By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – December 18, 2016 – There are Perfect Storms in this world that can wreak havoc and bring unimaginable challenges to our lives. Those storms are the result of a convergence of catastrophic occurrences, all crashing together. Sometimes, they are so powerful, research scientists have only chipped at the iceberg of horror they deliver. One of those storms took the life of Captain Billy Tyne and his crew in the famous Perfect Storm of the North Atlantic, a convergence of three separate weather systems which tossed 40-foot wave after wave at a relatively tiny fishing boat.
Another kind of Perfect Storm took the life of my friend and colleague, Craig Sager.
In the big game of life, two atoms of hydrogen combine with one atom of oxygen to form a single cell of water, an amazing compound that bonds so seamlessly with other water molecules, acting as the most important elixir of our lives and a solvent to other compounds. Simple drinking water is vital to life, but can become an agent of death. Relatively small amounts of water can be the cause of drowning while large amounts – giant waves in the ocean – can deliver powerful blows to the largest of ocean vessels or tiny fishing boats. Chroniclers of the Perfect Storm of October ’91 depicted the effect colliding weather systems had on an ocean full of water to take down Tyne and the crew of the Andrea Gail, somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Similarly, the malignant cell causing acute myeloid leukemia, the myeloblast, attacks a single white blood cell and – one-by-one – begins a mutation process which shuts down proper creation of our blood, the most vital liquid of life itself. In a medical diagnosis, the difference between acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a world of difference to cancer researchers seeking a so-called moonshot of a cure. When time permits, peer into the amazing strides being undertaken to fight the various forms of the dreaded cancer disease, and the work of dedicated/talented scientists who’ve developed tyrosine kinase inhibitors to counter the effects of CML which can result in a response so profound, as few as one percent of the patients actually die from the leukemia.
Trying to sum it up in layman’s terms, a diagnosis of CML is like a forecast of a powerful, terrible hurricane – one that can wreak havoc and cause death, but might blow past causing some major structural damage but leaving only the threat of a similar storm returning some day in the future. Daily doses of medicine can quell that storm, thank God. On the other hand, a diagnosis of AML can produce The Perfect Storm, one where science and a patient’s will to live, fight like hell to kill and eliminate the mutated cells undermining our very own blood cells. Those facing the diagnosis no soul would ever want to hear, try to turn the boat against that storm, just as Billy Tyne did with the Andrea Gail.
Sager, a reporter for Turner Sports, was suffering from extreme fatigue when he was diagnosed with the acute condition, AML, in 2014. Together with his wife, Stacy, his five children and a legion of family formed by his colleagues at Turner to his extended family of NBA players, coaches, executives and fans, Sager waged a fight against the disease rarely, if ever, seen in such a public forum. From bone marrow stem cell transplants to repeated chemotherapy treatments, Sager stared down the disease and fought it with every single ounce of life he had, only to have the enormous odds working against him sink his ship, fighting wave after wave in our vast ocean of life.
I met Sages sometime in the 1980s, I’m not sure of the exact date or place. He worked as a sports reporter for CNN, and earlier, in Sarasota, Florida and Kansas City, Missouri after graduating from Northwestern University. He joined the SuperStation, Turner Broadcasting System or TBS in 1987, saddling up with a strong family of dedicated, hard-working television producers with a full-time job of televising games of the Atlanta Hawks, the National Basketball Association, along with baseball games of the Atlanta Braves and a supposedly local telecasting effort gone national with the advent of cable tv.
At the time, Sager was one of a few dozen who would convene at NBA arenas nationally and broadcast a daunting schedule of games, sometimes with their remote trucks arriving only hours before tip-off. By comparison to the “network” broadcasts, then being carried by CBS Sports, Turner Sports was an under-funded, under-staffed, time-pressured crew of dedicated Turner staffers always seemed to struggle, but, somehow, someway, they would always pull it off, televising games, telling stories, building relationships and then, heading down the road to the next broadcast maybe the very next night.
The names of all the talented people, from hard-working and underpaid network executives to directors, producers, associate producers, studio workers, to popular play-by-play commentators are far too many to list in their entirety, but longtime NBA on TBS or TNT viewers might remember the likes of Bob Neal, Ron Thulin, the late Pete Van Wieren, greats like Marv Albert and Ernie Johnson Jr., producers and directors like Lonnie Dale, Kim Belton, Rohan Backfisch, Glenn Diamond, Ken Nolan or Tim Rockwood. They all worked for Don McGuire and reported up to Terry McGuirk – Harvey Schiller and some, eventually, for the current crew headed by David Levy, all forming the core on the NBA on TNT.
In 1987, Rockwood and Sager teamed up on a number of assignments, like the “Coors” Sports Page or Olympic Gold moments, but found their home as Sager became an integral part of the NBA broadcasts as a courtside reporter, a relatively new concept in the television history of live, remote sports broadcasting, following the efforts of Pat O’Brien and his well-funded efforts at CBS Sports which upped their NBA coverage ante with “At the Half.”
