Some love stories begin with someone running to catch an airplane. For me and Craig, it started when I refused to get on one.
The first time we met, Craig asked me to fly San Antonio with him. The next day. And I said no.
Let me explain! First of all, you have to understand that Craig loved to fly — no, not just loved. He was obsessed, ever since he dreamed of being in the Air Force as a kid. I’m almost convinced that he became a reporter just so that he could fly around the country, meeting new people and going on adventures.
It was December 2000, a few days after Christmas, and I was at a Thrashers game in Atlanta with a few friends. My friends also knew Craig — and it turned out he was stuck in Atlanta on a weather delay that night. After the game, we went to a bar called Jocks and Jills, which I’d later find out Craig owned along with Doc Rivers and Randy Wittman. Craig and I had a really nice conversation. I didn’t know he was a sideline reporter or much about him at all. He didn’t even bring it up for a long time — he was good at talking about anything under the sun. But even in that first conversation, I could tell he was one of the best listeners I’d ever met.
I had to turn him down, though. It’s not that I didn’t think he was interesting or charming or handsome — he was all of those things.
It’s that I didn’t quite understand the way his mind worked yet. I didn’t understand Craig yet.
Because, to Craig, the idea of a first date was to invite me, right there in the bar, to fly to San Antonio with him the next day — because Northwestern was playing Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.
“Wait, fly to San Antonio … as in, tomorrow morning?” I said.
To him, it made complete sense. I can still remember the look on his face. Totally unfazed. It was like he’d just asked me if I wanted to share a plate of fries.
He was like, “Of course, why not? Let’s just go. We’ll live it up, we’ll just go to the game, to a restaurant I like … anything we want to do!”
I wasn’t the type of person to just fly to a football game on a whim.
But I was intrigued. Who was this guy?
Hearing this, you might get the impression that Craig had some kind of jetsetter attitude about how he invited me. But later I’d find out … that’s just how Craig lived life. He wanted to get the most out of everything. He was on the move — so that’s the way he wanted other people to be.
Craig left Jocks and Jills that night, luggage in hand, and got on that plane (he wasn’t going to miss his beloved Wildcats, play in a bowl game).
I knew in my heart I’d see him again.
One year ago — on December 15, 2016 — Craig lost his heroic battle with cancer, despite never giving up or never giving in. It’s been a hard year, not just for Riley, Ryan (ages 11 and 12) and me, but for his big family in sports, media and all the cancer patients he gave hope and inspiration to.
In the last year, people have come up to me in every city and street corner with their “I remember when” stories about Craig. And you might think I’ve heard them all, or even that I’m tired of hearing them, but it’s just the opposite.
Hearing stories about Craig, told back to me, is the perfect tribute to a man who told stories his whole life. Stories were Craig’s fuel. Now that he’s gone, his legacy lives on in these memories that have stayed with other people. In the beautiful and adventurous book of Craig Sager’s life, the chapters keep getting revealed, little by little, in every person he shared an experience with. That is a beautiful thing.
But there are probably some things you don’t know about Craig.
Maybe the most important thing is that he did not like rules. And I don’t just mean fashion rules. He thought rules were for people without brains, without common sense or without joy for life.
It started when he was young, with his love of flying. As his high school years were drawing to a close, and he realized it was unlikely he’d become a pro athlete, he figured the best way to get the rush of adrenaline he craved was to become a professional fighter pilot in the Air Force. He applied to the Air Force Academy, but was instead nominated to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After two weeks at West Point, Craig realized he didn’t want to become a soldier with a four-year postgraduate commitment to the Army. No airplanes. And too many rules.
So Craig arrived at Northwestern in the summer of 1969 and tried out for the football team. After suffering two concussions on the same day during preseason practice, he decided to leave football behind and walk onto the basketball team. Craig’s discovery of journalism came during his sophomore year when the demands of being a student-athlete became too much. He stepped away from athletics to focus on learning how to be a reporter.
Of course, he couldn’t really ever stay away from sports. He joined Northwestern’s cheerleading squad. He got to travel to the away games, flying around the country. Later, Craig became the school’s mascot, Willie the Wildcat.
So today, in Craig’s rule-breaking honor, I’m breaking a rule.
Craig hated boasting or talking too much about himself. So I’ll do it for him.
He was one of the most beloved and recognizable broadcasters in television. He won two Emmys for his work. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and he was the recipient of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award. He wrote a bestseller about his life and fight with cancer, Living Out Loud. His passion for sports — and people — turned his career into one big adventure. You could find him chasing down Hank Aaron on the field for an interview the night Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, or running with the bulls in Pamplona, or climbing the Great Wall of China. In college, you would’ve seen him dodging the cops as he ran across Wrigley Field mid-game.
