DA's Morning Tip

Georgia prep basketball tournament serves as reminder of who Craig Sager was

Craig Sager Jr., sister Kacy, hope new tournament paid new kind of tribute to their father

David Aldridge

Not to get too treacly about it, but the hope for Craig Sager, Jr., and his sister, Kacy, was to see their father in every person that walked into Dacula High School on Saturday.

“There is potential for this for everyone that comes to this to feel like they’re a part of it,” Craig, Jr., said. “My dad was a fan. He was a cheerleader. He was a mascot. He played basketball. And he was a media member. And I feel like that’s everything. I want everyone to feel like they’re a part of it, not just the players, but the whole experience.”

The elder Sager children sat side by side Saturday at Dacula, in a room reserved for referees and staff, as 32 high school teams began play at the inaugural Craig Sager Memorial Basketball Tournament, a four-day event held about a half hour south of Atlanta and featuring some of the best teams in Gwinnett County and the greater Atlanta area. With the help of Dacula’s basketball coach, Dr. Russ Triaga, a 10-month slog to bring all the logistics of organizing and funding such an ambitious event was finally coming to an end.

“It’s pretty awesome to do something, and to talk about our dad, and to not have to talk about cancer for the first time since he got sick. I’d rather you tell me you got drunk with him after a game or something.”

Kacy Sager

But honoring their dad, my Turner Sports colleague who died last December from multiple myeloma after a courageous three-year battle, was just beginning. In putting on this tournament, they hope to remind people of the person their dad was.

“It’s pretty awesome to do something, and to talk about our dad, and to not have to talk about cancer for the first time since he got sick,” Kacy Sager said. “I’d rather you tell me you got drunk with him after a game or something.”

All but two of the teams were local; one team came from Binghamton, N.Y. (“the coach was my college roommate,” Triaga said). Every team was guaranteed playing three games during the four-day tournament, which waived the standard entry fee most tournaments ask of participating teams. But this is a non-exempt tournament, not an exhibition — the games count on each team’s record. The four brackets, named in honor of Craig, Sr.’s infamous wardrobe choices — Plaid, Paisley, Floral and Chevron (this is but one example of a Chevron fabric pattern) — will have champions crowned on Tuesday.

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Gwinnett County embodied the sense of competition Craig, Jr., wanted the tournament to display. “Gwinnett County in particular, with all their sports, they have, without question, the best community support,” he said. “They have some of the biggest schools in the state. They’re good in football; they’re good in basketball; they’re great in women’s sports, especially.”

Triaga met Sager Sr. when they both worked at Turner Sports. They were on an elevator together. “And he looks at me and he goes ‘dude, your shoe’s untied.’ And I looked down and kind of pretended I didn’t hear him. And he said ‘no, really — your shoe’s untied.’ And I looked down and my shoe was untied. And I went down and tied it, and just as I did the elevator doors opened up and he said ‘anything I can do to help make your day a little better,’ and he just went on about his business.”

More than two decades later, after Senior’s death, Triaga, the head coach at Dacula the last six years, was in his office.

“It was the middle of January,” Triaga said. “We were just like in the Dog Days of January, just kind of playing games. I was talking to Byron (Wilson, his assistant coach), and he was like, you look tired. I was like, ‘Byron, I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’ve got a really talented team. I’ve got a lot of talented players coming back next year. But I can kind of see the end coming. I’m like, I just want to do something different. I want to do something that no one else does. And I don’t want to do a showcase (generally, showcase events usually are single-day events featuring high-profile teams from different conferences or leagues playing against one another). I want everybody involved.’ And he said, ‘well, who is somebody that would want everybody involved?’ ”

Scanning his phone, he came across Craig Sager, Jr.’s number. Junior has been a fixture on the Georgia scholastic sports scene for years as a journalist. After walking on three years for the University of Georgia football team, he started covering sports across the region working for Score Atlanta, a sports marketing firm. He also writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s high school section.

Triaga didn’t want to push; Sager, Sr., had only passed a month earlier. So he left Junior a message, not expecting to hear anything for a while. He got a call back from Junior in 10 minutes — “the fastest anyone’s ever gotten a response from my brother,” Kacy Sager says.

