Dallas for a Mavericks-Spurs game. After a late-morning production meeting, Sager decided to go for a run on the Katy Trail, a path that winds through the Uptown area of Dallas. At 6'4" and 222 pounds, Sager was in impeccable shape. He ran five miles several times a week and followed a health-conscious diet.

Yet as soon as Sager arrived at the trail, he grew intensely fatigued. He had never taken an afternoon nap in his career, but he returned to his room at the Rosewood Crescent Hotel and collapsed onto his bed.

Sager had plenty of energy during the game, but after conducting his final interviews of the night, something inside of him “felt different.” His reserves of energy, always so full even after marathon work hours, were empty. He spotted the Dallas team doctor, T.O. Souryal, who had performed knee surgery on Sager 12 years earlier.

“I feel weak,” Sager told Souryal.

After a cursory exam, Souryal told Sager that he had to go to the emergency room immediately. Sager reluctantly agreed, figuring he was simply dehydrated and would receive an IV drip bag and be discharged. But then blood work revealed that Sager’s hemoglobin count was 4.6—the normal count for men is 13.5 to 17.5. “I was walking dead according to the chart,” Sager said.

Over the next 24 hours, Sager received six blood transfusions. He called Stacy, who was at home in Canton. “I have got to get out of here,” he told her. “If I’m sick, I don’t want to be stuck so far from home.”

The next afternoon, Stacy flew to Dallas. The doctors, still unsure of what was wrong with their patient, didn’t want to release Sager, but he was adamant. Stacy drove him to the airport, put her husband in a wheelchair and pushed him toward their gate.

“I was scared he wasn’t going to make it out of that airport,” Stacy said. “Then when we got on the plane, I asked the flight attendants if there was a defibrillator on board. I was worried that he was going to have a heart attack. He was so weak, so pale. He just had no color to him at all.”

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 19: A fan of the Indiana Pacers holds a sign to pray for Craig Sager during the game against the Atlanta Hawks in the East Conference Quarter Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 19, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER:
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

They made it to Atlanta, where Stacy drove Craig to Piedmont Hospital. Tests eventually revealed that Sager had leukemia. He was transported by ambulance to Northside Hospital, where he was taken to an isolation floor. But Sager wasn’t ready to be locked in a hospital room. Against his doctor’s wishes, he left.

“You’ve got to understand that my dad basically hasn’t been in the same state for more than three days for over 20 years,” said Craig Sager Jr., 26. “He’s always been on the move. He had to wrap his head around the idea of being in the hospital for a long time.”

Stacy drove her husband home. He was desperate to see his two youngest children. (Sager has three older children, including Craig Jr., from a previous marriage.) After embracing them, he couldn’t climb the stairs to reach his bedroom, so he lay down in the living room.

“I wasn’t really sleeping and I wasn’t really awake,” Sager said. “I was in pain, and it was like I saw my spirit or soul or something just floating a few feet from me. I reached for it, but I couldn’t get it. That’s when I told Stacy it was time to go back to the hospital.”

Too weak to walk, Sager crawled and rolled to the front door. He grabbed his youngest kids tight before he left, telling them he loved them, tears spilling down his cheeks. He then made his way to the car, unsure if he’d ever come home again.

Craig Sager in his basement with his extensive collection of sports memorabilia.
Craig Sager in his basement with his extensive collection of sports memorabilia.Photo by Sam Bennett

Know this about the suits: They reflect the inner child of the man who wears them.

A native of Batavia, Illinois, Sager is the walking definition of a person who doesn’t take himself too seriously. As a student at Northwestern University, he was Willie the Wildcat, the football mascot. Fresh from graduating, he interviewed to become a weatherman at a small station in Tampa in 1974. Before his on-air tryout, he went to a Goodwill store and bought a blue, white and yellow seersucker suit. He wanted to stick out and be remembered—and he was. He landed the job but was told to ditch the flashy threads because the cameras couldn’t focus on them.

Soon, Sager moved to sports, where his ingenuity in chasing stories quickly became the stuff of bar-talk legend among the TV talking-head crowd.

In 1974, he ran alongside Hank Aaron from third base to home plate after Hammering Hank crushed home run No. 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record. In 1977, he slept in a stall next to Seattle Slew the night before the thoroughbred won the Triple Crown. And two years later, he bailed Morganna, the famed Kissing Bandit, out of jail after she ran onto the field at the MLB All-Star Game. Morganna gave him her oversized bra, which now sits in his basement behind glass with other sports memorabilia—including Jim McMahon’s headband from 1985 that reads “Rozelle” and a clump of Slew’s glazed poop.

Did we mention that Sager is eccentric?

In 1981, while working at a television station in Kansas City, Sager received a call from Ted Turner, who had just launched a new cable station called CNN. He offered Sager the chance to broadcast 30- and 60- minute shows on baseball and basketball—but he’d have to take a pay cut. Friends told Sager that CNN would never last, but Sager was tired of getting only two-and-a-half minutes of airtime a night on the local news in K.C. He accepted Turner’s offer and became Employee No. 343; today, CNN and Turner have more than 12,000 on the payroll worldwide.

“The reason Craig has lasted so long is because he legitimately thinks he has the best job in the world and cares so much about it,” said Craig Barry, a senior vice president of production at Turner who has worked with Sager for a quarter-century. “He’s been like the Energizer Bunny: always going and always happy.”

Craig Sager with his choice of suit for his March 5 return to the NBA.
Craig Sager with his choice of suit for his March 5 return to the NBA.Photo by Sam Bennett

When Sager started doing NBA sideline reporting for TNT in 1991—Sager, for the record, was the original NBA TV reporter on the sidelines—he once again wanted to make an impression. So he began wearing brightly colored suits.

“Sports are supposed to be fun, and so I have fun with the way I dress,” Sager said. “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.”