I see Craig in the NBA family — the players, coaches and members of the media he was so close to over so many years. Vince Carter, to name one. Vince and Craig go way back — they first met when Craig was covering Vince’s draft in 1998. Vince said Craig was always his favorite interviewer, which was touching to hear. Over the summer, I flew with Riley and Ryan to Daytona Beach, Vince’s hometown, for a minor league baseball game (love ya, Tortugas!) that honored the SagerStrong Foundation. The players wore custom jerseys that were modeled on Craig’s 2016 ESPYS jacket. They raised thousands of dollars for SagerStrong. And the best part was Vince, who hosted the event and threw out the first pitch.
The NBA TNT crew was Craig’s extended family. He truly had a special relationship with all the players. One of the closest was with Shaq. How could I forget Shaq! (I can’t.) Craig and Shaq were great friends — and sartorial matches made in heaven. There’s a thousand stories between them, but this is one of my favorites.
There’s a shoe store here in Atlanta that all the athletes go to called Friedman’s, and Shaq would often get his shoes there because, you know, he’s size 22 or whatever it is. They have to be customized. We lived in Atlanta, so Craig would shop there as well, and before Craig had a trip to Orlando or L.A. or wherever he’d be seeing Shaq play, he would tell Friedman’s to get some Shaq shoes ready. Then Craig would physically carry these shoes, sometimes two or three pairs, with him on the road, and hand them to Shaq wherever they met up.
Shaq would look at each pair Craig picked out and would be like, “Yep, I want that one,” or “Nope, don’t want that one,” and so on. Then Craig would take the rejects back to Atlanta. They did this for years.
And the truth is, I don’t really don’t think it was about the shoes for either of them.
But I’m also reminded of Craig in total strangers who come up to me. He was always striking up conversations or going on new adventures. Just a couple weeks ago, someone came up to me — just a random guy — and told me about a day, years ago, that he’d met Craig at the golf course in Florida. Craig sauntered up to him, as he told it, all by himself and asked if the man if he wanted to play a round. This kind of story really makes me smile, and it’s classic Craig. He’d often say to me, “Drop me off at the course,” and then he’d pick up with anybody, anywhere in the country. He just loved meeting people and having fun.
Craig’s career allowed him to itch his flying obsession. He loved traveling because it meant new adventures and new interactions. It meant improvisation, Craig-style. He was the type of person who preferred to live out of a suitcase, a restless soul who always wanted more. More fun, more friends, more memories. Flying was the ideal activity for someone who didn’t want to miss a moment of anything. It’s true — Craig had FOMO way before there was a term for it.
And somehow, no matter how much he flew around for work, I knew he’d always be home when he needed to be.
In April of 2006, right in the middle of the NBA playoffs, I was due to give birth to our second child. Craig was working every single playoff game — “40 games in 40 nights,” if you remember that slogan. And TNT was doing this fun recurring segment called “Where’s Sager now?” that tracked his whereabouts because he was never in one city more than a day.
When the time came to give birth, I was in my hospital bed in Atlanta — and I remember the TNT camera crew bursting into the maternity ward like some kind of motley traveling band. All these guys were like family to Craig and they really bonded being on the road together so much. In my mind, I could see Craig saying to the whole crew, “Let’s go to the hospital together! It’ll be fun!” The crew camped out while Craig came to be with me. Our son Ryan was born just minutes after he got there. He shared a moment with his crew and streamed it on NBATV.
Craig stayed behind, and we spent the next 24 hours staring at our newborn. It’s one of my best memories. It’s remarkable how present he always was with the people he loved. For as rushed as his schedule was, he always seemed to be content in the moment.
Then, the next day he flew back out, onto the next city. There was a playoff game waiting for him.
It was pure Craig. A man on the move. Restless and present. Somehow making enough time for everything and everybody.
On the anniversary of his passing, I can’t write about Craig without trying to pass along some of his reporting wisdom to the younger generation.
I know Craig cared about young people, and I think they could learn a lot from how he approached his craft. He was a perfectionist when it came to doing things right and not — excuse my language — half-assed. Yet he always did it with a smile.
1) He was a listener. If there were only one item in this list, it would be that.
What a lot of people don’t know is that Craig didn’t have a producer in his ear telling him the questions to ask. He refused to have that. Instead, he was extremely prepared. He had his own notes that he kept on notepads, and he also spent hours and hours before a game planning everything out.
To Craig, preparation set you free — the more script you prepared, the more you could go off script.
