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There are conversation starters and then there are the conversations Craig Sager starts.
For example: you probably don’t know that Sager, the award-winning TNT sideline reporter and as big an NBA star as many of the players and coaches he buttonholes before, during and after games, has a sample of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew’s dung on display in his basement.
Don’t worry: turns out it’s been shellacked and rests under glass.
But it’s the kind of thing you hear and demands an immediate follow-up:
"Did you say you have Seattle Slew’s dung shellacked in your basement?"
Sager answers like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
"I have it there beside Morganna’s bra and George Brett’s jock."
So, not like your basement.
It’s the kind of anecdote that seems implausible heard from anyone else but because Sager’s telling it seems like the natural order of things.
"He has Seattle Slew’s dung in his basement?" asks Golden State Warriors head coach and former TNT colleague Steve Kerr, when apprised. "I did not know that, but it doesn’t surprise me. If anyone would have something like that it would be Craig. No question."
Toronto has been waiting for its NBA close-up for decades and having Sager here, fronting for Charles, Shaq, Kenny and their slightly overwhelmed master of ceremonies Ernie Johnson as the TNT crew rolls into town is proof that its NBA moment has arrived.
For Sager, NBA All-Star Weekend is like a wedding, reunion and house party rolled into one. He’s been to every one for almost 30 years, a streak broken a year ago when the leukemia he’s been battling since April of 2014 reared up again. He received a second bone marrow transplant in June and has been working towards this moment ever since.
"Missing it last year and missing the playoffs was tough on him," says his son, Craig Sager Jr. "He loves All-Star and with this being Kobe’s last game, he’s been shooting for this for months."
The award-winning NBA broadcaster for TNT will swoop into Toronto on Friday night and will command the centre of the room as he always does: happily suffering gibes about his clothes; trading anecdotes with all his NBA friends, which includes everybody as he’s one of the most beloved figures in the league. He’s the rare media type who can spar good naturedly (mostly) with the league’s grump-in-chief, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, and make every uncomfortable moment must-see TV.
Of course, getting here won’t be without complication. First there is the matter of his suit. Sager came to joys of dressing to stand out early on. At his high school in Batavia, Ill. – "boring town little town," says Sager – the expectation was that everyone would wear a black or blue blazer for their yearbook photo. A Monkees fan, Sager went with an electric blue Nehru jacket (think Austin Powers) with a white collar.
"I just wanted to have fun with it," he said.
This is something he says a lot.
His dressing habit continued after he started in journalism, buoyed perhaps by the fact that he landed his first TV job – as a weatherman in Sarasota, Fla. – after wearing a yellow and white seersucker suit he bought at a thrift shop, money being a bit tight. "I loved that suit," he says.
When he began working on NBA broadcasts there was some pushback, sartorially at least. Former NBA commissioner David Stern forced Sager to change when he showed up for one all-star game with a metallic silver double-breasted suit with black trim.
"They said I looked like one of those covers you put on the dashboard of your car to reflect the sun," recalls Sager, sounding delighted at the memory. But eventually the commissioner was overruled. "His wife, Dianne, said she liked how I dressed and I was OK after that."
The bigger the event, the flashier the outfit. His suit for Sunday’s all-star game was weeks in the making. He thought of doing something in purple in honour of the hometown Toronto Raptors. He considered orange, which is the colour of hope for those suffering from leukemia. In the end, the calendar provided the answer: the game falls on Valentine’s Day and Sager settled on a suit made of bright red silk imported from Northern Italy.
Another complication: Sager is spending the week before All-Star in Houston at the MD Anderson Cancer Center undergoing a weeklong chemotherapy regimen he does once every month featuring two injections a day into his stomach.
He’ll also be coming off his 17th bone marrow biopsy, where a chunk of his hip is cutaway to analyze the progress of his second bone marrow transplant last July.
The tight turnaround means he won’t have time to head home to Atlanta before arriving in Toronto, so the Valentine’s tribute suit will be shipped straight to the hospital and he’ll leave from there.
He is more worried about this than the chemo.
