I’m in Awe of Craig Sager, the Best Story in Sports

Cancer is one of the hardest things any human can go through. It’s taxing on the mind, body, and soul. It’s contagious to everyone you know – not physically, but mentally – wearing on the mind, grinding down the conscience, will, and belief in all that is good.

Twice, I’ve seen my dad fight cancer. I watched my mom die from it, eventually wheezing to her end as it overtook her lungs. Friends, family, coworkers, and strangers suffer in public and private, their faces becoming a pale shade of white, their brains constantly occupied by the thought of death as they worry themselves sick or sicker. There’s no easy way out with cancer, no reprieve. It’s a lonely place where many go and most don’t come back.

That’s why I’m in absolute awe of Craig Sager, the most incredible story in sports right now. Perhaps ever.

Although Sager isn’t an athlete, I don’t believe anyone would with argue with him being the toughest man associated with any professional league. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2014, Sager’s physical and metal toughness has been ridiculous, battling for his life with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He’s the same old Sager from an onlookers point of view. He may be the only one to know how badly he’s suffering.

In the past two years, Sager has undergone two bone marrow transplants (both care of his son Craig Jr.), 21 bone marrow biopsies, and 20 chemotherapy cycles (one of which went for a torturous two weeks in a row, 24 hours a day, per a story from Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins).

Treatment hasn’t been in the shadows. Sager has gone back and forth between NBA arenas and hospitals, sometimes going straight from one to the next with minimal rest. Sometimes against doctors wishes. Sometimes after grueling hours of chemotherapy. Sometimes after platelet transfusions that he said keeps him alive.

Last night, during the 4th quarter of game 5 between the San Antonio Spurts and Oklahoma City Thunder, I watched Sager interview Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Sager looked tired, but his eyes were lit up just as they always are, a slight smile coming to his lips as he interviewed the ever-surly-but-lovable Pops. His suit game was immaculate and louder than hell, serving as something between a distraction and a reminder that life exists outside of sports. Sager’s blue jacket with incendiary bursts of color lines fell perfectly over his large-but-shrunken shoulders, a patterned tie with brush strokes of purple, orange and blue making eyes bounce back and forth like onlookers at a tennis match. Beautiful by his standard, insane by most: A true personification of the man I’ve watched on TV since I was a little boy.

I was stunned this morning when I opened Twitter and found out, via a tweet from Sager’s daughter Kacy Sager, that he drove three-and-a-half hours to the game; from Houston to San Antonio. Sager is currently in the midst of eight days in a row of chemotherapy. He planned to drive back for more chemo this morning after covering the game last night.

My guts ached upon reading this. I wanted to cry for him; I wanted to comfort his family, knowing the heartache they must feel watching their affable father looking death in the eye and grinning. But it’s more complex than how I feel. It’s his joy, his life, that Sager still has and refuses to relinquish. It’s one that he hasn’t quit on yet, despite his body and medical science telling him time is up. How I, or anyone else, feels is completely inconsequential: Sager accepts well wishes and keeps living.

Through his struggle, Sager has continued to do what he loves, reporting from the sidelines from coast to coast. He hasn’t been there for every game, but he’s been there for more than anyone could have possibly predicted or hoped. He’s truly been awe-inspiring to watch.

At times, Sager has been slowed. Noticeably sick, flush, clearly tired. But he’s never winced in pain on camera. Quite the opposite. His questions, presentation, and stand-ups have always been unique, informative, and as clearly spoken as he could muster, given his health. He’s only had brief stays away from the game and life he loves. In one instance, his son Craig Jr. filled in for him on the sidelines. Sager’s sideline-nemesis Popovich, who normally serves Sager steely-eyed, terse responses, gave a loving message of hope for recovery, a beautiful show of humanity that likely had men across North America dabbing at their eyes, pretending they weren’t touched, pretending they weren’t frightened for Sager. I know I was. Life is bigger than the game.

While life is bigger than the game, the game is life for Sager. That much has been made clear. He’s worked hard to get where he is and takes joy in being himself, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Moreover, it has been made clear by Sager that cancer is not a death sentence, even if it may eventually kill you. Living life as if you’re already dead has always been a losing battle, but sometimes it just can’t be helped. If a doctor informs that “You have six months to live,” who are you to question it? Your mind becomes obsessed, ruminating on the inevitability of the darkness at the end of the tunnel. For Sager, that’s never been there. The darkness has been replaced by the allure of the flood lights of an NBA arena illumining the hardwood. Death is a possibility – he knows this much – but it’s not the only option.

Harvard University Professor of Psychology and godmother of mindfulness Ellen Langer has said enormous stress usually comes with what she called “dread diagnoses,” creating a hugely negative effect on the body. “Mind and body are one. Wherever we put the mind, we’re necessarily putting the body,” she told Marika Sborors.

For some reason, Sager doesn’t let the “dread diagnosis” affect his state of mind. The diagnosis is scary, but it’s not the end. It’s not the truth yet. “I’m not dead now, why can’t I keep going?” he seems to ask every time he steps onto the screen. The “three to six months” he was given to live, as he was quoted on HBO’s Real Sports, was quickly followed by a hope of breaking the mold, setting a new standard for medical science.

There’s a long way to go, despite his dreadful diagnosis:

“Unchartered waters,” he said on Real Sports. “I’ve already had two stem cell transplants. Very rarely does somebody have a third. So I have to maintain my strength, so I can go through this. [I’m] Still kicking, still fighting. I haven’t won the battle. It’s not over yet. But I haven’t lost it, either. There have been some victories and some setbacks, but I still have to fight it. A lot of work to do.”

Work to do. Fight. Victories. Not over yet. There’s no resignation in Sager’s voice, even as bits of fear inevitably betray his eyes.

No matter what happens, life or death, the mold has been broken. The unwillingness to acquiesce to death has been as brilliantly stunning and loud as Sager’s suits. It’s not spitting in the face of death or saying “fuck cancer,” it’s simply wearing a bright pink suit and saying “Well, I like it” with a slight grin.

Some in full health life live with a light touch, milling about day to day. Wasting opportunities to do what they wish. Traveling paths already traveled. Not reaching for love. Living, but not really. Sager’s story shows the preciousness and vulnerability of life; it shows we can’t accept normalcy when there’s so much else out there, so much that can be uniquely-us if we just try for it.

His struggle with cancer is awful and devastating, but his reaction gives me life. I felt a burst of energy reading Jenkins’ feature on Sager, despite the grim history and dimmed future it revealed. His daughter’s tweet, which initially made me ache, reminded me that this man is doing more with cancer than I’m doing without it, traversing the country and loving his life instead of writhing in pain.

#SagerStrong has been a popular hashtag among NBA fans, players, reporters and onlookers. The hashtag is no bullshit. It’s not hyperbole. #SagerStrong is a way of life. The way he lives sets an example: You don’t have to shrink away from the hardest times; you can live. And you can live with a light in your eye, a smile on your face, and a neon green suit.

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