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Craig Sager hangs tough in leukemia battle

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HOUSTON (AP) — Craig Sager’s once lustrous chestnut hair is down to a few unruly strands because of chemotherapy, and on this day of hope a simple green T-shirt and blue shorts adorn the broadcaster known by millions for his ostentatious wardrobe and easy rapport with the NBA’s elite.

He methodically extended a long, skinny arm to an IV pole holding the stem cells he is counting on to save his life. There was silence as he cradled the tube, watching the crimson liquid drip, drip, drip in a perfect cadence into the cannulai that feeds it into his cancer-stricken body.

TNT’s beloved basketball broadcaster received a rare third bone marrow transplant on Wednesday to fight an aggressive form of leukemia. The 65-year-old Sager has battled acute myeloid leukemia since 2014 and announced in March he was no longer in remission.

Sager knows the odds are against him. Yet, he seems unfazed.

“I like to gamble,” he told The Associated Press. “I like to bet on horses, I like to bet on dogs, I like to bet on a lot of things. I’ve bet on a lot of things with a lot higher odds than this.”

Sager has twice before received a bone marrow transplant with stem cells and each time he went into remission for several months. His son, Craig Sager II, was the donor then. This time, an anonymous 20-year-old donor was considered a perfect match.

Sager has been hospitalized for a month and has another monthlong stay ahead. He hasn’t thought a lot about the man whose bone marrow could change everything for him. But when he learned of his age, he expressed a half-serious concern.

“My only thing was I was afraid that when he signed up to be the donor, he may have been in some drunk fraternity house trying to impress his date,” said Sager, with a smile. “And they call him up the next day and say: `Want to come down to the hospital?’ and he’s like: `What?”‘

His fears turned out to be unfounded.

“He came through,” Sager said.

The latest of nearly 100 procedures Sager has endured in his well-publicized fight was performed at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and took more than 10 hours to complete. Dr. Muzaffar Qazilbash, Sager’s stem cell transplantation physician, researched thousands of such transplants at MD Anderson over the last 15 years.

“It’s less than 1 percent of the total number of transplants,” Qazilbash said. “It’s very rare to have three transplants.”

Sager, who has worked for TNT for more than three decades, says he’s open to trying anything doctors think might help.

“I’ve had every chemo in the alphabet, most of them more than once,” he said. “Some of them that aren’t even in the alphabet, they’re just numbers – clinical trials. But I bet if you added all those up it would have to be like 60- or 70-something. I’ve had 23 bone marrow aspirations. Having one isn’t fun and I’ve had 23. So that’s been tough.”

Despite the rigors of treatment and how they can ravage his body, he’s never thought about giving up. He gets angry when he meets other patients who say they’ve grown weary of fighting.

“Man, life is too beautiful, too wonderful, there’s just too many things,” he said. “It’s not just you. It’s your family and kids and all. Fight. Fight until the end. Fight as hard as you can.”

With his radiant smile and TV-perfect persona, it takes time to peel back the layers of positivity and catch a glimpse of how hard that fight can be.

“His attitude is, nobody wants to hear it,” said his wife Stacy, his full-time caregiver and No. 1 fan. “And so it makes you reflect on yourself and the things that you say when you’re complaining about little things in life and trivial things, and it just puts things in perspective.”

But there are times, often as night creeps into early morning, where it all becomes too much. No medication can help.

“I’ve never had any of those days where I’ve actually said `why me,’ or `I can’t do it,”‘ he said. “But I’ll have some dark nights where I’ll be here by myself and maybe getting some medicine that’s making me jump around like a rabbit. And I’m in pain and I’ve got chills and I’ve got fever and I’ve got everything mixed into one and I’m throwing up and have diarrhea … and I’ll just say: `Stacy, I need you. I need you.’

“And she’ll come to me and just hold me and it just makes it better,” he said.

A few days before his transplant, Stacy came down with a bad cold and doctors sent her home, fearful she’d transmit her illness to her husband. Hall of Famer and TNT colleague Charles Barkley heard she couldn’t be there for a couple of days and hopped on a plane from Phoenix.

However, Sir Charles had hip replacement surgery less than a month ago and wasn’t cleared to travel. He said his doctor was livid when he learned Barkley had defied orders and flown halfway across the country. Barkley informed the doctor that it was an emergency.

“Craig Sager is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” Barkley said. “We go to see Sager to cheer him up and by the time you leave you’re like, `Is anything wrong with him?’ He has the most positive attitude … When you go to try and cheer him up his attitude is so upbeat he cheers you up.”

Sager found inspiration in a girl who lost her fight with cancer before her ninth birthday. He befriended Lacey Holsworth and her family while working on a story about her illness and remained friends with her parents after she died in April 2014. Holsworth had cheered on the Michigan State basketball team and had a close friendship with star Adreian Payne.

Last weekend, her parents visited Sager in his Houston hospital room. They left him with a more tangible reminder of her bravery.

