Come Friday, Craig Sager plans to fly to Toronto for the event he calls the biggest he works all year — and one that was denied him in 2015: the NBA All-Star Game.
But on Wednesday, he still was sitting in MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, waiting to see his doctor and in the middle of a “whole, huge, long checkup that takes all week.”
Such is life for Turner Sports’ NBA sideline reporter, who two years ago was diagnosed with leukemia and has been battling the disease ever since.
He was in Houston not only for his checkup, a series of tests that began on Monday, but also for the maintenance chemotherapy he undergoes periodically.
If all of that sounds like a physical and emotional challenge, it is. But Sager said he feels good — “really good.”
So good that he added previously unscheduled appearances on NBA TV this season and is gearing up for the stretch drive. “I’m easing into it, and with March Madness coming up and the playoffs, I assume I’m back to full time,” he said.
But first things first, and that is what he called “our marquee event at Turner. We really look forward to it and gear up for it. As far as our rating and everything we put into it, it’s pretty much our showcase.”
Sager, 64, worked every All-Star Game from 1988 through 2014 before being forced to miss last year’s in New York.
But that is not the only reason he is excited for this one more than most. He plans to return to the All-Star Saturday Night coverage, where his two youngest children, daughter Riley, 11, and son Ryan, 9, will work as a ball girl and boy.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for a couple of years and now they’re at the right age,” he said. “So they’ll be working at the same time I will be.”
Sager gave them information to study on all the participants so they would know who everyone is, the better to help with their needs.
“I just told them: ‘You do your job, I’ll do mine,”’ he said. ‘“I don’t want to get in your way and you don’t get in mine, and we’ll talk about it afterward.”’
Sager said he mostly has approached this season as “business as normal,” but he said there are some NBA cities he had not visited in two years, so there has been catching up to do with those who had offered prayers and best wishes.
His most high-profile friend and supporter has been Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a longtime interview foil who called him when he was first diagnosed.
“I’d always felt that I tried to do the best job that I can but I definitely always felt like I was a nuisance every time I interviewed him,” Sager said, “and he certainly made me feel that way.”
When it was announced that Sager would be back to work for the start of this season — after a brief return last March ended when he had a setback — Popovich phoned him. The conversation went this way, according to Sager:
“It’s Coach Pop.”
“Oh, how you doing?”
“How you doing? I hear you’re coming back.”
“So does that mean this pity party is over?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Does that mean I can start making fun of your clothes again, and your stupid questions?”
“Yeah, sure, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“Typical Pop,” Sager said. “He’s been great, terrific. That interview he did with my son [Craig Jr.] when I couldn’t do the playoffs in 2014 certainly was one of the highlights of this whole disease and treatment and trying to get back.”
Sager said he always has cherished the All-Star Game because “everybody’s there,” unlike during the playoffs, when some teams go home early and you never know when a series might end.
So he is geared up, and feels no physical limitations in doing the job as he always has. He said his one big concession to his illness has been giving up his outdoor morning runs. He traded them for indoor exercise bikes.
“They said my lungs and my heart and my liver are like a 30-year-old’s,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, that’s good.’ ”
Sager did face a potential crisis in advance of this weekend. He plans for weeks in advance what he will wear for the All-Star Game and this time he came up with a Valentine’s Day-themed sports jacket.
“I wanted something that said, ‘Wow, Valentine’s Day!’ ” he said.
So in December he picked out something at Rex Fabrics, a favorite spot in Miami, and ordered it. When it arrived it was “too short, too small, too tight . . . We got something mistranslated in the measurement. So they sent it back to Italy and had another one made with my right size.
“I was panicking that it wasn’t going to get here in time, and I planned for it so long. Then I got a call [Wednesday] morning that it had arrived in the United States in Miami and they were overnighting it to me [in Houston] and I’ll get it Thursday and I’ll bring it with me Friday. So, all’s well.”