When former NBA coach Monty Williams received the first-ever Sager Strong Award at the inaugural NBA Awards in 2017 — named after iconic National Basketball Association sideline reporter Craig Sager — he put on the multicolored, rose-emblazoned jacket that served not only as the award “trophy,” but also as a fitting tribute to one of the most recognized, respected and colorful personalities in TV sports history.
The Sager Strong Award blazer is a replica of the one Sager wore just a year prior, when he accepted his own accolade, the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at The ESPYs. During his emotional speech, Sager — who at the time was bravely battling leukemia — spoke eloquently about the need to appreciate and make the best of the short time we have.
“Time is something that cannot be bought, it cannot be wagered with God, and it is not in endless supply,” Sager said. “Time is simply how you live your life.”
Anyone who knew Craig Sager knows that he spent most of his time up to his untimely death in 2016 at the age of 65 in full devotion of bringing people together in happiness and joy, whether in front of the camera, where he was synonymous with TNT’s NBA coverage for more than two decades, or behind the camera as a colleague and friend.
A Great Teammate
“Everything with him was about a team and a group of people … it was never about one person,” Turner Sports president Lenny Daniels said. “He injected a camaraderie among those around him that no one else has done.”
Through a quarter-century as a sideline reporter for Turner Sports’ exclusive Thursday night NBA on TNT doubleheader coverage, Sager was embraced by league executives, fans, players and even rival sports programmers such as ESPN. For many, Sager’s personality and charisma shined as brightly as his wardrobe of flamboyant and colorful blazers.
“Craig Sager earned the widespread respect of players, coaches, executives and fellow journalists over the 25 years he covered the NBA,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “We miss his insightful reporting and captivating storytelling, but we will always be inspired by his courage.”
Added Daniels: “What makes a professional truly a professional is the ability to separate their jobs from their life. He was always a good person and always there for you as a person and as a friend. What he did for his job, he did, but it was never personal with him.”
Sager, a native of Batavia, Ill., who attended Northwestern University and served as the school’s mascot, produced an illustrious sports broadcasting career that spanned more than four decades. His coverage of high-profile sports events for Turner Sports and other networks took him to destinations around the world.
He worked the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, serving as a sideline reporter for NBC’s coverage of the Olympic basketball tournament. Sager also took a swing at baseball as part of TBS’ coverage of the MLB postseason from 2007 to 2013.
He also served as a sideline reporter during the PGA Championship on TNT and PGA. com in 2009, and was a reporter for TNT’s NFL pregame, halftime and postgame shows from 1990 to 1997.
Clearly, though, Sager was at his best when he was interacting with people one on one.
A People Person
“We tried him in a number of different things and he was good, but what he was most comfortable with was being a free floater who talked and learned from different people,” Daniels said. “When you tried to script him, it was hard. Different types of talent deal with that differently.”
Friends and colleagues say he was also a model of courage, especially as he fought through his illness. During the presentation of the first 2017 Sager Strong Award, Inside the NBA host Ernie Johnson tearfully recalled Sager’s persevering spirit even in the midst of his suffering.
“When I used to go visit Craig, I used to try to lift him up and encourage him, and I always walked out that hospital fired up,” Johnson said. “When we lost Craig, we lost a piece of us.”
Added Daniels: “We’re not going to be able to fill his shoes — he was just an icon in the business. He had a relationship with everybody, whether it was someone doing a very meaningful job, to someone doing a lesser job to the actual players on the court. That comes through time and it comes through having a great personality.”
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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