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Dressed for sideline success, Sager readies for his return

After battle with cancer, TNT's fashion plate itching to get going

POSTED: Nov 27, 2014 12:21 PM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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Dressed and ready

TNT reporter Craig Sager is raring to get back to the sidelines after his battle with cancer. He hopes to return by February.

— He is asked what he'll wear for the special occasion, and it causes a sudden adrenalin rush. For most of the morning, he moved around his house gingerly, which is what you'd expect from someone described by doctors as "walking dead" last spring, from someone who served as a pin cushion all summer, poked often by needles that fed constant blood transfusions.

Now he's up from his chair and on his toes, bounding up the stairs toward his clothes closet. Within moments he's returned, holding -- make that cradling -- his baby, made of 100 percent pure linen.

"Isn't it something?" asks Craig Sager.

Well ... yeah, it's, um, interesting.

"I can't wait. The sooner I put this on, the better."

It's a sports jacket, created just for him, and it is orange enough to make the University of Tennessee jealous. There are white pinstripes, too. The jacket screams for attention, like all of his work clothes. Sager is looking at it adoringly, like a bride does her gown, and to answer your next question, yes, there are matching slacks. The suit will complement the orange-trimmed shoes made of ostrich. Or is it alligator? Who the heck can remember or keep up anymore?

When that special day finally arrives, he'll dress slowly, carefully, strategically. And then it's on. He knows what to expect; the finger-pointing, the whispers, the stares and, of course, the laughter and teasing. Did you see what Sager's got on? He's heard it all by now, after decades of causing TV viewers to reach for the tint button.

Sager column: Kobe, keep doing what you're doing

But anyone planning to give him the business about his taste should know this: His choice of suit for one day next February, his target for returning to work as the best sideline reporter in any sport, wasn't decided on a whim. Cancer has adopted certain colors for awareness, you see, such as pink for breast cancer. Orange is for leukemia, the disease that invaded Sager's life and threatened to take it. He's in full remission now, though he's still waiting to get medical clearance to do everyday stuff the rest of us take for granted. And so he pines for the day he'll be back doing NBA games while his orange suit blends with all the orange basketballs, an ensemble which will seem so ... perfect.

His biggest challenge

Craig Sager's closet

Sager has interviewed thousands of people in dozens of different sports and asked maybe a million questions. Virtually all of his questions are on point. He's never flustered on-air. He is tireless, polished, always showing up on time and prepared in whatever stadium or arena (he lost track of how many) serves as his office for that day. With the exception of Marv Albert, no other TV person is more attached to the NBA than Sager, who joined Turner in March of 1981 (employee No. 343), a run of 33 years and counting, the last two decades as Turner's top sideline snoop. [Editor's note: Turner Sports, in partnership with the NBA, also operates NBA.com.]

He's paid to be curious, and curiosity leads to questions. But interestingly enough, Sager didn't ask a single question of the doctors when he was diagnosed with adult acute myeloid leukemia soon after feeling woozy last April.

Not even, Am I going to get through this?

"I didn't have to," he said. "I knew something was wrong. I figured whatever they're doing to me, it's designed to help me. I put my trust in them and did whatever they asked."

This is where Stacy comes in. She is blond and beautiful and a former member of the Bulls dance team, and beneath the glossy exterior is a fierce and protective wife and mother of two. And an investigative reporter, because she took the mic from her husband and was relentless.

"I asked enough questions to the point where I probably drove the physicians crazy," she said. "I had to do everything I could. I wanted to know why things were done: Why do you have him on this antibiotic? Just little things like that. I had to, because he is my life."

On the morning of April 10, before he was scheduled to work the Mavericks-Spurs game, Sager was too tired for his morning jog. This was unusual. He was athletic, always healthy. After the game, he found himself staggering. He explained his condition to Dr. Tarek Souryal, the Mavericks' team physician, who told him he needed to get to the hospital.

"When?"

"Now."

Once there, they checked his hemoglobin. It registered 4.6. Anything between 13 to 16 is normal. Doctors were stunned. They never had anyone manage to stand on their own two feet, let alone function, with a number that low. They told him he was a walking dead man and a heart attack waiting to happen.

Blood tests and bone marrow biopsies confirmed the worst. He spent his days getting chemo, his nights watching the playoffs carry on without him, and both carried their own manner and degree of torture. Neither compared with the impact his disease had on his ability to relate to his family. Stacy became his tireless caregiver and often slept on the sofa in the hall, outside his hospital room. Their two young children stayed home. Sager has three adult children from his first marriage, too. Their visits were welcome but heart-wrenching.