And yet the suits have made Sager a target of good-natured abuse. Charles Barkley, his colleague at TNT, has joked that Sager looks like a “pimp.” Kevin Garnett once remarked he “looks like a Christmas ornament.”

At his home in Canton, Sager’s suits reside in a second-floor, walk-in closet. He tries not to wear the same jacket-and-tie combo—a massive task, given he’s been a part of well more than 1,300 broadcasts for the NBA alone in the last three decades—and he has more than 100 pairs of dress shoes, which means he owns more shoes than his wife, a former dancer for the Chicago Bulls.

“Craig can pull off his outfits because of his personality,” said Barkley, a longtime friend. “Guys in the NBA really like him because he’s fair. He’ll ask tough questions, but they are fair questions. I respected him when I was a player, and now that I work with him, I see how dedicated he is. Plus, the guy is always smiling, so how can you not like him?”

Barkley visited Sager several times in the Atlanta hospital. At one point, Sager was so frail—he lost 54 pounds and was down to 168 at his weakest—that it was hard for Barkley to simply look at his friend. In his worst hours, Sager couldn’t even open his water bottle.

“It was devastating,” Barkley said. “Just devastating.”

Craig Sager Jr. and his father at the bar his father owns.
Craig Sager Jr. and his father at the bar his father owns.Photo by Sam Bennett

The chance that Craig Sager Jr. would be a full match for a bone marrow transplant: two percent. Of course, Craig Jr. would do anything to help his old man, so despite it being a long shot, he underwent a series of tests to see if he could be the donor.

It was Craig Jr. who announced to the sporting world, via Twitter, that his father had been diagnosed with leukemia. A former walk-on wide receiver at Georgia and the managing editor of Score Atlanta, a website that provides coverage of high schools and other sports, Craig Jr. has always enjoyed wielding a pen. But TV? “Let’s just say that television is not in my comfort zone,” he said.

But there he was on the opening broadcast of TNT’s postseason coverage last April 20, interviewing San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after the third quarter of Game 1 between the Spurs and the Mavericks. It was a wonderful surprise for his dad, who was watching from his hospital bed in Atlanta while undergoing chemotherapy.

The father beamed with pride as his son assumed his role. Then, at the end of the interview, Popovich—who has had many testy exchanges with Sager over the years—looked into the camera and said, “Craig, we miss you … We want your fanny back on the court, and I promise I’ll be nice. Get back here.”

From his bed, the elder Sager lost it, the tear ducts leaking, a full-body shiver of goose bumps sweeping over him. He called his son, who was in the bowels of the arena and simply relieved that the production went so smoothly.

Junior confessed to his dad that he stole the gray coat with pink stripes for the interview out of his closet. “My entire life, I wondered what it was like to be him for a day,” Craig Jr. said. “I could never replace him.”

A few weeks later, the test results came back: Craig Jr. was a perfect match for his dad. There was only one other person in the world—located in Europe—who Sager's doctor found as a match. For the first time since he started feeling ill in Dallas, Sager caught an incredible break.

“We’re so lucky it was me,” Craig Jr. said. “We could do it fast. And to be able to help my dad like that is a feeling that I can’t describe. To see how badly he needed it and to see him come back. He started to turn a corner pretty fast after the transplant. It’s amazing.”

The transplant was performed on July 3. Sager spent six more weeks in the hospital before finally being released in August. He received more than 250 cards and letters from NBA coaches, players, stadium ushers, security guards and fans. He penned handwritten notes of thanks to everyone who reached out. Each one included an eight-line poem by Sager, which ended with these words:

Thought and Prayer

Comfort and Feeling

Vital to Recovery

Hope and Healing

A frequent visitor to Sager’s room was Turner’s Ernie Johnson, who has known Sager since the early 1980s. “He maintained such a great attitude, he was just always Sags,” said Johnson, who successfully battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006. “You’d have thought he only had a cold, the way he acted. He sincerely didn’t want people to worry about him.”

Once released, Sager traveled to the hospital for 93 straight days, spending six-to-eight hours each visit undergoing different treatments. He overcame a bout of pneumonia, and it wasn’t until March 1, last Sunday, that doctors cleared him fit to return to work.

“I’m going to go full blast right out of the gate,” Sager said. “We’ll start in Chicago and resume the normal schedule. I love traveling and have never once gotten tired of it. I honestly can’t wait.”

They gathered at Jocks & Jills, a bar in Atlanta that Sager has owned since 1987. Longtime golf buddies, his children, his wife and patrons who have known Sager for decades—they were all there on March 1 to welcome back Sager, who made his first visit to the joint in 11 months. His weight is now up to 184 and climbing.

“We’ve missed you, Craig,” one person yelled at the sight of Sager walking in from the chill of the winter evening.

“I’m just glad to be alive,” Sager shouted back.

Sager then sidled to a table in the back. A waitress took his order and a few minutes later it arrived: a 20-ounce draft of Bud Light.

Sager raised his glass in the air. To life, he said. To family. To friends. And then he closed his eyes and took his first sip of beer in 11 months.

Photo by Sam Bennett

And what a moment it was, there in the dim light of the bar, this occasion that he had been fantasizing about for so long. He put his glass down and slapped high-fives with his buddies. Happiness radiated from everyone’s face, especially from little Ryan and Riley, seated nearby and aglow as they gazed at their dad.  

Sager eyed an acquaintance. “You know,” he said quietly, “the beer doesn’t really taste as good as I remember. But the taste will come back.”

He paused and then smiled to himself. It was a soft, little smile that captured the essence of Craig Sager: a grin of a man who believes that tomorrow, no matter the forecast, will be filled with sunshine.

“Yes,” he declared again to no one in particular, “the taste will definitely come back.”