Think about it. You never notice male sideline reporters. About the only names I can come up with for male sideline reporters are Nick Gallo of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Craig Sager. I know there’s more. I just never cared to actually pay attention to them. Honestly, the only reason I know of Gallo is because I follow the team. Don’t get me wrong. He does a great job. But in all reality, he’s a lot like a green toy soldier in a lawn of green grass: he’s there, but he doesn’t really stand out. Craig Sager, on the other hand; he stood out like a sore thumb on a 7’3″ giant riding a majestic orange unicorn.
I use the word “stood” because, sadly, Sager passed away today, at the age of 65, after a lengthy battle with leukemia. For all the accolades and good times we had with Sager as a happy, go-lucky sideline reporter, his fight against cancer was probably his defining moment. You see the true value in something when you have to fight tooth and nail for it. Sager wanted to beat this. He wanted to come out triumphant on the other end. He wanted to continue working. He wanted to continue being a great husband to his wife, and a great father to his 5 children. And for some time, it was an even match-up.
Cancer doesn’t play fair, though. We know this. There are many battles amongst the war, but no matter how many battles you win, cancer somehow usually comes out on top. It’s the ultimate betrayal of you versus your body. That’s why the treatment for cancer is sometimes worse than the ailment itself. When the battlefield is your own body, the casualties are going to be your cells, your tissues, and your organs. Some people succumb quickly. Others live longer, but their quality of life is nothing like it was before cancer. And yet others look cancer directly in the eye, and yell out, “Bring it!”.
As you may have guessed, Sager fell into the latter category. He fought. My word, did he fight. Three bone-marrow transplants. I’ve never had one, but from what I hear, they are extremely painful. One of my good friends, someone I considered to be like an uncle, also died from leukemia several years ago. He got his bone marrow transplant, but his irradiated bone marrow weakened his immune system and he succumbed to a respiratory infection. Sager faced the same risks every time he got a transplant. Doctors constantly told him to take it easy. To not push himself. But Sager didn’t know any other way to live. When he was holed up in the hospital, his wife, Stacy Sager, would say that he would go mad while watching games on TV, wanting to be out there with his other family.
That other family would be the people associated around the game, especially his TNT brethren. The camaraderie shared between Sager and the various announcers and in-studio personalities from TNT made the pre- and post-game shows sometimes more watchable than the game itself. Just look at this clip in the header from 2010, when the the Thunder’s first round series against the Los Angeles Lakers switched over to Oklahoma City for Game 3. That’s genuine brotherhood right there. That’s guys that love discussing their craft when the cameras are on, but also enjoy discussing the other intricacies of the life with each other when the cameras are off.
Work families sometimes have more chemistry than real families. Work families usually have a common bond that joins them. For Sager, it was basketball. You could tell he loved the roundball. You could tell he enjoyed the atmosphere in and around the game. And the game loved him back. No other sideline reporter garnered the rapport that Sager commanded. The vibrant suits were his shtick, but they weren’t the reason you watched. When Oklahoma City joined the NBA family in 2008, the NBA family, in turn, joined Oklahoma City. Craig Sager became a staple in Oklahoma, especially with the Thunder making it to four Western Conference Finals in a six year period. For some reason, it usually seemed like TNT was hosting the WCF’s every time the Thunder made it. In addition, the Thunder’s success allowed them to play in countless prime time match-ups on TNT throughout the past 7 seasons.
As the NBA collective mourns, know that Oklahoma City and the Thunder also mourn. Sager was a giant in the game and his fight against leukemia will be an inspiration for many for years to come. As Sager said when he received Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2016 ESPYs in July, “Time is something that cannot be bought; it cannot be wagered with God, and it is not in endless supply. Time is simply how you live your life.” Well said, Craig. I thank you for the time you gave us. Basketball was the vehicle, but you were definitely the candy-coated paint job that made the car stand out. Keep keeping on, #SagerStrong.