"I handle it pretty well, I haven’t got the side effects other guys have had with it," he says. "Sometimes it bothers you up to two weeks afterwards but I handle it pretty well," he said. "So I don’t see it affecting me whatsoever with what I cover on all-star weekend."
This past March things didn’t look all that promising for Sager, he’ll acknowledge. But lying in his hospital bed he was encouraged by the way fans, players and executives from around the NBA family reached out to him and kept him in their thoughts.
And when he announced he was coming back, he got a call from his nemesis:
"He always kept in touch," says Sager. "When I first announced I was coming back he was one of the first to call me. He’s like ‘Sager, it’s coach Pop. I hear you’re coming back.’"
"Does this mean the pity party is over?"
"I guess so."
"Does this me I can start making fun of your clothes and the stupid questions you ask?
"I guess so, I wouldn’t want it any other way."
Sager’s first sideline interview with Popovich in December went viral as the curmudgeonly Spurs coach – who will be leading the Western Conference All-Stars this weekend – broke character to welcome Sager with a hug.
"It was very touching. If you look closely I have tears in my eyes," says Sager. "It was very emotional for me. You do all these games and you cover these teams over the years and there are times you feel like more of a nuisance than a reporter because you are infiltrating their space at inopportune times for him, before playoff games and before quarters when he’s making adjustments but yet that’s your job and you keep doing it and for him to sincerely say that he missed you, that was pretty amazing."
Kind of like Sager’s basement. In case you were wondering, he got the Seattle Slew sample because he spent the night before the Triple Crown-clinching Belmont Stakes sleeping in his barn. Sager knew the owners from Fort Myers, Fla., where he was working at the time, and one thing led to the next. In the morning he saw Slew’s dung and thought it might be a good keepsake.
Morganna’s bra? He met the famous Kissing Bandit covering baseball in spring training. At the 1979 MLB All-Star Game in Seattle, Morganna made a point of kissing Brett, the Kansas City Royals star. Sager went to the holding facility at the Kingdome for an interview and ended up having her released into his custody. A friendship ensued and he once found himself backstage when the famously endowed entertainer flipped off her bra as she changed costumes. Sager caught it, asked if he could keep it and now it’s on display in his basement; its grandeur emphasized by a pair of pop-a-shot basketballs.
George Brett’s jock?
"He’s a buddy of mine."
Sager can tell stories like this all day. His high school basketball teammate? NBA Hall of Famer Dan Issel. His first wife? Of course she was a Chicago Bulls cheerleader. And yes, he wore the mascot suit when he was a student at Northwestern.
Sager was 22-years-old on April 8, 1974 when he zipped from Sarasota to Atlanta in the hopes of seeing Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s home run record. When Aaron hit his historic shot Sager jumped onto the field – "I’d shot today" – microphone in hand and captured the audio from Aaron the moment he stepped on home plate.
The sound he gathered now plays in a constant loop at the display commemorating the event at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Those who know him have long given up trying to explain how he always finds himself in the centre of things, be it Morganna’s dressing room or Seattle Slew’s stall or baseball history.
"It’s his zest for life, you know?" says Kerr. "He has this incredible energy about him, this great spirit. Great will. If he didn’t have that he probably wouldn’t be alive right now, with what he’s been through.
"He always has a smile on his face. I used to try to get him to go to dinner when we were on TNT and we’d be on the road but he doesn’t do dinner. He has to be moving. He’ll pop in to wherever you are, say hello and then move on to the next bar, restaurant and see some other people. He’s just constantly moving forward. He can’t sit still. It’s that energy that he appreciates so much."
That’s pretty much how Sager explains it too: "I always want to be there. I felt like I had the greatest job in the world and to have an opportunity to be at these major events was something I always dreamed about doing."
One other collection Sager has in his basement is a signed basketball from every NBA All-Star Game he’s ever covered. They’re all lined up in a row, with a gap where last year’s should be, cancer rudely interrupting the flow.
This weekend in Toronto at all-star weekend Sager will add to that basement collection, cancer and chemo and bone marrow biopsies be damned.
One more incredible story in a lifetime made of them.
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