Whether wearing a red suit with wacky-looking tie or ostrich boots, Craig Sager has always stood out on television.
But the world turned upside down last April for the popular 42-year veteran when the Turner Sports sideline reporter was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Sager first went to Piedmont Hospital for treatment, and later at Northside Hospital, where he received chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant from his son and battled pneumonia.
There were days when the only way he was able to get out of the bed was to use a walker and he couldn’t even open his water bottle. But Thursday night in Chicago when the Bulls and Oklahoma City tangle on TNT, Sager will be right back where he is most comfortable — on the sidelines in the face of NBA coaches and players.
He has not beaten leukemia but he’s elbowed it right in the mouth and is in remission. The 63-year-old Sager spoke about his last 10 life-changing months.
Q: How excited are you about going back to work?
A: Mentally, I have been ready to get back to work since the fall and I was hoping to do the (NBA) All-Star Game. But the doctors didn’t think my immune system was ready and I still needed to stay away from people and crowds. The doctors now say I am ready to go and I feel good and I am going full blast.
Q: How difficult has the recovery been?
A: The way I look at it is sort of like those Rob Lowe (DirecTV) commercials. I looked like the scrawny Rob Lowe. I lost 50 pounds and they get you down to a point where you basically have no immune system so you have the best chance of not rejecting the transplant. But (in September) there was this one weekend where I had this breakthrough physically. I didn’t need the walker and told my wife Stacy, “I think I’m going to make it.” But I haven’t beaten leukemia because it takes three years before you know you are out of the woods.
Q: How was disease detected?
A: I was doing a game in Dallas last April and when I was walking back and forth to the locker rooms, I felt really weak. I went to the Dallas team doctor and he told me I needed to go to the emergency room now. They told me my hemoglobin count was 4.6, which normally should be between 13 and 15. I was considered walking dead. I had six blood transfusions and they took me back to Atlanta and then to Piedmont Hospital. They did a biopsy and it showed no sign of cancer but they then sent the results over to Emory for a second opinion and they came back and said I had leukemia.
Q: Your son Craig Jr. ended up being a bone marrow match and you received the transplant from him on July 3. It helped you turn the corner.
A: It saved me. Miraculously, somehow we were a match.
Q; Craig Jr. also filled in for you during a basketball game on TNT last season. Did you help mentor him for his interview with the typically gruff San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich?
A: Oh, my God. They didn’t tell me he was doing it and I was in the hospital watching every game and all of a sudden I hear that Craig Jr. is going to be interviewing. I was shocked when he did the interview with Popovich. I had tears running down my cheeks.
Q: Speaking of Popovich, he was just one of many that came out and supported you.
A: There were so many times when I thought I was annoying coaches like Pop and people would come up to me all the time and ask me if Pop is a jerk? No way. What he has done for me and my family is incredible. The support from everyone has been unbelievable. Kevin Garnett was the first one to send me flowers. The next day I got a call from (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver and that was when they were going through the whole Donald Sterling mess. I told Adam you have more important things to worry than me and he said, “No, you are part of the NBA.” I had buddies down in Florida send me care packages from Hooters and Charles Barkley came and saw me and kept checking in with Stacy and saying, “How’s our boy?’’
Q: Will you still be wearing the same crazy clothes on the sidelines?
A: I picked out leukemia’s colors which are orange and was going to come back wearing a orange coat and a pinstripe linen shirt. But that was when I was thought I was coming back in the fall and it is going to be five degrees in Chicago so it would be a little out of place. It also doesn’t fit. So I have picked out something and got it made with Chicago colors in it. Also, my feet are swollen so I am not going to be wearing my normal crocs or ostrich shoes so Nike said they are making me a special pair of shoes.
Q: Because of the chemotherapy, you also lost your trademark hairstyle. Is the doo back?
A: (Laughing) People have always accused me of wearing a toupee. I lost it all but it has all come back. It’s a little wavier than usual.
Q: After going through all this, has your outlook on life changed?
A: What has hit me is to see the support and the love and attention I have received. It has been so encouraging hearing the things that people have said about me. Usually, that happens at your funeral. I think what has helped as much as anything is to hear people say that leukemia picked the wrong person to fool with.
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