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.”

WNBA MVP Delle Donne says league denied her medical waiver

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NEW YORK (AP) — Elena Delle Donne’s request to be medically excused from the WNBA season was denied, according to the league’s reigning MVP.

The Washington Mystics star said in a statement Monday that the independent panel of doctors the league and union agreed upon to decide whether players should be medically excused deemed her not to be “high risk, and should be permitted to play in the bubble.”

Had Delle Donne been medically excused, she would have earned her entire salary for the season. Now, if she chooses not to play, the defending WNBA champion Mystics wouldn’t have to pay her.

Delle Donne has battled Lyme disease since 2008. The disease is not included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of underlying conditions that could put someone at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“I love my team, and we had an unbelievable season last year, and I want to play! But the question is whether or not the WNBA bubble is safe for me,” Delle Donne said in the statement. “My personal physician who has treated me for Lyme disease for years advised me that I’m at high risk for contracting and having complications from COVID-19.”

Delle Donne’s statement was first obtained by ESPN.

“I’m thinking things over, talking to my doctor and my wife, and look forward to sharing what I ultimately plan to do very soon,” the 30-year-old said. “My heart has gone out to everyone who has had to choose between their health and having an income, and of course to anyone who has lost their job, their home, and anyone they love in this pandemic.”

The league declined to comment, citing privacy concerns about player health matters.

Delle Donne’s new teammate Tina Charles also was waiting for a decision from the medical panel. If both players miss the season, the Mystics would be down to 10 players on the roster.

“As with all of our players, we have and will support Elena throughout this process. The health and well-being of our players is of the utmost importance,” Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault said.

Charles and Delle Donne did not travel with the team to Bradenton, Florida, last week. The WNBA is using IMG Academy as a single site for its season which will begin on July 25.

There are a handful of players who are waiting to have their cases heard by the three-person panel. Phoenix forward Jessica Breland, who missed a year while at North Carolina to be treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was deemed high-risk and was medically excused, the Mercury said.

Philadelphia practices with Ben Simmons as power forward, Shake Milton at point guard

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It’s been rumored for a while, and now it seems to be happening.

Philadelphia has been practicing with Ben Simmons playing power forward, coach Brett Brown told the media on a conference call from Orlando Monday. Joel Embiid added that Shake Milton has been playing point guard, which would add shooting and make the Sixers starters a more dynamic and dangerous lineup. That also means Al Horford would be coming off the bench.

Embiid had nothing but praise for Milton, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadephia:

“He’s been amazing,” he said. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we’re going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

On paper, a lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and Embiid should be a force — but it has played zero minutes together this season. A couple of weeks of practices and eight seeding games — ones treated more like an exhibition game than a regular-season game — may not be enough time to develop real chemistry.

Playing Simmons and Embiid as the frontline is the latest attempt to get their games to fit together. There remain doubters around the league the two can blend — unless Simmons can develop a reliable jump shot and three-point ball to space the floor — but the best chance may be to put three shooters around Simmons and Embiid. One of the three shooters needs to be a secondary shot creator. Maybe that can work, and for the rest of this season the Sixers can take notes on if this will work.

A healthy Philadelphia team — Simmons would have missed a lot of time heading into the playoffs with his back issue — is one of the dark horses in the East. If this team becomes as good on the court as it does on paper, if it can play like it’s a home game and not a road game (the 76ers were 10-24 on the road), they have a chance. This lineup may give them the best chance.

 

 

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo to wear “Equality” on jersey

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While a couple of high profile stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davisare forgoing a social justice message on their jersey, Giannis Antetokounmpo has settled on one.

“Equality.”

That’s what the reigning MVP told reporters Monday, it’s the same message his brothers (Thanasis Antetokounmpo, also on the Bucks) will wear. Giannis would not get into why he chose “equality.”

Antetokounmpo, who grew up as a poor immigrant in Athens, is not going to complain about the bubble conditions. From Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“I’m in a situation where I’m extremely blessed and I cannot complain. Obviously, it doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s always something to complain, there’s always a problem and an issue,” Antetokounmpo said. “But I try to kind of not focus on that. So as I said, my apartment in Greece, when I was younger, with my four brothers, was way smaller than the suite that I have in the hotel, so I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.

“This is something special,” he continued. “Hopefully, this pandemic never happens again so we never are able to come back in the campus, but at the end of the day, this is part of history, so just being able to be here, participate in this, I’m just trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy every moment, trying to enjoy basketball. I’m happy that we’re back playing basketball, something that I love doing, so there’s nothing really to complain about.”

If only every player had that mindset.

 

Pacers’ increasingly optimistic Victor Oladipo to play in restart

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“With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing… getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me.”

That was Pacers’star Victor Oladipo explaining why he would sit out the NBA restart in Orlando.

Then he got to the Walt Disney World property and saw the set up of the bubble, and he got in some five-on-five practices with teammates, and not it appears he might play after all, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Oladeipo may lace them up and play at the end of the month, but nothing is set in stone. Of course, a competitor like Oladipo wants to get on the court, and there is an unquestioned energy finally getting back out there after the coronavirus-forced interruption.

There are also another $2.7 million reasons for him to play (the salary he would lose sitting out). Countering that, Oladipo also got one more year under contract and his concerns about an injury from ramping up to fast are legitimate.

Oladipo missed more than a year after surgery to repair a torn right quad tendon. He played in 13 games before the league was shut down, and in the last five of those he averaged 18.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.

Indiana enters the bubble as the five seed in the East, tied with the sixth-seed Sixers, and just two games back of the four seed Heat. There could be a lot of shakeups in the middle of the East standings, which would impact first-round playoff matchups.

The Pacers are a much more dangerous threat with Oladipo in the lineup, but the player and the team need to decide if now is the time to push that advantage.