Craig Sager, the sartorially splendid sideline reporter for Turner Sports and one of the NBA’s most well-liked figures, died at age 65 on Thursday after a long battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
Turner president David Levy announced Sager’s death Thursday afternoon.
“Craig Sager was a beloved member of the Turner family for more than three decades and he has been a true inspiration to all of us,” Levy said in a statement. “There will never be another Craig Sager. His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports.”
The fact that Sager shared much of that battle publicly was in keeping with a personality as colorful and cheerful as his famously garish fashion choices, and turned him into a basketball folk hero of sorts in his last years.
The highlight came in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals, when ESPN invited him to join its regular sideline reporter, Doris Burke, to work a Finals game for the first time in his career.
After the Cavaliers won in Cleveland to even the series at 3-3, Sager interviewed LeBron James, who said, “First of all, let me ask you a question: How in the hell do you go 30-plus years without getting a Finals game? That don’t make no sense.
“I’m happy to see you, man. Much love and respect. I’m happy I was able to witness it in front of these fans. We really appreciate you.”
Sager replied, “Thanks for entertaining me.”
A month later, ESPN gave Sager another national stage, this time as recipient of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYS. In May, he had been the subject of a cover feature in Sports Illustrated, and in March, HBO’s “Real Sports” had profiled him.
The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony tweeted a photo last night of Sager interviewing him with the words: “Rest In Peace” One of The Greatest Fighters Ever. A True Inspiration #TheSagerLegendContinues #StayMe7o
Sager was born on June 29, 1951, in Batavia, Illinois, and never lost the Midwestern accent that helped punctuate his everyman image.
After graduating in 1973 from Northwestern — where for a time he served as Willie the Wildcat, the school’s mascot — he began his career as a reporter for a radio station in Sarasota, Florida.
It was in that role that he found himself at age 22 in the middle of a scrum of Braves teammates greeting Hank Aaron in Atlanta as he reached home plate after hitting his 715th career home run in April 1974, breaking the record that had been held by Babe Ruth. Sager marveled in later years at how easy it was for him to get so close to Aaron. These days, he told Yahoo Sports, “I’d be shot.”
That night Sager wore a long, white overcoat, but in later years, he branched into every color and design imaginable for his fashion choices, never wanting to wear the same outfit twice.
After working in a variety of roles at CNN, TBS and TNT, Sager found his most visible calling as a sideline reporter for TNT’s coverage of the NBA, interviewing a variety of coaches and players but finding his most memorable foil in the famously dyspeptic Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and missed that year’s NBA postseason. During those playoffs, his son Craig Jr. filled in for a sideline interview with Popovich, who sent Sager a get-well wish.
Sager was scheduled to return to work for the 2015 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but his illness again forced him out of action. In March 2016, he announced his leukemia had returned and said in an interview with HBO that doctors told him he would have three to six months to live.
As friends and fans became alarmed, he clarified that that was his prognosis without treatment. He continued to fight the disease, missing out on covering the 2016 Olympic basketball tournament for NBC to prepare for a rare third bone marrow transplant.
Sager had two children, Riley and Ryan, with his wife, Stacy, a former Bulls dancer, and three adult children from a previous marriage.
“While he will be remembered fondly for his colorful attire and the TNT sideline interviews he conducted with NBA coaches and players, it’s the determination, grace and will to live he displayed during his battle with cancer that will be his lasting impact,” Levy said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Craig’s wife, Stacy, and the entire Sager family during this difficult time. We will forever be Sager Strong.”