“They brought me little Lacey’s boots that she used to always wear to games and a picture of her wearing them,” said Sager, clutching the high-top cheetah footwear with laces made from silk ribbons. “That little girl was so amazing. Fought for all of those years, was always positive, always cheerful, always brought other people’s spirits up. So if I’m laying here feeling bad, I just think about Lacey and it puts everything in perspective.”

Sager’s also bolstered by his drive to be back on the sideline for the NBA season. He doesn’t expect to have recovered from the transplant in time for the season-opener on Oct. 25, but aims to return by early November for more of gentle sparring with the likes of San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich .

It would be a victory not just for him, but for all the people his fight has inspired.

“It means that you’re surviving and you’re winning,” he said. “That you’re knocking down obstacles and clearing hurdles that are put in front of you and you’re doing them with flying colors.”

On Wednesday, five colorful balloons were tied to one side of his hospital bed. Several had birthday greetings and two said: “Happy birthday, it’s your big day.”

Festive, yes. But Sager was born in June.

“When you get stem cells they say it’s your new birthday,” Stacy explained. “So this is his fourth birthday.”

Sager tried to downplay the pageantry surrounding the event, saying it wasn’t “a big deal.”

That earned a sweet, yet stern, admonishment from his beloved wife.

“It is a big deal,” she said. “It’s giving you life.”

Report: Paul George reached out to Damian Lillard to clear the air

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NBA players talk a lot of smack. The Clippers’ Patrick Beverley is a constant stream of it.

Both Beverley and Paul George got into it with Damian Lillard in the Clippers recent win over the Trail Blazers (when Lillard missed some clutch free throws). That spilled over to Instagram after the game when Lillard called out George for switching teams so often.

However, it got nasty when family and friends got involved. George’s girlfriend Daniela Rajic and Lillard’s sister, La’nae, went at each other on social media — La’nae Lillard called Rajic a stripper, Rajic called La’Nae a cow.

All that prompted George to call Lillard and clear the air, Chris Haynes of TNT said during the Blazers broadcast Tuesday.

Lillard and George have a history that goes back to last playoffs and what Lillard did to that Thunder. That beef is still around.

Players are generally pretty good about leaving the game on the court, and while it spills over to social media now and again it’s just an extension of the game. Family members tend to throw gas on those fires. That happened here.

Lillard used all that fuel — he has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) since that Clippers’ game. In doing so, he pushed Portland to two wins and the eighth seed in the West.

Three Things to Know: What you need to know about race for West play-in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What you need to know about race for West play-in

Four teams were alive in the chase for the final playoff spot in the West when they got out of bed Tuesday morning — Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, and San Antonio — and four were still alive when they went to bed Tuesday night.

But things looked very different by the end of the day. Portland — by virtue of a 61-point game by Damian Lillard, and helped by a Memphis loss — was the eighth seed and the team everyone else was chasing. The eighth seed has a huge advantage in the play-in series that is coming (it only has to win one of two games, the nine seed must sweep them both), and Portland had taken that away from Memphis. Still, nothing was secure yet.

Here are the play-in scenarios for each team (all four teams play Thursday).

Portland: Beat Brooklyn and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. They control their own fate. If the Trail Blazers lose they only keep the eighth seed if everyone else loses. If Portland loses but two of the other three teams also lose, then the Blazers are the nine seed.

Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — who likely will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis regains the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose, they need both the Suns and Spurs to stay in the playoffs.

Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks to go 8-0 in the bubble, or they are out. And even going 8-0 may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eight, just one and they finish ninth).

San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and they are out. Even with a win San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is a longshot).

2) Damian Lillard ties career-high 61 to will Portland to critical win

Paul George and Patrick Beverley talked smack from the bench, and it made Damian Lillard mad. You wouldn’t like Lillard when he’s mad…

If you’re an opponent. For the rest of us, it’s pure basketball joy. In the two games since the Clippers ran their mouths in a win, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) and willing Portland to two wins and the eighth seed. On Tuesday, Lillard dropped 61 on Dallas.

You had better respect his f****** name and his game.

3) Devin Booker should be the bubble MVP, drops 35 to keep bubble Suns perfect

The NBA is giving out awards for the bubble — an NBA Player of the Seeding Games and NBA All-Seeding Games Team — and Devin Booker is going to pick up some hardware. Or should, at least.

The Suns remained perfect at 7-0 in the bubble on Tuesday beating what’s left of Philadelphia 130-117 behind 35 from Booker.

Booker has craved respect he feels he hasn’t gotten up to this point, mostly because the Suns’ teams he has been on are terrible (and the defensive issues of those teams fall partly on him, although there is much more at play as well). In the bubble, he has earned that respect.

Respect alone won’t get the Suns into the play-in series, another win won’t even do that (as noted above, the Suns still need help even with a win). But the respect is there, and that is something.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.