Sager, son share strong bond, affinity for sports
Craig Jr. there to help as longtime sideline reporter father battles leukemia
Craig Sager's daring sartorial stylings have long been veritable staples of sports television, embedded prominently into TNT's NBA games and TBS' Major League Baseball postseason broadcasts.
But behind the scenes, another Sager has often tagged along. Craig Jr. might not contend with his dad's dress clothes, but he's every bit the sports fan. And even when Craig Jr. has accompanied his dad on NBA excursions, the two have made it a point to fulfill that age-old father-son ballgame bond at various MLB venues.
"Hanging out with him is just a blast," Craig Jr. said. "We go on those NBA trips, and if there's ever a baseball game going on, we go. That's just fun because you can just sit back and enjoy those."
Right now, though, the 62-year-old father is counting on his 25-year-old son to help him get back in the game. Because while Sager's battle with acute myeloid leukemia has prevented him from doing the job he loves, it has also informed him that this particular bond runs deeper than he could have possibly known.
Craig Jr., it turns out, is a perfect 10-out-of-10 match in human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing, which means he is a vital player in Sager's ongoing battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
On July 3, both will report to an Atlanta hospital, where doctors will conduct a bone marrow transplant from son to father. And if all goes well, Sager, who has already gone through regular rounds of chemotherapy, is holding out hope that he can recover in time to return to TBS' baseball broadcasts this fall.
"I'm getting my bone marrow and my immune system from my son," Sager said. "Maybe I'll get the nickname from Reggie Jackson."
It's an apropos goal for a man whose life has so often been associated with sports' biggest stages.
Sager has been there for the MLB and NBA playoffs, the Olympics, the World Cup, college football bowl games. He was there the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record.
Heck, he wasn't just there, he was waiting for Aaron at home plate, an aggressive interview tactic that would be unfathomable today.
That Aaron interview, though, just demonstrated the doggedness that led to Sager getting his big break, when he became one of Ted Turner's first hires at CNN. If Sager wanted an interview scoop, he put himself in a position to make it happen, and that extended to the tactic he employed with Mr. October himself.
"Reggie was one of the hardest interviews to get," Sager said. "So one Spring Training, I knew he would be checking out of the game early, so I put my tripod right in front of his Rolls Royce. He comes out, ready to back out. He says, 'You move that tripod right now! Who do you think you are?'"
Sager explained he had interviewed every player he needed, except for Jackson. Given the option of running over a camera or doing a quick interview, Reggie chose the latter.
"Now he brags about me," Sager said of Jackson. "He says, 'This is the hardest-working guy I ever saw.'"
Sager never makes it look like work. You've got to be pretty darned comfortable in your skin and ability to pull off the outlandish outfits that pass as his normal work attire, and "Sagervision" has been televised long enough to have created multigenerational appeal.
But when the indefatigable Sager was feeling unusually tired and short of breath this spring, while covering a Spurs-Mavericks game, a Dallas team physician encouraged him to go to the hospital. Subsequent tests and biopsies uncovered the cancer.
It was a big blow, but one Sager has endured with good humor and an optimistic outlook.
"People always say, 'Why me? Why me?'" Sager said. "I've sort of been the opposite. I think I've had such a charmed life, everything has gone so perfect. I've got five perfectly healthy kids, my parents lived until their 90s, I married my ultimate dream girl, Stacy, and I've got the greatest job in the world. I kind of feel maybe I was due for a little bad luck, and now it got me. It's a heck of a curveball, but we're fighting through it."
His healthy son has joined him in the fight, and this is why Sager is so encouraged. Craig, after all, was a walk-on wide receiver at the University of Georgia who has stayed in peak physical shape while following in his dad's footsteps in the sports reporting world. The father is proud to note that his son missed just one day of school his entire life due to sickness, and that was when he came down with chicken pox in third grade. (Sager is equally quick to note that this was at the same time Greg Maddux missed an Opening Day start with the Braves because of chicken pox.)
"I feel pretty good about where my blood is coming from," Sager said with a laugh.
Craig Jr. is a little upset that the July 3 appointment, in which stem cells will be drawn from his hip bone, will force him to miss his annual running of the Peachtree Road Race the following day (Sager's own 32-year streak of running the 10K is also coming to a close). But it's a small price to pay for helping his dad, and Craig Jr.'s donation is a far more efficient option than the likely alternative, which would have been to search donor bases in Europe.
"I was pretty confident I'd be the match," Craig Jr. said. "But 10 out of 10? That's pretty crazy."
Sager has been overwhelmed by the support he's received not just from his son but from people throughout the NBA and MLB communities. The doctors are telling him he'll need at least three months to recover from the procedure, at which time his strength and immune system will be evaluated. So he'll be cutting it close for October.
But Sager has covered sports long enough to know the value of taking things "day to day," and right now he's about to take a big step in his recovery with the help of his son.
"You always say you'll do anything for your kids," he said. "For your kid to help save your life is a pretty amazing thing."