OAKLAND, Calif. – The first thing anyone heard when Craig Sager entered an arena was his wardrobe.
No one dressed like Sager, with his outlandish outfits going from one end of the color spectrum to the other and back again. To anyone who didn’t know him, it would be easy to think this was some kind of call for attention, or a publicity stunt.
Who would wear stuff like this otherwise?
But within minutes of being around him, it quickly became clear Sager was as nice as his clothes were colorful – and that’s saying something, given how outlandish his clothes were. And that is why, as news broke of Sager’s passing at age 65 from cancer Thursday, that there was such an overwhelming outpouring of love and respect for him from the entire basketball community.
“I guess on a day like this, basketball has to take a back seat as we all think about somebody who was very unique, very special,” San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters before his game in Phoenix on Wednesday night. “Whether you really knew Craig or not, you got the feeling that he was a special person in a lot of different ways. And right now I just feel for his family.
“To talk about him being a professional or good at what he did is a tremendous understatement. All of us who knew him understood that fact, what he was all about as far as work was concerned, but he was a way better person than he was a worker, even though he was amazing in that regard. He loved people, he enjoyed pregame, during games, postgame — he loved all the people around it, and everybody felt that.
“The most amazing part of him is his courage. What he’s endured, and the fight that he’s put up, the courage that he’s displayed during this situation is beyond my comprehension. And if any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every (day) as if it’s his last, we’d be well off. We all miss him very much.”
People always enjoyed Sager because of his outfits and because of his charismatic personality, for his ability to charm everyone from Kevin Garnett to Popovich into giving him colorful answers to his questions. But the truly impressive thing about watching Sager work was his ability – and willingness – to ask the tough question and the right question, and to put in the work to be as good at his craft as he was.
Sager would often be in the losing locker room after games, trying to get some sound bites to send back to the “Inside The NBA” crew for their postgame show. Given that players were often angry and frustrated after losing anyway – emotions that were always more prevalent after nationally televised games, often against rivals or in the playoffs – that often made for a difficult assignment. But Sager would never back down from asking a tough question about a play or a moment in a game that was deemed controversial.
Sometimes this would lead to a quick interview, or it might lead to an awkward back-and-forth. But he asked the questions anyway, because they were the right questions to ask, and didn’t worry about the ramifications of doing so. It was always impressive to see.
And his work ethic. Man, did the guy work. There was no better example of this than during the 2016 postseason, when he was working the Western Conference playoffs despite going back and forth to his home in Houston to receive chemotherapy. Someone only had to look at Sager walking around to see that he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent – as he shouldn’t have been, given what he was going through. But anyone who watched those games at home, or watched him roam the halls of the arenas in San Antonio, Oklahoma City and here at Oracle Arena in Oakland, saw the same Sager they always did – colorful, engaging and always ready to do his work.
“Today is a tough day for everybody who knew Craig, and probably even for those who didn’t and just watched him and enjoyed his work for the last 30-plus years with the NBA,” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, who worked with Sager for eight years at TNT, said before Thursday night’s game here against the New York Knicks.
“He was an amazing guy. The courage that he showed the last few years was incredible with his fight … just a tough day.”
It was a tough day for everyone in the NBA on Thursday. The basketball world will forever be a little less colorful because of the loss of Craig Sager, a wonderful and original character who we were all blessed to witness.