Craig Sager makes long-awaited return to TNT after 11-month battle with leukemia

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CHICAGO—Craig Sager would not have picked any other city to make his long-awaited return. Besides his iconic, unmistakeable suits, the beloved TNT sideline reporter is most known for his in-game battles with Gregg Popovich, but rather than waiting for a Spurs game, he opted to work his first live game in 11 months at home in Chicago.

Sager will be on the sidelines Thursday night when the Bulls take on the Thunder at the United Center, making his triumphant return after an 11-month battle with leukemia that took him out of last year’s playoffs and all of this season.

And to commemorate the occasion, his suit will be red and black.

“I will come tonight, and you may actually think I’m Benny the Bull,” Sager said at morning shootaround. “I have a lot of love for my Chicago Bulls. Normally, you don’t show a lot of favoritism for one or the other team, but since Chicago means so much to me and coming back here, I said I have to show some love to the Bulls and to Chicago. I don’t think I’ll get booed by too many people for what I’m wearing here tonight.”

It’s been a long, hard battle for Sager, who underwent strenuous treatments for almost a year to get to this day. At the United Center Thursday morning, he looked a little thin, but otherwise in great spirits.

“I’m very grateful,” Sager said. “I got up today and it was like the first day of school. You’re a little nervous. I’ve done it before but everything’s a little different. It’s a long 11 months, believe me. But I was very fortunate I had some doctors I believed in, had some good care. I’m back. A little bit lighter, I don’t know if you can see it on TV but I lost close to 50 pounds, got some of it back, but I had to get some new clothes because all those great things I had before don’t fit anymore.”

Having to buy some new clothes is a minor concern, considering everything he’s been through. After coming closer to death than most people ever live to look back on, Sager credits his doctors and his ever-positive mindset for helping him beat the disease.

“I never had a bad day mentally,” he said. “I really didn’t. I was very optimistic, positive, believed in my doctors. Sure, some days physically were worse than others, but I always felt that if I did what they said to do, I’d be alright. It took longer than I thought, because I had a very tough infection and then I came down with pneumonia, and when you compound pneumonia with leukemia, people start talking mortality rates and all. I didn’t pay any attention to it. Maybe I was naive, but I really didn’t think about the negative things. I just said, ‘I want to get back.’

“I really thought I’d get back for baseball post-season, but that was far-fetched. I thought for sure sure I’d be back by [NBA season-opening] ring ceremony, and then I thought I’d be back by Christmas, or for All-Star. But it wasn’t until Sunday that I took my final medication to keep my body from rejecting the transplant. Then I had to get the OK from the doctors from head to chest to feet, and they all cleared me with no restrictions. It all happened very quickly here at the end, but they said, “you’re ready to go, and be careful.” They still want me to wear a mask on the plane so I don’t make the other people sick, but I guess I’m alright.”

Since Sager’s diagnosis at the beginning of the 2014 playoffs, the tributes and well-wishes have poured out from all corners of the NBA world. The Inside the NBA crew wore extra-colorful blazers in tribute. Sager’s son conducted a sideline interview with Popovich during Game 1 of the Spurs’ series against the Mavericks, and the notoriously curmudgeonly Popovich even showed his softer side.

Now, the next time the Spurs play on TNT, the real thing will be there. Sager is thankful that, like the rest of the public, his bosses never had a doubt that he’d be back. Turner even took the leap of faith to renew his contract well before he was out of the hospital.

“Turner was very supportive,” Sager said. “They said ‘No matter how long it takes, your job is there when you get back.’ Which is very good, because my contract expired in December, so they had to renew me even though I’m sitting there in a hospital bed, getting my last rights for a while, but they still had faith and wanted me back. This is what I do.”

There will be no time to ease back into the workload, with the NCAA Tournament and the NBA playoffs both coming up in the next two months. And that’s just how Sager likes it.

“They asked me if I wanted to ease back into it,” Sager said. “I said, ‘No. My gosh, no.’ If I’m ready to go, I want to go back full-blast. So I’ll leave from here, go to New York, then March Madness in conjunction with Turner and CBS, then go right into the playoffs.”

He isn’t out of the woods yet, but the prognosis is a good one, and Sager—and his suits—will be back on our screens for the foreseeable future.

“Hopefully my body will stay healthy,” Sager said. “I’m totally in remission, they don’t think you’re cured for three years, but right now my vital signs are very good. Everyone’s cleared me, they all think I’m healthy, I look a little scrawny I guess, but I feel good, I feel great, I don’t think I’ll have any problems.”