As the Director of Media Relations for the NBA, I worked extensively with the NBA’s legion of media with the majority of time spent providing information, assuring strong access and generally “looking out for” the large number of newspaper beat reporters, columnists, radio and tv reporters who covered the league on a national basis. In 1987, the changes about to occur because of the Internet and the globalization of basketball were only a dream.
When people would ask what I did for a living, I would simply reply, “My job is to make it easier for a reporter to cover the NBA than cover any other entity in the world.” And, one of my personal viewpoints of that job was to also make it “more fun” to do that challenging job. When you step back and look at one of the toughest challenges of covering the NBA, the very root of the issue is the fact there are hundreds of people who travel extensively and don’t sleep in their own bed and don’t get to see their immediate families most nights. That can cause a mountain of stress.
The bottom line in the gig is access. Access to great basketball is “Numero Uno.” But access to accurate information, along with the coaches, assistant coaches, players and the basketball GM and key front office staff is the driver of consistently good “PR.” If there are dedicated, good, professional team and league people, arena workers, airline and hotel staff, security people and a few “characters” along the way, the long road of covering the NBA becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Enter Craig Sager! If there was ever someone who wanted to make it “more fun,” it was Sager.
On the surface, Craig fit into the “character” portion of that equation. I’m not sure when he switched from a network-style, blue blazer, to his own very unique style, but somewhere along the many years, instead of blending in with the crowd, he wore the uniform of a character, complete with the bright and flowery sport coats and coordinated shirt and tie combos, all accessorized with shiny multi-colored shoes and socks.
Looking deeper than the schtick, Sager was a very strong personality who exuded confidence and bravado. He had a very strong work ethic and loved to glean information from any source who could help him uncover a new story, whether it be the morning newspaper, a radio report, the game notes or a plugged-in source. Immediately, I enjoyed his company and his viewpoint, which I found highly informed. Often, he needed a rudder or a stabilizer to help guide him along. At Turner, producers like Rockwood held that job. At the NBA, or later at USA Basketball friendlies or at the Olympics, I often found my role as part of the Good Ship Sager’s guidance system.
As a PR person, one who values the truth, I found Sager’s work ethic to be his most valuable attribute. Far too often, reporters not 100% familiar with the up-to-date storylines and the personalities involved might jet into town and only scratch the surface, taking the easiest way to report a story. Sager always did his homework and was informed. Only on a rare occasion was he misinformed, and that was usually by someone looking to get an edge-up on an opponent for a particular game or playoff series. As a PR person, the instinct is often to say “No,” and to limit the exposure. My instinct with Sager, was always to “let him rip” but to build our relationship where he could trust me to be a source who could and would only tell him the truth. At the least, we’d always get the benefit of the doubt and a chance to “tell our side” of a more complex story. As sports history shows, and we have the tapes to prove it, the NBA did pretty well on Sager’s watch.
Only once did he really annoy me to no end, and that was at the 2004 Olympics when FIBA told both teams to wear their home “white” uniforms and we, Team USA, offered to bail them out and go back to get our road “blues” as our stuff was much closer to the basketball venue. Sager got the story wrong and blamed our staff, by name, and it set me off to no end, mainly because I knew the person who lied to him to steer him off course while he was live on the air. While it seemed important at the time, in the grand scheme of life, that was simply a non-factor.
Most often, I found Sager to be exactly what he portrayed to the world, and that was a lot of fun and someone who enjoyed the company of friends and family. He welcomed the fame that came along with his job, but it was almost always to bring a smile and joy to people he spent time with along the way, whether it be the fans who would ask for an autograph (or later a selfie) or to share a Bud Light or a good story with the thousands of “NBA people” he interacted with on a yearly basis.
When time or the venue allowed, we’d often sneak off to a horse race or two, maybe play a little at a casino (we both enjoyed a game of dice now and then) or, when in Atlanta, we’d retreat to his watering hole, Jocks & Jills, and enjoy the company assembled for the night. Many times along the long road, he would be so proud to introduce his wife, Stacy, who was the perfect complement and a wonderful, charming “better half” who also enjoyed the privilege we all had covering the sport of basketball for a living.
My lasting memory of Craig Sager, while setting aside the many times I just shuddered when I saw his get-up at a playoff game or an All-Star weekend, will always be time spent discussing more serious issues than the next basketball game. I found our relationship had evolved to a point where we could get the work done and we were both comfortable discussing the news of the day, the issues facing the city or country we were visiting, or chatting about the best 3yo and the Triple Crown possibilities, or hitting our “number” at a craps table near you.
I always enjoyed hearing his prediction for the next race, the next Kentucky Derby, rolling the dice and, mostly, spending a day on the road with his company, and I will miss it greatly.