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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.”

No positive COVID-19 tests from 343 players in NBA bubble last week

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As has happened the past few weeks, Wednesday the NBA and NBPA announced that there were no positive tests among the 343 players tested for COVID-19 in the past week at the league’s restart campus in Orlando.

The NBA has had no positive tests from players inside the bubble.

The NBA’s plan for a restart began with testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again. The goal was to keep the virus outside of the bubble.

That has worked through one week of games.

The league did send a memo to teams reminding them players and staff need to wear a mask while on the NBA campus (when they were not practicing or playing games). The goal is to contain any outbreak, should the virus get into the bubble. That outbreak has yet to happen.

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining on the NBA campus, family members will arrive next month, and there are still other ways the virus could penetrate the bubble. The league isn’t celebrating victory yet.

But so far, so good.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto looks like best team in bubble so far

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Things in the bubble are getting interesting — young teams are taking it seriously, while some playoff-bound teams see it more as an extended exhibition season. That is leading to upsets and movement in our power rankings.

EDITORS NOTE: We are not including the eight teams not invited to the restart in the rankings the rest of this season.

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (51-15, 2-1 in bubble, Last week No. 2). Of course, LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart — 19.3 points and seven assists a game — but Anthony Davis has been the early bubble MVP. He was a beast and feasted against Utah Monday, scoring 42 points with 16 rebounds despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night. Davis led the Lakers to the win sealed them as the No. 1 seed in the West.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (48-18, 2-0, LW 4). The win over the Lakers was a reminder — Toronto is a contender (but I still have to rank the top-seeded Lakers higher, I’d take them in a series). The Raptors have been the best defensive team in the bubble with sharp rotations and smart schemes (just ask LeBron and AD). On the other end of the court they can get scoring from a variety of players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (he dropped 36 on the Heat), among others. Do not sleep on the Raptors. Possible second-round preview against the Celtics on Friday.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (54-14, 1-3 in bubble, LW 1). The Bucks are treating the bubble games like the preseason, a slow warmup to when things matter. It hasn’t been all bad, Gianni Antetokounmpo has looked every bit the MVP when called upon, and the Bucks’ defense is locked in — they held James Harden to 5-of-14 shooting and 24 points, while the Rockets as a team shot 39.6%. But Mike Budenholzer sat Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton for the second half against the Nets (a loss), and they aren’t taking the won/loss record seriously. They are easing into the games that matter, something their record over the first 65 allows them to do.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (45-22, 1-2, LW 3). Both of the Clippers’ losses in the bubble have been close ones (Lakers opening night, the Suns on Devin Booker’s game-winner), and they have been shorthanded without Montrezl Harrell (they just got Lou Williams back on Tuesday). Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have played well, and the L.A. defense has been strong, but these Clippers feel like the ones we watched for most of the season, just waiting for them to get healthy and find some chemistry together. We’re still waiting for the switch to flip with this team.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (42-25, 2-1, LW 6). Milwaukee’s defensive strategy is “protect the paint at all costs, we’ll give up some threes” played into Houston’s hands and the Rockets launched 61 from beyond the arc. However, it was a stretch of good defense in crunch time of that game that turned heads — the Rockets have not been a great defensive team in the bubble (18th in net rating), but they’ve been good enough when it mattered. Danuel House and Ben McLemore have stepped up with Eric Gordon still out.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (41-25, 1-1, LW 7). OKC has played good defense in the bubble, and having Andre Roberson back in the rotation certainly helps with that (and is just a good story after he missed 900+ days due to injury). Despite the OT loss to Denver, the Thunder remain one of the best clutch teams in the league, which makes them a very dangerous first-round playoff opponent. Dennis Schroder is out of the bubble for the birth of his child but is expected to return.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (43-25, 2-1, LW 8). Knocking off Boston while Jimmy Butler had the day off was a message game — Miami is going to be a very tough out come the playoffs. The Heat have been a top-10 offense and defense so far in the bubble (small sample size, but a good sign). Bam Adebayo has more than just the best name in the league, he has become a real problem for opponents, dropping 22 on Denver and then having 21 points and 12 boards against Boston. He’s playing at an All-NBA level.

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (44-23, 1-2, LW 5). Despite a very off night from Jayson Tatum against the Bucks (he bounced back with 34 against Portland) and a minutes limit on Kemba Walker, the Boston offense has been good inside the bubble. The Celtics are 2-1 because they can’t get stops — a 117.9 defensive rating through three games. If the Celtics want to make noise in the playoffs, that is the side of the ball Brad Stevens and crew need to turn around.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-26, 3-0 LW 15). T.J. Warren is your didn’t-see-that-coming MVP of the bubble so far, scoring 119 points through three games and lifting the Pacers to that undefeated record in Orlando. Pair him with Victor Oladipo (who is playing… and collecting those checks) and Malcolm Brogdon and the Pacers have a formidable offense. Indy seems locked into the five seed and a likely first-round matchup with Miami. How will the Heat slow down Warren?

