Tuesday night was bridging into Wednesday morning by the time Craig Sager, decked in purple, left Chesapeake Energy Arena after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Just hours later, the beloved TNT sideline reporter climbed on a plane and headed about 800 miles east, from Oklahoma City to Atlanta, for an appointment with his oncologist. Later today, he’ll get on another plane and fly back across the country to Northern California, with less than 24 hours to physically recover and mentally prepare before walking into Oracle Arena for Game 5 of a potentially historic playoff series.
Sager, 64, is in the midst of a years-long battle with leukemia. And while he’s taken time off in the past to treat the disease, he’s effectively refused to do so this spring, after he announced to the world that yes, devastatingly, he was no longer in remission -- but no way was he going to stop fighting or stop living to try to tame the cancer.
So began this cycle of work-treatment-work. He’ll have chemotherapy, then drive hours upon hours to make it in time for a game. He’ll have an appointment, then hopscotch it from the hospital to the airport to the arena in question, grab a microphone and be ready for tipoff. By doing so, he’s not only showing the kind of courage we should all aspire to possess -- he’s also inspiring countless others who are fighting or know someone fighting aggressive illnesses, giving them roadmaps to resilience, guidelines for refusing to give in.
And for his efforts and for his bravery, for his heart and for his strength, Sager will receive the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at The ESPYs this summer.
"When I was diagnosed with cancer, like so many other people, my life changed forever," Sager stated on Monday, per ESPN. "Over the last two years, I've done everything in my power to live my life as normally as possible. But at times, you need support and I'm so thankful to everyone who has been there for me."
The award is named after the late, great North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who, in the midst of his own public cancer battle, stood on the stage of the 1993 ESPYs and uttered the words: “Don’t give up … Don’t ever give up.”
"I have [Valvano’s] speech saved on my phone and, now 23 years later, its impact lives on with me and countless others. There is no greater honor than receiving this award and I am very humbled,” Sager said.
"That speech he made … resonates as strong today as it did that day,” Sager, who knew Valvano before he passed in April of that year, added on the TNT broadcast Tuesday. “I have it on my cellphone. I can play it at the hospital when I'm feeling down. 'Don't give up. Don't ever give up.' That's pretty much what I've tried to follow. Don't give up and don't give in."
Speaking about the state of his health with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins earlier this spring, Sager asked himself a series of rhetoric, honest, telling questions:
“Am I naive?” he asked. “Maybe. Am I in denial? No. I know the severity. But I have faith. I have support. I have hope. Hope is as important as breath.”
Thanks for always showing us how to fight and how to hope, Craig. You truly personify perseverance.