Junior did not pick up organizational skills from his father — “he would have been even worse than I am at organizing a tournament; he wouldn’t have a clue what to do,” he said. But he and Kacy — named such by their mother, Lisa, because Lisa was pregnant with her in 1985 when Kansas City was in the World Series, and because Lisa and Craig, Sr., met at a Royals game — persevered.

“The last three years alone were the most exhausting three years of my life,” Craig, Jr. said. “I was ready to do it. But also, I had a lot going on. I had the big visions for it. Russ obviously laid all of the groundwork, had the teams and made sure every decision was okay, and made it easy for me. I was just trying to figure out, everything about my dad’s legacy, it was all about his battle with cancer. And I felt like this was a way to bring it back.”

His schedule was filled, though — the opening season for Atlanta’s Major League Soccer franchise, Atlanta United FC, began in September — the same month that Mercedes-Benz Stadium (the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and United FC) opened for business. And Score Atlanta was helping to put on the Corky Kell Classic, a three-day, nine-team event that serves as the unofficial kickoff to the high school football season in the area. Junior wanted a basketball tournament that did the same.

Getting the teams lined up and the tournament format figured out was relatively simple. Getting people to actually commit funds to help was a different animal.

It was especially frustrating because Junior knew and had worked with numerous sponsors for football events in the past. But there were few people willing to step up financially. In the end, the Sagers saved money by holding off televising the first two days of the tournament locally; the Finals for each of the four brackets will be shown locally on SUVtv, an online broadcast network that does basketball games in Atlanta and the Southeast.

The financial spine of the tournament was almost all grass roots — a GoFundMe set up by Kacy, which she pushed hard on Twitter and other social media outlets. There wasn’t a rainmaker, no NBA player sending in a big check to seed the whole thing.

“We got a little boxed in,” Kacy Sager said. “The way we were trying to sell the advertising space, it was just a very, I think, standard way of approaching funding something like this. We just needed to just go outside of that. As soon as we were like ‘hey, it’s the Craig Sager Touranment,’ just trying to convince people it was going to be a high school event that was worth getting behind, as opposed to treating it like something different, once we stopped focusing on that so much, things started falling into place a little faster.”

Said Craig, Jr.: “it’d be nice to have a Foot Locker sponsor come in and give every single person a special floral jersey or something like that. But I think the fact that it’s the community, it’s people on Twitter that were just a fan of our dad or a fan of high school basketball. And that’s all there is. There’s nothing else. There’s no Sager Strong.”

On Saturday, everything wasn’t in place. The Shiloh team’s bus to the school broke down on a highway; another bus wasn’t dropping its team off where it was supposed to drop them. More t-shirts for Monday were on the way. In other words, the tournament was going along just as all tournaments do — a hundred little fires popping up, every hour on the hour, that are summarily put out, leaving the hosts a minute’s rest before the next conflagration.

But the stress levels were relatively low on the court, even though the games would count in each team’s standings. The refs worked in day-glo yellow shirts, the same color as Craig Jr.’s custom-made hoodie. Both he and Kacy wondered if they should dress crazily formal in honor of their dad, and decided comfort made more sense

And they’re already planning next year’s tournament. Junior wants to get every player a swag bag next year, with gear from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and United. Kacy, who was named that by her mother is hopeful that she can get Ice Cube’s Big3 League to play an exhibition on the first day of next year’s tournament. The University of Georgia donated tickets for its basketball game Sunday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

In pulling this off, bringing a big event to life to honor their larger than life but nonetheless goofy dad, they felt somewhat at home.

“I know, for me, going into sports, and my sister, covering sports … it’s a family thing,” Craig, Jr. said. “It’s who we are. I wouldn’t know it any other way.”

The Craig Sager Memorial Basketball Tournament continues today at Dacula High School in Dacula, Ga., and continues through the championship round Tuesday. Tickets are $8 at the gate each day. To make a donation through GoFundMe, click here. A donation of $25 or more will get you a t-shirt with the tournament logo.

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here andfollow him on Twitter.

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