Craig Sager, Sideline Sage Of Hoops And Suits, Dies At 65 | KERA News

Craig Sager, Sideline Sage Of Hoops And Suits, Dies At 65

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 10:38 am

NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager, a broadcaster nearly as famous for his wardrobe as for his basketball knowledge, has died at the age of 65. Sager had been very public about his diagnosis of leukemia.

"There will never be another Craig Sager," David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting, said in a tweeted statement. "His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports."

The network also posted a video on Facebook commemorating Sager's career.

Sager spent two decades covering pro basketball on TNT, work that earned him an induction into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

And during his time on the sidelines, Sager had no problem standing out. Argyle, paisley, floral, seersucker — name any pattern of fabric, and Sager wore a suit made from it.

"That's always been a badge of honor for Craig," says his TNT colleague Ernie Johnson. "You say, 'You can't possibly wear that.' It's like, 'Hey thanks, you couldn't have said anything nicer to me.' "

Sager had charisma and unmatched rapport with players. Even when players like future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett stopped live interviews to insult his brightly colored suits — "take this outfit home and burn it," Garnett once told him — Sager was capable of turning those moments into compelling television.

In the world of basketball, Sager's name towers nearly as high as LeBron James'. He was among the first to interview Kobe Bryant at the NBA draft in 1996. He joked with Shaquille O'Neal on the sidelines at All-Star games. And LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul always made time for Sager — even after tough losses.

"When you see Craig, you pep up," Paul said once. "Because you know that he has the same respect for you that you have for him."

Doris Burke, a sideline reporter with ESPN, shares that admiration. "There's a saying in basketball: Game recognize game. There's a reason Craig Sager is beloved, and it's the beauty and the magic of what Craig Sager does," Burke says.

Sager's career started in April 1974, when he was a 22-year-old from Batavia, Ill., who rushed to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was one hit away from breaking Babe Ruth's untouchable home run record, and Sager wanted to cover it for his AM radio station.

He didn't have press credentials, and his boss had threatened to fire him if he showed up late the next day. But Sager went anyway. Somehow, he wound up in the third base photographer's pit on that historic night — just as Aaron went to bat in front of a roaring crowd.

It was one of the biggest moments in baseball history, and Sager did the unthinkable: He got his tape recorder, jumped onto the field and chased after Aaron.

It's a dogged determination that never left Sager, even after he switched to basketball and spent decades on NBA sidelines.

And those outlandish suits? Well, as Sager told Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin in 2012, he never minded the ribbing he would get from Garnett and others. He had another audience in mind.

"Some people maybe think it's too outlandish, but I have fun," he said. "I buy it all myself. I pick it all out myself. I once in a while get some help from my 7-year-old daughter. Some people might not like it; my 7-year-old, she likes it."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager, a broadcaster nearly as famous for his on-air wardrobe as his basketball knowledge, has died at the age of 65. Sager spent two decades covering pro basketball on TNT. Off the court, he fought a very public battle with leukemia. NPR's Danny Hajek has this remembrance.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Argyle, paisley, floral, seersucker - name any pattern of fabric, Craig Sager had a suit to match. Friend and TNT colleague Ernie Johnson says he loved to stand out.

ERNIE JOHNSON: That's always been a badge of honor for Craig (laughter). You say, you can't possibly wear that. It's like - hey, thanks. You couldn't have said anything nicer to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRAIG SAGER: Welcome back to Orlando. The Magic down by 2...

HAJEK: Sager had charisma, an unmatched rapport with players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN GARNETT: What was your motivation for wearing this today?

SAGER: To wake up (laughter).

GARNETT: What kind of answer is that?

HAJEK: So when guys like Kevin Garnett stopped live interviews to insult his brightly colored suits? Well, that just made for great TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARNETT: Tonight, I am stressing to you. You take this outfit home, and you burn it.

SAGER: There's not any part I can keep?

GARNETT: No. Burn it.

HAJEK: Sager was more than a reporter. He was like the sixth man on a basketball team. LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul always made time for him, even after a tough loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS PAUL: When you see Craig, you pep up because you know that he has the same respect for you that you have for him. I love you Craig - love you.

HAJEK: Make no mistake. Sager knew the game. This was his passion.

DORIS BURKE: Here's the saying in basketball, right.

HAJEK: Sideline reporter Doris Burke from ESPN.

BURKE: Game recognize game. There's a reason Craig Sager is beloved, and it's the beauty and the magic of what Craig Sager does.

HAJEK: The magic started in April of 1974 when Sager, a 22-year-old from Batavia, Ill., rushed to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was one hit away from breaking Babe Ruth's seemingly untouchable homerun record, and Sager wanted to cover it for his AM radio station. This was long before the wild suits. He didn't even have a press credential but somehow wound up in the third base photographer's pit on that historic night. Vin Scully called the game.

VIN SCULLY: Fastball - it's a high drive in the deep left-center field. Buckner goes back to the fence. It is good.

HAJEK: This was one of the biggest moments in baseball history. So when Hank Aaron rounded third, Craig Sager did the unthinkable. He got his tape recorder, jumped onto the field and chased after him. Sager's the guy with the mop top hair and white trench coat engulfed by TV crews. Here's his interview with Hank Aaron's mom on the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAGER: How you feel, Mrs. Aaron?

ESTELLA AARON: I don't know.

SAGER: How you feel, Mr. Aaron?

HERBERT AARON: I'm fine.

E AARON: (Screaming).

HAJEK: It's a dogged determination that never left Sager, even after he switched to basketball and spent decades on NBA sidelines. Colleagues like TNT's Ernie Johnson say that Sager rarely missed a game - until he was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.

JOHNSON: We took a collective punch in the gut because Craig is this nonstop guy who's never slowed down in his life.

HAJEK: And yet, even after days of chemo, he still donned his colorful suits and grabbed his microphone.

In July, Craig Sager received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYS, given to sports figures who have overcome major difficulties in life. He addressed a standing crowd of NBA players and coaches, his teammates. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2016 ESPYS BROADCAST)

SAGER: I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the marrow out of life as life sucks the marrow out of me. I will live my life full of love and full of fun. It's the only way I know how.

(APPLAUSE)

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.