So you think Craig Sager is a courageous guy because he is fighting leukemia by continuing to work as an NBA sideline reporter in between blood transfusions and hospital visits?
You should have seen him 45 years ago when we were in college together. That's when Sager was brave enough -- while serving as the Northwestern football team's Willie the Wildcat mascot -- to spend the Friday night before an Ohio State game in Columbus at the local bars full of enthusiastic Buckeye undergraduates.
Yes, while rocking the Willie the Wildcat mascot head.
"I think they'll love it," Craig said before he left our hotel room.
"Uh, I'm not sure," I said.
They loved it. The Ohio State girls in the bars hugged him. The Ohio State guys bought him drinks. After a while, I left to see some old friends. Craig made dozens of new ones.
Foreshadowing? Absolutely. It came as no surprise to me that after Craig earned his diploma, he entered the media world at full speed with no inhibitions. In 1974, he famously ran onto the field with his tape recorder to get Hank Aaron's first words as he was still rounding the bases after hitting his record 715th home run. Soon enough he moved on to CNN and Turner Sports and TBS and TNT, where he developed a trademark of wearing wild sport coats as a sideline reporter and -- this is the part people too often miss -- actually asking good questions that provoke interesting answers from head coaches.
And man, was it sure great to see Sager doing that again Tuesday night at the Warriors' game, the first one he's worked since a segment on HBO's "Real Sports" revealed that his leukemia is no longer in remission. Doctors have told him that without treatment, a patient in his condition would have three to six months to live. Sager is receiving aggressive treatment, however, and fully expects to beat those odds.
If only we'd had the Willie the Wildcat head, it would have been the perfect pregame reunion.
"I'm taking a red-eye flight back to Houston after tonight's game," he said. "It works out well because I've got a doctor's appointment there at the cancer center, before I've got the Rockets-Bulls game there on Thursday night. And then the Final Four is this weekend."
Earlier this week, his aggressive treatment plan also included a Monday hospital visit where he "got a bag of platelets and a blood transfusion -- kind of pumped me up, got me going."
Sager then joked: "It's like having an old car. You've got to put gas in it. If it's leaking oil, you've got to put oil in it every day, too. Obviously not good, but it's keeping me going. I have no choice."
'I'm going to kick this'
His intention, Craig said, is to work through the NBA playoffs and be assigned San Antonio's first-round series so that he can go back and forth to Houston for his regular treatments.
"I'd go crazy if I just sat around," he said.
Same old Sager. If anyone can outwork leukemia as well as outflank the disease, it'll be him. Since his diagnosis in 2014, he has undergone a bone-marrow transplant, blood treatments, chemotherapy, other treatments -- and as much as anything else, it stunk because he was bed-bound instead of doing the job he loves. Being back in his element at an NBA arena must be a healthful tonic. He's most grateful for the support he has received from fans and viewers and the pro basketball community. And he wants people to know he's holding up all right, everything considered.
"I think my demise has been prematurely reported," Sager said. "I think I'm going to kick this and make medical history, and I really believe that."
I want to believe it, too. He's too good a guy for me not to believe it. I don't want to pretend Craig and I are very good friends who have shared intimate thoughts over the years. We aren't and haven't. But we were acquainted during those magical years in college when fun is part of the curriculum -- and by circumstance, were thrown together during one particular football season.
The details: As mentioned, Craig was the Willie the Wildcat mascot, beloved by the head coach who thought of him as a good-luck charm. I was the sports editor of the school newspaper, covering the team. The athletic department policy on road trips was to provide a single room in the team hotel for the mascot and the sports editor to share.
Thus, that memorable night in Columbus, as well as a few other weekend adventures. And of course, I'd bump into Craig at parties on campus in Evanston. After graduation, we didn't stay in touch regularly but occasionally ran into each other at NCAA basketball tournaments or the Olympics or NBA games. We'd reminisce, talk hoops or baseball or whatever, have a few laughs. At the Final Four, he invariably tried to organize a group photo of all the Northwestern alums covering the event.
He has always been the perfect social chairman that way. But do not discount his hoops knowledge. Sager's most legendary on-air interactions have been with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Tuesday, Sager told the story about a game where Tracy McGrady went off as an opposing player against San Antonio and scored 13 points in less than a minute to win the game.
"How did Tracy McGrady manage to get so hot against you?" Sager asked Popovich after the game.
"How the hell would I know?" Popovich answered, storming off. "That's the stupidest question I've ever heard."
A few days later, Popovich was bending Sager's ear again about the question being stupid, and Sager suggested that the answer might have been a defensive set the Spurs were using, or San Antonio's strategy of not doubling him, or a few other potential reasons for the point explosion. A discussion ensued. Respect followed. Popovich is now one of Sager's biggest boosters during his current battle.
Man of the people
And not the only one. As long as I've known Sager, he has impressed coaches by showing up early for NBA shootarounds to get to know the personalities, so that those in-game interviews could go a little more smoothly. He has gotten to know ushers and security guards around the league (Tuesday, he was happy to see a certain guard at Oracle who always takes a picture with him). If a fan heckles him from the stands about his crazy jackets and clothes, Craig will often start a conversation with the guy and end up making the guy a fan or friend.
"It's always been like that," he told me. "I just like interacting with people and fans and everybody. I think it kind of goes back to those Willie the Wildcat days."
Last week, knowing he was working the Warriors game on Tuesday, Sager visited a department store back home in Atlanta and bought a multicolored tie that he made sure would have a gold presence. He paired it with a "Golden Gate Bridge" orange shirt and matching jacket. But of course, he was ready with a salient question early in Tuesday's game at a timeout when the Washington Wizards were holding a 10-point lead over the Warriors. Sager asked Wizards coach Randy Wittman exactly how that had happened and what Wittman's plans were to make sure the lead held.
Wittman waved off the question.
"First of all, this game means nothing," Wittman said. "I love that you're back here. A lot of people are praying for you. Other than that ... we like where we're at."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr expressed similar sentiments, saying: "Fired up you're working the game, Sags."
Sager is trying not to be embarrassed by the extra attention but sincerely appreciates the good wishes. It not only lifts him but also his family back home in Atlanta.
"So many times when you're doing a job," Sager said, "you feel like you're a nuisance sometimes to people and you're intruding on their space. You're asking questions maybe they don't want to deal with at the time, and it's not as, 'Hey, welcome, here's Craig.' Whereas now it's kind of been different. I've always been one (who) liked to talk to people in the stands.
"I understand when people come up to me and say somebody in their family has cancer, 'We appreciate what you're doing, we appreciate your fight, don't give up, we love your attitude.' That's just me. I've never had one day where I said, 'Why me?' and I've never had one day where I laid in my bed and thought about what reality and the worst things are and was down and started crying in my bed. That's never happened."
Still, Sager is honest enough to admit his daily challenges. He can no longer take the daily runs he usually enjoyed on the road, especially along the waterfront here in the Bay Area. His foot pain and low energy levels make it too difficult. There's also a blood clot behind his right ear that makes it difficult for him to hear but can't be treated because the procedure might cause him to bleed to death.
But you know when he forgets about all of this? When he's on the court, in the midst of the action, preparing the right questions at the right times. After Tuesday's victory by the Warriors, Sager was there on the floor with Stephen Curry, raising the pertinent issue of whether he and other Golden State players might be thinking of taking some time off in the season's final two weeks because of weariness or fatigue.
"Seeing you and what you're doing, we've got no excuses," Curry answered.
The NBA's defending MVP then called Sager an inspiration. I think that's a unanimous vote.
"See you at the playoffs," I told Craig before he left Oracle.
I have no doubt I will.