Craig Sager, the NBA sideline reporter who brought joy to millions of fans, players, coaches and fellow media members through his flamboyant suits and kinetic personality, has died following a long battle with leukemia, Turner President David Levy announced Thursday. He was 65.
“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.”
“While he will be remembered fondly for this 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. 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.”
Sager had been inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame just this last Tuesday in New York City.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that teams would take a moment of silence in Sager’s honor.
“I ― along with the entire NBA family ― am deeply saddened by the passing of Craig Sager. Craig was as vital to the NBA as the players and coaches,” Silver said. “A true original and an essential voice on Turner Sports’ NBA coverage for 26 seasons, Craig chronicled some of the most memorable moments in league history and was a ubiquitous presence with his splashy suits and equally colorful personality. Craig earned widespread respect for his insightful reporting and inspired so many most recently with his courage.”
In over four decades as a sports reporter, Sager became a beloved member of the NBA community, leading TNT’s NBA broadcasts with poignant sideline interviews and elaborate suits that only he would dare to wear on camera. While his suits were the source of an incalculable number of jokes in NBA arenas — Kevin Garnett once hilariously told Sager to burn his clothes after a game in 2009 — they were essential to who Sager was and how he gained the affection of so many people involved with the NBA. To viewers, it’s also how he became the most visible face on NBA sidelines. Coaches and players come and go at arenas, but for fans, Sager remained a basketball constant.
He’d don outrageous rainbow-colored striped jackets one day and absurd plaid pants the next — every night his suits evolved into something different, fresh and fun. The suits were a gimmick, sure — beginning with a black, white and yellow seersucker suit he bought at a Goodwill store before his first on-air tryout as a weatherman in 1974 — but it undoubtedly made him an instant standout wherever he went.
Sager was shameless in his fashion choices, and even won the respect of contrarian commissioner David Stern, whose wife once defended Sager’s suits so vehemently that Stern eventually backed off on insulting Sager’s sense of style.
“Sports are supposed to be fun, and so I have fun with the way I dress,” he told Bleacher Report in 2015.
The same can be said about his approach to sideline reporting. Mundane questions and a dull sense of enthusiasm — sights that are all too common during in-game sideline interviews with players and coaches — were never an issue with Sager. Players and coaches felt his energy and sincerity, and in return, usually responded with more fervid, detailed answers. Sager brought a special passion to his profession, and the people he covered often redirected those vibes back into Sager’s outstretched mic.
Sager’s unapologetic expression of himself and his die-hard commitment to covering sports in a fun-for-the-whole-family, well-intentioned manner earned universal love from the NBA community.
He developed a special bond with San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a surly veteran of nearly three decades of NBA coaching known for giving one-note replies and openly mocking reporter questions during interviews. Popovich can eviscerate any shaky reporter with his overly candid, unfiltered answers, but around Sager, he became personable and goofy — a complete 180 from a coach whose range of emotion tends to drift between stoic and infuriated.
Sager gets his pocket picked by Popovich.
In an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports,” Popovich summed up Sager’s tangible on-the-court impact perfectly:
“He’s just been such a genuine person who really does love the NBA and loves the game, and it comes through and you know that,” he said. “Even though he does what he does design- and fashion-wise, you know it’s part of the shtick. But his questions are always sensible, they’re always answerable and he does it with fun. He does it with humor. I react to that very positively. So we have a good time together.”
The pair’s friendship has strengthened in recent years, unfortunately due to Sager’s declining health. He was first diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, and had to miss covering the NBA playoffs that year. A life-saving bone marrow transplant from his son Craig Jr. saw him recover and come back to covering the NBA in March 2015, but a year later, he announced that his leukemia had returned. He continued to work through the return of his latest cancer, receiving well-wishes and kind overtures from nearly every interview subject.
Whenever broadcasters would cut to Sager, he always looked like he was having the most fun in the room, like he felt so lucky and grateful to have the job that he had. At any sporting event, he’d first get noticed for his suit, and then get commended for a job well done, doing work that became ingrained in the memories of fans witnessing classic sports moments.
It was Sager who ran the bases with Hank Aaron after he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974. It was Sager who slept alongside Seattle Slew the night before the horse won the 1977 Triple Crown. It was Sager who bailed Morganna “The Kissing Bandit” Roberts out of jail after she ran onto the field during the 1979 MLB All-Star game. Through his own intuition and love for sports, he wiggled himself into playing a part of unforgettable moments.
After less than a decade of covering sports on television in the midwest, Sager signed on to CNN in 1981 as employee No. 343 after being wooed by Ted Turner. He covered the Olympics and the World Cup before joining TNT’s NBA broadcast team in 1991 as the first sideline reporter in NBA history. He’s been making sportscasting history ever since.