Craig Sager, the colorful NBA sideline reporter for Turner Sports, made a lasting impression with Royals legend George Brett nearly 40 years ago.
Brett was a rising young star and Sager a budding sportscaster for a Fort Myers, Fla., television station when they first crossed paths in spring training during the late 1970s.
“He was a one-man crew,” Brett said. “He was a tireless worker. He had his camera on a tripod that was on wheels, and he’d wheel that thing down. He would stand there, turn on the camera, he’d focus it on you, turn back around, hook up the microphone, and the next thing you knew he was doing an interview with you.”
Brett would go on to a Hall of Fame career, and Sager would move on to KMBC (Channel 9) in Kansas City for three years before establishing himself for the last 35 years with Turner’s TNT and TBS as the reporter known for his outlandish, multi-colored sports coats.
“He really paid his dues,” Brett said, “and became very well respected by everyone. I think all the players in the NBA love him.”
That’s why it shook the television world and the NBA earlier this week when Sager, 64, revealed in an HBO “Real Sports” interview that he may have less than six months to live because his case of acute myeloid leukemia is no longer in remission.
The news also hit home in Kansas City, where Sager was with Channel 9 from 1978-81.
In addition to covering sports, Sager helped former Channel 9 executive news producer Jerry Plantz with telethons and other fundraisers that, of all things, benefited the Kansas City Chapter of the Leukemia Society co-founded by Plantz.
“Any time I needed something for the Leukemia Society … Craig Sager would help me out,” Plantz said. “Here’s Sager, who helped me in so many situations … and now he has leukemia.”
A fundraiser at the old Malibu go-cart track in 1980 was especially memorable.
“We had 57 celebrities and VIPs who came out to help raise funds,” Plantz recalled, “and Craig raced, brought a camera crew and did a story on leukemia and the Race for Life.
“The guy who helped fight leukemia and helped get the kids in remission … the same disease he was helping to fight, which he didn’t know at the time, has now captured him.”
Sager has undergone multiple courses of treatment since his leukemia was diagnosed in April 2014 and forced him to miss the 2014-15 NBA season.
“I’ve already had two stem-cell transplants,” Sager told HBO. “Very rarely does somebody have a third. So I have to maintain my strength, so I can go through this.”
Sager later issued a statement, through Turner Sports, clarifying his original remarks of having “three to six” months to live.
“I’m grateful to HBO for telling my story and I’d like to thank everyone for their ongoing support,” Sager said. “I have acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of cancer. The typical prognosis is 3-6 months to live, but I would like to stress that is for a patient who is not receiving treatment. Fortunately, I am receiving the best treatment in the world and I remain fully confident I will win this battle.
“Again, I would like to thank everyone for your generosity and encouragement. I sincerely appreciate it and it means so much to me and my family. I look forward to continuing my work on the sidelines for Turner Sports.”
Sager, who is from Batavia, Ill., graduated from Northwestern University, where his first sideline duty was as the Willie the Wildcat mascot. He came to Channel 9 in 1978 after a stint with a television station in Fort Myers, Fla., where he made Kansas City connections at the Royals’ spring-training camp.
While covering a game at Royals Stadium on July 31, 1980, Sager spotted a Central Missouri State student named Lisa Gabel, who, along with her sister, had moved down from a nosebleed section to what turned out to be former Mayor Charles Wheelers’ seats.
Four days later Sager asked her out, and on Aug. 14, he asked Lisa to marry him.
A wedding, however, would have to wait until the baseball season ended. The Royals would play in their first World Series, losing to Philadelphia in six games before the couple married on Nov. 1.
“We waited for the Royals’ season to end, and the night of our wedding, we went to a Kansas City Kings game and were all in a suite,” said Lisa Sager Allen, who was married to Craig for nearly 22 years.
“The next day we went to a Kansas City Chiefs game on Sunday, and on Monday, Craig and I went to a luncheon for George Brett, who was being honored. We did not go on a honeymoon … but I tell you, life was never boring. He had the greatest job and got paid to cover sports.”
During the 1980 World Series, Sager also served as a correspondent for CNN, which went on the air that June. The fledgling network hired Sager in March 1981 for its sports division, and the young couple moved to Atlanta. Lisa spent five years with CNN as intern coordinator and as a graphics designer before their three children were born.
Lisa Sager Allen was pregnant with their first child during the 1985 World Series, and the Sagers attended all seven games, riding the train between Kansas City and St. Louis. They named their daughter Kacy in tribute to the winner of the I-70 World Series.
“To see a guy working at a small TV station in Fort Myers, Fla.,” Brett said, “and the next thing you know, you see him in Kansas City. I lost track of him for a while, and then you see him working for the network covering major sporting events wearing the ugliest sports coats I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Though Sager is known for his garish attire, he did not start dressing in that manner until he began covering the NBA in the late 1990s.
“His entire personality kind of changed when he got the NBA gig,” Lisa Sager said. “He wanted to stand out. That was his niche.”
There’s more to Sager than the flamboyant wardrobes. Sager is a workhorse as well as a clothes horse, even as he has battled leukemia.
“During our morning production meetings, you can see him formulate what his top-of-the-game report would be,” said Turner play-by-play man Kevin Harlan of Kansas City. “He would spend the afternoon making series of phone calls and doing all the things good reporters do, and then come on with a wonderful, compelling story.
“He would make sure he had every side of the story covered, whether it was an injury, a trade, a firing, a demotion, he’s so good at those things.”
Sager is scheduled to work the sidelines on March 29 when Washington plays Golden State and with Harlan’s crew on March 31 when Chicago plays at Houston.
“He’s told people, ‘I’ve got to keep working,’” said Harlan. “He said he’d go nuts sitting around doing nothing. He’s not going to feel sorry for himself. He says he’s going to fight it and do the best he can, and Turner has said, as long as he wants to work, he’ll be on the air.”
Sager’s ex-wife believes he can beat the disease.
“I really do think he’s invincible,” Lisa Sager Allen said. “If someone is going to make medical history, it’s going to be him. The marriage did not end well … but I still care for him so much, and the last conversation I had with him, ‘You better beat this. I want you to be at all the weddings.’ … We need to annoy each other for at least 30 more years.”