If, for example, he knew he’d only have time for a three-question interview after a game, Craig would have 20 questions prepared in his head so that he could go one way or another depending on the player’s responses. He was always trying to be in the moment. He was so good on his feet and quick witted. However, the listening and preparation were far more important reasons for his success.
I always loved watching sports on TV with Craig because he couldn’t turn off the reporter in him. There were many times he’d be watching a game or listening to another sideline reporter and he’d be like, “Why didn’t they ask the obvious question?! They missed the big question!”
2) He always wanted to get the story, but he wasn’t selfish about getting the scoop. Here’s an example: Ernie, Kevin and Marv all say he was the best teammate they’ve ever had because if a story came up during a game — a lot of people don’t know this — Craig would walk over to the scorer’s table and tell the analysts what was going on in the timeout huddle or between two players across the court or whatever the incident may be. It was pretty funny, actually, because you’d see Craig circling the arena all game long, giving all the analysts updates on what was going on. He saw the whole industry as a team.
I think that stems from his first job in journalism. He started out making $95 a week, doing radio in Sarasota, Florida. But he wasn’t satisfied just doing radio, so when he got a job for WINK-TV in Fort Myers, Florida, he carried his own camera and did his own editing. He reported and wrote. He was even a weatherman for a short time. He tried his best to be a one-man newsroom. Learning all the ways a piece comes together, from idea to publication, gave him more options. In today’s media world, that feels like an important lesson.
3) He built real relationships with players. Craig was like big kid. He just had fun every day. And he treated every player as though they were an All-Star. I think that came across to people. He never worked a day in his life, he’d always say, and I think he’s one of a kind in that way.
4) Craig believed that what you got out of something was based on the time you put in. To him, there was was no substitute for the work — all the little details that go into finding stories and learning about people. He really disliked the way athletes were so often turned into robots or empty headlines or “dumb jocks.” Craig would tell me that the secret was that he respected both the story he was trying to get and the players’ boundaries as human beings.
When Craig’s leukemia came back, in 2016, I saw how much he tried to work through it, and not let it work through him. I didn’t know this until later when he told me, but in his last full year covering the NBA season — when he was still in remission after his second bone marrow transplant — he made a promise to himself: he wasn’t going to miss one regular season game on the 2015-16 schedule. And he didn’t. To me, that was a medical miracle in itself. We got the news, in February, 2016: he had relapsed. It was right before All-Star weekend, which took place in Toronto that year. It was the middle of winter. But Craig was adamant about going. His doctors said it could be life-threatening. Post-transplant leukemia patients are neutropenic, which makes the immune system dangerously weak. An everyday cold or infection could kill you. Craig was not going to give in to leukemia. No debate was allowed. So the kids and I went along with him. One of my favorite (and least favorite!) traits about Craig was his stubbornness. It was on full display that weekend. Craig was adamant about not telling anyone that he’d relapsed. He didn’t want his news to overshadow the weekend events at NBA All-Star. It was a difficult moment for me, to see him in pain but not wanting to show it. I saw how weak he was. I knew how many needles he’d been stuck with, the 40 pills a day he took and the biopsy after his bone marrow transplant, which is barbaric in itself. These are the things nobody would ever know. In Toronto that weekend, everybody was ecstatic to see him. They would ask how he was doing and he would just be nonchalant about it, smile and say, “Oh good, we’re getting through it.” But he knew the leukemia was starting to take over. Looking back, I’m happy he went. It was like a family reunion.
I never finished that story about the first time Craig and I met. So where were we?
O.K., so Craig flew off to San Antonio. I hoped I’d see him again, but I didn’t know for sure.
Then, a few days later, it was New Year’s Eve, and I was out at a bar with some friends. I lived in Brookhaven, not far from Jocks and Jills in midtown Atlanta, where we’d first met.
Some time before midnight, a man walked into the bar.
The first thing I noticed was the crazy blazer. Then the tie. Then the shoes.
It was Craig.
How’d he know to find me there?
All these years later, and after all his reporting, I still consider it the best piece of investigative journalism he’s ever done.
Craig and I were married 14 beautiful years — in fact, he passed away the day after our wedding anniversary last December, and ya know what? I knew in my heart that he held on to life until December 15th because he was always the most selfless man alive. Craig, from your family, friends and everyone you touched with your joy for life, we love you. Your life lives on in all of us. In all of the stories. I want to honor you on this December 15, along with your family, friends, your two favorite head coaches, Pop and D’Antoni, the Spurs, the Rockets, TNT, ESPN and all the NBA fans who love you. We will celebrate your love of life the only way we know how: full of life, full of fun, full of style … Sager style. Craig, don’t ever stop flying.