"The two girls were really emotional," Sager said. "They would keep it inside until they got out of the room. Then I'd hear them break down. That hurt me."

When I first came home from the hospital, I was crying. I had missed the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass, the feel of the air. And of course, I missed seeing my kids.

– Craig Sager

His two youngest, Riley and Ryan, 9 and 8, couldn't grasp the gravity of the situation, and because of their ages, Sager couldn't have any physical contact with them for months. The risk of getting germs and bacteria was always a concern because of Sager's compromised immune system. When Ryan, a gifted tennis player, competed in a tournament, Sager watched from the car in the parking lot. They couldn't have visitors to the house. Everyone had to use hand sanitizer daily.

Sager's immune system essentially had to be flushed with a new one. He underwent three dozen blood transfusions. His vitals were tested every four hours. He took pills around the clock, even through the night. Sager spent time in the hospital for 93 straight days. He lost 44 pounds and locks of his hair. He couldn't open a bottle of water; Stacy had a firmer grip.

He required a bone marrow transplant. Those can be tricky. Most are conducted with a worldwide donor search for a match. Sager found his medical soul mate a lot quicker and closer than he expected: His oldest son, Craig Jr. Father and son went through the procedure together. Bone marrow (1.5 liters worth) and stem cells were harvested from the hip of Junior and pumped into Sager.

"He was happy and excited," said the father. "Usually you end up wanting to be like your dad, and strange thing is, I ended up being like him after the transplant. We have the exact same DNA now."

Sager was hospitalized for four straight days before the transplant and underwent aggressive chemotherapy. As for the transplant, it took place the day before the Peachtree Road Race, the annual 10-kilometer road race in Atlanta. Sager had run the race for 32 straight years. His kids made it a ritual, too, and it became a family staple. This time, there was no Sager, and doctors ruled out Junior's participation as well. But you know how sons can be sometimes.

He told his father about the clandestine plan to run the race anyway, without permission from the doctors. Sager shrugged and said: "Just don't try to beat the Kenyans."

Not only did Junior complete the race, but he managed to snag an extra race bib for his father, and so unofficially, Sager can present documented proof that he ran a 33rd straight race, if he so chooses.

"Not having him there was going to be tough," said Junior. "I wanted to do it for him and also my family. We'd all gone through so much."

Not long after the transplant, Sager developed pneumonia, "and that was the worst," said Stacy. "That took a toll." More tests, more visits, more treatment, more worries. Stacy developed shingles from the stress. Eventually, Sager's system improved, the pneumonia was cured and Sager was on his feet again. He's down to two treatments a week.

"When I first came home from the hospital, I was crying," he said. "I had missed the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass, the feel of the air. And of course, I missed seeing my kids."

Ryan was particularly thrilled, jumping up and down. And the boy said this: "Oh, daddy's home and that means I don't have to see him in my dreams anymore," which of course made the old man puddle up.

A little help from some friends

Inside the NBA: Craig Sager Tribute

In honor of Craig Sager who is ill, the Inside the NBA crew are wearing special Craig Sager throwback uniforms.

Charles Barkley, now the Round Mound of Surround Sound, toned it down somewhat when he made a handful of heartfelt trips to the hospital to see his cancer-stricken Turner co-worker.

"DAMN BOY, YOU LOOK AWFUL," is how he greeted Sager.

And this: "You don't have any more hair!"

More Sir Charles, now pointing to Stacy: "Is that pretty girl still with you? She shouldn't be with you. She should be with me."

The entire hospital staff was always on the lookout for Barkley, and Charles being Charles, he charmed everyone. He quickly became The Favorite Visitor of the staff and, most importantly, the family and patient. That's because Barkley kept things normal, which is how Sager wanted it. Since Barkley poked fun at Sager's flashy suits and whatnot before cancer ... well, Sager demanded Barkley at least be consistent.

Of course, Barkley went much further. Presents, calls, flowers, Barkley smothered Sager with humor and concern and compassion. His generosity was typical of the sensitivity shown by the NBA family toward one of its own. Sager gets a softball in his throat every time he mentions the outpouring of affection. He kept index cards on everyone so he could personally thank them. Usually, a man doesn't get the sense he is this loved and missed until he's in his grave.

Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal and Ernie Johnson Jr. (who had his own bout with cancer) from "Inside The NBA" ... David Stern and Adam Silver from the NBA office ... former referee Bob Delaney, who showed up at Sager's home unannounced and knocked on the door ... and of course, all manners of players and coaches, both present and former. They all reached out.

"I just couldn't believe it," Sager said.

NBA's Best Honor Sager

The NBA's best coaches and players honor Craig Sager and wish him well on his battle with leukemia.

One in particular stood out. Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs' longtime coach, has made a habit of terrorizing sideline reporters and expressing his distaste for being interrupted with an interview during a timeout. Sager, who has worked a healthy number of Spurs games, wears the most "Pop scars" of anyone.

"He'd criticize me on the air and even off the air," said Sager. "In our meetings with the coaches, he'd get pissed at me. He didn't like some of the questions I'd ask Tony Parker, a lot of questions which came because I was playing off of what Marv or somebody said during the broadcast. After the years went on, I think Pop had respect for my work ethic, but he still hated the in-game interviews."

In a clever bit of maneuvering, the Turner folks had Craig Jr. stand in for his father during a Spurs playoff game last Easter Sunday. And Pop was brilliant, at first playfully admonishing Junior for "being nothing like your father" and then sending along his well-wishes during the timeout. The elder Sager, who wasn't informed until the last minute, was blown away.

Popovich with Craig Sager, Jr.

Gregg Popovich sends a heartfelt message to the ill Craig Sager.

But Popovich just ... wouldn't ... leave ... the Sagers ... alone.

"He called me four or five times in the next month to check on me and my dad," said Junior, and remember, Pop and the Spurs were in the heat of the playoff run. Pop's timing was downright surreal, too.

"He called the day of my sister Krista's graduation from the University of Georgia, because my dad couldn't make it," said Junior. "And this was before a game against Portland."

About a week later, Junior was involved in a hit and run accident on the Georgia 400 highway that gave his car a serious thrashing (he was OK). As he stood on the side of the road, waiting for help, his cell rang. Popovich. The Spurs in the midst of playing the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

"Everything OK?" asked Pop.

"Well, come to think of it ..." replied Junior.

Popovich kept calling and writing the father, who savored it all. Sager won't reveal much of what Pop said to him, choosing to keep such matters private, except to say the calls and letters "were beyond belief." Sager did allow that Pop mentioned how "we're a team." Meaning, Pop and Sager. Cranky coach (but a softie underneath) and sideline reporter. Imagine that.

Counting his blessings

Craig Sager Stacy Sager portrait November 2014
Craig and Stacy Sager, Thanksgiving 2014

As he walks through his house, Sager is eager to show the perks collected along the journey of his TV career. Among them: The wedge Tom Watson used at the 17th hole at the 1982 US Open, when he chipped in to beat Jack Nicklaus; a "Rozelle" headband worn by Jim McMahon; a bra from Morganna (kept in shape by two mini basketballs); poo-poo from Seattle Slew persevered by a hard transparent coating; and a No. 45 jersey worn by Michael Jordan with the Birmingham Barons.

He owns another, more personal collection. What began as a decision to wear funky ties mushroomed into a full-blown wacky wardrobe. His closet contains boldly colored suits and jackets of all patterns, around 135 or so. It's his trademark, often mocked and squinted at, but complimented more times than you would suspect. He never wears the same suit twice in a season. Most are made from material used for drapes and curtains and purchased in Miami at Rex Fabrics.

"He's very picky," said Ricardo, the owner. "He's a perfectionist when it comes to design. But Craig is a trailblazer. We're always ready for him. We'll be ready for him when he comes back."

There are three tubes that remain connected to his chest, and he doesn't expect to receive clearance to fly until January. His hair is fighting the good battle to regain some fluff. His wife Stacy said that until he read a pamphlet two weeks ago about Coaches Vs. Cancer, Sager had no idea about the mortality rate.

"He didn't know the scope of his disease," she said. "He didn't want to hear it because he's such a positive person."

He does know how close he is to returning to his element, his arena. Sager will spend Thanksgiving counting blessings instead of calories and counting down the days until he holds a microphone again. He hopes to work a Spurs game. Popovich will glare at his line of questioning. That would be a thrill.

Sager will return in a striped orange suit that will cause whiplash from courtside fans and a handful of players, some of whom will howl. And that's fine. Because when it comes to wearing outlandish attire, only a few special people can pull it off.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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