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (44-22, 1-1, LW 9). Denver has not been able to get everyone healthy, in the bubble and on the court together during the restart. Even as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and the rest come back, it will take time to get them into game shape. Fortunately Denver has Bol Bol, who is an impressive playmaker on top of everything else.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (31-38, 2-1, LW 13). Jusuf Nurkic is back and his passing and screen setting has helped spark the Portland offense to be one of the best in the bubble — but he hasn’t helped the Blazer defense much. That’s a concern, but the Blazers are now within 1.5 games of Memphis and thinking about passing them for the eighth seed (and their fans are already jumping the gun, looking ahead to the Lakers). Portland is going to need a lot from Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. to make a run to the postseason.

 
Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (40-27, 1-1, LW 11). Philadelphia’s defense has been terrible through the first two games in the bubble — including giving up 53 points to T.J. Warren — although that has been covered up somewhat by strong play from Joel Embiid and a Shake Milton game-winner against the Spurs. There’s a soft stretch of the schedule ahead where Philadelphia can find its rhythm. It needs to, right now the 76ers aren’t scaring anybody in the first round.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (41-29, 1-2, LW 10). Luka Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to record a 30-20-10 triple-double (besting some guy named Oscar Robertson by a year and a half). Thanks to that the Mavericks finally pulled out a close-game win, having lost their first two bubble games to Houston and Phoenix in close ones. The Mavericks seem on track to get the Clippers in the first round, a tough matchup, but if Denver sneaks up to the two seed the Doncic will make the Mavs an upset favorite.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (42-25, 1-2, LW 12). Utah has struggled to score through the first three games of the restart, and that has been particularly true when their bench units are on the court (this is where not having Bojan Bogdanovic as a secondary playmaker hurts). Jordan Clarkson has put up points off the bench (although consistency is not his middle name), but after that the depth falls off. As it was during the season, Utah’s defense has been good but not great.

 
Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (29-37, 2-1, LW 19). The Spurs four-guard starting lineup — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonnie Walker IV — have the Spurs playing fast and winning games (including beating Memphis is a critical game if San Antonio is going to keep its playoff streak alive). Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are playing well off the bench, and for the first time in a couple of years the Spurs are a very entertaining team to watch.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (32-36, 2-1, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac is just brutal, a cornerstone of this franchise’s rebuild and he is likely out for all of next season as well. Orlando’s offense has been one of the best in the league at the restart (although soft defenses on the schedule helped with that) and it has them up to the seven seed in the East, where they will be able to avoid the Bucks in the first round (not that facing Toronto is much easier).

 
Suns small icon 17. Suns (29-39, 3-0, LW 20). The bubble Suns are undefeated and Devin Booker has the shot of the restart so far with his game-winning turnaround over Paul George to beat the Clippers. The biggest surprise in the bubble: How well Cam Johnson has played. He has taken a leap forward in Orlando (even with the rough game against the Clippers) and it’s a big boost for Phoenix.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (29-38, 1-2, LW 14). After dropping their first two games — and knowing they probably needed to win out to make the postseason — the Pelicans took Zion Williamson out of bubble wrap and found a way to beat the Grizzlies and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Pelicans have been good defensively but struggled on offense in the bubble, Williamson helps the offense but is still a defensive liability, that’s the end of the court he needs to improve upon. New Orleans’ schedule softens up from here.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (32-36, 0-3, LW 17). Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of this season makes the Grizzlies much more vulnerable — they are not going to be able to fill his minutes with play nearly as good. Memphis has had a rough 0-3 start in the bubble, but all three losses are by single digits. They need to find some wins to keep the eighth seed but it won’t be easy with Utah, Oklahoma City, and Toronto the next three on the schedule.

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (32-35, 2-1, LW 21). Caris LeVert has looked good as the focal point of the offense in the bubble — he had 34 points against Washington — although this is not going to be his role next season when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the court. With the win over Washington the Nets are all but a mathematical lock to make the playoffs (likely as the eighth seed).

