The utterly outrageous, multi-coloured wardrobe matched his lust for life. In suits plucked straight out of a cartoon, Craig Sager lit up the NBA with his own brand of sideline reporting.
It’s often said that the journalists should never become the story. Yet in the ultimately sad tale of Sager’s brave battle with illness, it was the inspirational 65-year-old who stole hearts and won admiration from all.
On the news of his passing last week following a stoic two year fight with leukemia, the NBA family instantly came together and laid their feelings bare. Sager’s plight became a very public one – a heart-wrenching piece on HBO earlier this year detailed some astonishing bravery in the face of such painful adversity.
And on being awarded a special honour in ESPN’s yearly sports celebration, the ESPYS, he stole the show with an acceptance speech which, unsurprisingly, didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
The Illinois native was best known here in the US for his work on the TNT network, yet with their TV deal not extending to the post-season, Sager missed out on the NBA Finals.
This year, however, was different. Host broadcasters ESPN and ABC uniquely agreed to invite the father of five onto their programming so the action could brighten some of his darkest hours. Sadly, because of his debilitating chemotherapy sessions, he was only able to work Game 6 inbetween hospital visits.
Yet there were never any complaints. Just smiles. Getting on with life. Living in the moment. His bravery and positivity was astounding and a lesson for all.
“Whether you really knew Craig or not, you got the feeling that he was a special person in a lot of different ways. And right now I just feel for his family,” said San Antonio’s legendary coach Gregg Popovich, a difficult man to interview yet one who had a special relationship with Sager.
“To talk about him being a professional or good at what he did is a tremendous understatement. The most amazing part of him is his courage. What he’s endured, and the fight that he’s put up, the courage that he’s displayed during this situation is beyond my comprehension.
“And if any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every day as if it’s his last, we’d be well off.”
In the normal, often excruciatingly, bland world of sideline reporting, a few stock questions to a coach who’s desperate to be anywhere but standing with a microphone in his face, there isn’t much love on show between the interviewer and his subject.
Craig Sager thanks for saving my life when I was in dire need of help in Detroit back in 1993. Condolences to your family. RIP my friend.— Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) December 15, 2016
Sager was different. Perhaps the wacky sartorial style softened the banality. Google some of his outfits. It’s impossible not to raise a smile. Though this was a man who’d mastered his art, and was loving every second. The fraught, up-tight modern sporting world needs characters instead of media-trained robots who are afraid to say anything interesting.
Sager was old school. He knew how to bring the best out of people as well as fully utilise the worryingly diminishing art of asking the hard questions instead of fishing for a soundbite. Players and coaches responded with love and admiration.
All the big-hitters – Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade among many, many others – took to social media to pay their own respects. Perhaps one of the most enlightening glimpses into the man himself came from Dennis Rodman.
He was in a dark place back in April 1993. Fearing the axe in Detroit, Rodman had a gun in his possession and was ready to end it all. He headed for a strip joint and was considering killing himself until he was stopped in his tracks and persuaded otherwise – by Sager himself.
On or off court, Sager was an inspiration whose personality, and unique style will be sorely missed.
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