Craig Sager was always in on the joke. That’s what you liked about him. He was the guy that found the proper balance between taking his job seriously but never himself. The kind of person you wanted to be around.
That’s why Sager worked so well with Marv Albert and Charles Barkley, the resident wise guys at Turner Sports who made Sager and his colorful outfits the butt of the countless jokes for nearly two decades.
When Howard Cosell was at the height of his popularity, having him and ABC’s Monday Night Football in your city meant it was a big event. Sager and his wardrobe did the same for the NBA and TNT on Thursday’s.
We were seated next to each other in Boston nearly 10 years when an irate Knicks fan – is there any other kind? – threw his jersey onto the court once the Celtics extended their lead to 50. Sager looked at me, smiled, and said that it may be a while “before the Knicks are back on TNT again.”
“He understood that the job was about entertainment and presentation,” said his long-time colleague and friend Scooter Vertino. “Craig never lost sight of that.”
Vertino was a field producer when he first met Sager 21 years ago, a kid trying to make a name in the business while learning from an established reporter.
Even as he got older and battled leukemia, the wacky suits and humble personality stayed the same.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
“He was like a professor holding class,” Vertino was saying Thursday afternoon. “A professor drinking a Bud Light.”
Vertino is now the Senior Vice President of Programming at Tuner Sports as well as the GM of NBA Digital. He and his colleagues in Atlanta were preparing for Thursday’s doubleheader on TNT when they learned that Sager had lost his long and courageous battle with leukemia. The show went on without him but it will never be the same.
I first got to know Sager back in the mid 1990’s when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were chasing their last three championships. Sager, a reporter at his core, struck up a good working relationship with Dennis Rodman, which seemed only natural. Both were eccentric and colorful.
Mike Wise, who was with the New York Times back then, used to tease Sager, telling him “Ahmad Rashad has Michael Jordan and you have Rodman. What are you doing? He’s going to kill your career.”
Craig would laugh because he was a good sport. Of course, the opposite was true. As the league grew, Sager became a bigger star as the preeminent roving sideline reporter. The running gags were A-list players mocking his attire and Gregg Popovich refusing to give straight answers during their memorable interviews.
NBA players show their appreciation for Sager at the ESPY awards earlier this year.
(Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
But while Sager’s popularity grew he remained the same humble reporter who was intent on out-working everyone in the room.
“Sure, he was in on the joke and happy to play along,” Vertino said. “But it doesn’t work if you’re mediocre or poor at your job. Craig set the standard. Every coach wants their best player to be their hardest worker. That was Craig.
“He understood that he was there to do a job first. It’s hard to find anyone that has that balance.”
I remember walking out of the old Orlando Arena with Craig back in 1999 after Latrell Sprewell made his Knicks debut in a season-opening loss to the Magic. Sager told me that I was in for “a crazy season. Marcus Camby didn’t play and I can tell that the front office is upset. It may get worse before it gets better.” Well, he nailed that one. The 1999 season was a wild one indeed, ending with the Knicks reaching the NBA Finals.
He was good at his job. That was obvious 42 years ago when Sager, just a kid really, interviewed Hank Aaron on the field moments after Aaron passed Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king. The guy in the floppy hair and trench coat was suddenly a part of history.
The outfits became more and more outrageous over the years. But the man never changed nor did his passion for the job. He just looked better doing it.
Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News