 
Kings small icon 21. Kings (28-39, 0-3, LW 18). The playoff drought that goes back to 2006 is not ending in the bubble, not after the Kings coughed up all momentum losing their first two games at the restart. Buddy Hield has looked off — out of shape in the eyes of some scouts — and has shot 32.6% overall and 27.6% from three in Orlando. His contract extension kicks in next season.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-43, 0-3, LW 22). The 0-3 Wizards could be on their way to an 0-8 bubble record, but the goal here was to get run for guys like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. Both have played well but struggled once defenses started to focus more on them.

President Donald Trump: “I think it’s disgraceful” NBA players kneel during anthem

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Everyone knew it was coming. As the vast majority of NBA players and coaches have kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and support of the Black Lives Matters movement, there would be politicians/talking heads who saw the opportunity to blast the league and score points with their base. They couldn’t pass it up.

Enter President Donald Trump.

In a phone call into Fox and Friends on Wednesday morning, the president ripped the NBA and its players for taking a knee during the anthem. It came with other over-the-top claims that Trump throws out like bread crumbs to pigeons.

“When I see people kneeling during the playing and disrespecting our flag and national anthem, what I do personally is turn off the game. I think it’s disgraceful. We work with [the NBA], we worked with them very hard trying to get open. I was pushing for them to get open. Then I see everybody kneeling during the anthem. That’s not acceptable to me. When I see them kneeling during the game, I just turn off the game. I have no interest in the game. Let me tell you this, plenty of other people out there, too…

“The ratings for the basketball are way down, as you know. I hear some others are way down, including baseball. We have to stand up for our flag, stand up for our country. A lot of people agree with me. If I’m wrong, I’m going to lose an election. That’s okay with me. I will always stand for our flag.”

Ratings for the NBA games from the restart are way up — TNT drew double its usual regular-season audience for the opening night games, and ratings have been up about 14% across the board for the games from Orlando.

As for the reaction to Trump’s comments around the league?

“I mean, so what? Really, I don’t even care,” was Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers comment. “We know that justice is on our side, right?”

Kneeling for the anthem is just a part of the social justice message from the league. The league has written “Black Lives Matter” on the court, players could choose to wear a number of social justice messages on the nameplate on the back of their jerseys, and players have spoken about causes in countless television and other media interviews.

More than talk, players have put their money behind causes, such as LeBron James pushing to register Black and other people of color to vote, and push back on voter suppression efforts.

Trump wasn’t done being wrong or over the top, mentioning himself in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln.

“Nobody has done better for our Black community than me. Nobody. With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln; it’s true. Criminal justice reform, opportunity zones, best employment numbers in history. Again, nobody has done for the black community – by far. I’ll give the one exception: Abraham Lincoln.”

Everyone around the league expected this at some point. The reaction around the league has been a shrug, knowing the president is playing election-year politics the only way he knows how.

The Pelicans’ J.J. Redick summed up most people’s thoughts a week ago in an interview with Yahoo Sports, reacting to a different Tweet from the president.

“First of all, I don’t think anybody in the NBA cares if President Trump watches basketball. I couldn’t care less. As far as his base, I think regardless of the specificity of tweeting about the NBA, every tweet of his is meant to divide, every tweet is meant to incite, every tweet is meant to embolden his base.”

 

Patrick Beverley injures calf, Clippers say they will be cautious with return

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Injuries and not having their whole team together at once — allowing little chance to build real chemistry — was the story of the pre-hiatus Clippers. Nothing changed once they got inside the bubble.

The latest news: Point guard Patrick Beverley left the Clippers’ loss to the Suns Tuesday with calf tightness and did not return to the game. How serious is it?

“I don’t think it’s bad,” Doc Rivers said to reporters postgame. “We’re going to be very cautious, I can tell you that.”

The Clippers are always cautious with the return of players. Don’t expect to see much of Beverley for a couple of games.

Los Angeles sits as the two seed in the West, one game up on three-seed Denver. However, what really matters in a restart without home-court advantage is both Houston and Utah (the four/five seeds) are three games back. It’s improbable the Clippers give up that much ground in the five remaining seeding games.

Los Angeles now just needs to make sure it’s ready for the playoffs.

The Clippers had six players in-and-out of the bubble during training camp and are just now getting close to whole. Los Angeles did get Lou Williams back from quarantine on Wednesday — he addressed his chicken-wing fueled absence — but remain without Montrezl Harrell, who is grieving the loss of his grandmother.

Now Beverley will miss some time. The Clippers are 1-2 in the bubble, but both losses were tight ones (to the Lakers opening night and on Devin Booker‘s game-winner Tuesday). The Clippers are playing good defense but still look like a team that just needs to get healthy, and develop a little chemistry, before we know just how good they really are. It’s just a question of if and when they get the whole roster together.