Last December, I wrote about the passing of long-time sports commentator Craig Sager. I grew up watching him on TV, and I always enjoyed both his pointed questions and his fancy, often colorful, wardrobe choices. He lovingly brought fun and wit to an otherwise monotonous profession. Sager was synonymous with The NBA on TNT, so when I found out that he had lost his battle with leukemia (if you can call surviving three bone marrow transplants, working in-between treatments and remaining positive to the very end “losing”), it felt like I had lost a friend.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read his book, Living Out Loud: Sports, Cancer, and the Things Worth Fighting For, co-authored by his son, Craig Jr., along with Brian Curtis. Written during the final months of Sager’s life, it was part autobiography, part memoir. In addition, there were chapters written by Craig Jr. which provided additional context and a poignant second perspective into the events surrounding his dad’s battle.
I am not someone who likes to write book reviews – I’m not a literary critic, and I’m still scarred by writing book reports in grade school that received less than stellar grades (see: The Chocolate War). But, sometimes, every once in a while, you come across a book that you just want to tell the world about. Living Out Loud is one of those books.
The book provides firsthand insight into a colorful life. Growing up in Batavia, Illinois, Sager was a kid who grew up in an All-American home in an All-American town right outside of Chicago. He loved sports, especially the Chicago Cubs. He loved them so much, in fact, that he chose one day to see the field up close and personal. Only problem? It was during a game. The police were not amused.
The book is full of fun anecdotes like that – anecdotes that could only happen in Craig Sager’s life. Although he was a fun-loving prankster, he was also quite accomplished. Not only was he was a star on his high school basketball team, he very nearly went to West Point. In the end, he opted to go to Northwestern University (not a bad alternative), where, after not being able to continue his basketball career past the freshman team, he maintained his involvement in sports by becoming the football team mascot instead.
After college, he moved to Florida and broke into radio. Shortly thereafter, the quintessential Sager moment happened, which is vividly described in the book.
On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. As it was the 70s, they were a lot more lax about people running onto the field from the stands during that time, so is it any shock that, in the ensuing chaos and euphoria, Craig Sager bolted out of the stands towards home plate? At least this time it was to conduct an interview.
If you see the video, you’ll see a bunch of Aaron’s Braves teammates, his mom, and – oh look! – it’s Craig Sager in a white trench coat. Instead of getting tackled by security or suspicious teammates questioning his intent, Sager was somehow able to get a quote from both Aaron and his mother. Because, of course.
The irony is, although Sager is so well-known and respected now, at the time he was completely anonymous. He was just a radio guy from Sarasota, Florida who wasn’t even supposed to be at the game and who wasn’t issued a press credential. What it shows is that with hard work, dedication, and a refusal to take no for an answer, you can make your own luck.
What this moment also shows is that, although he was unconventional and willing to push the boundaries from time to time, there was no denying his ambition and work ethic. As a result, he quickly moved his way up from radio to TV, eventually joining a fledging network just trying to keep its head above water. That network was CNN.
The rest, as they say, is history. Knowing how his career has unfolded since that fateful night in Atlanta – 30+ years of reporting on sporting events all over the world – it is clear that Sager was a cut above. He was always a little quirky, but also not afraid to take risks and fall on his face. The book is candid about his many failures, but he always learned from his mistakes.
After surveying his early life, career ascension and wonderful family, the book takes the inevitable turn towards his cancer battle. I selfishly wanted to keep hearing stories from his early career, but knew the book would eventually get to the topic.
Reading about how he first started feeling sick and his subsequent diagnostic odyssey, I realized just how little I knew about what he went through during that time. All I remember is one day I learned Craig Sager had leukemia, and how it was a huge bummer. But I never stopped to consider all that went into the announcement, which the book chronicles in great detail – the flu-like symptoms that caught him off guard, the many tests and doctors, being forced to miss the work he loved, and the ultimate bombshell that he only had a few months to live.
It was hard to read this part of the book, knowing his ultimate fate. As sad as it is that he passed, the reader gains an appreciation for what he had to endure, and how he was able to do it while remaining upbeat, even in the face of complete exhaustion. He had not one, not two, but three bone marrow transplants, which is virtually unheard of. (The mechanics of how they extract bone marrow, by the way, was quite eye-opening, and also stomach-churning. I could never be a doctor. Everything would make me sick.)
Interspersed throughout the book are occasional chapters written by his son, Craig Jr. bringing an additional, often heartbreaking, perspective to his dad’s battle. “Junior” as he’s affectionately called, is, like his dad, a raging sports fan and a budding journalist. His chapters are extremely well-written, and show that exceptional communication skills run in the family. In these chapters, he provides insight into his emotions and fears watching his dad grow sicker, and how he stepped up to the plate – not once, but twice – to be a bone marrow donor.
Towards the end of the book, Craig Sr. is as optimistic as ever. He knows the odds are stacked against him, and his test results are becoming increasingly worrisome. The elephant in the room, of course, is that a month after the book was published – November 8, 2016 – he passed away. It’s tough to read the book with that knowledge, but again, did he really lose his battle? Does anyone who faces such a formidable disease with such courage every truly lose?
One of the inescapable truths of life is that we only have a finite amount of time to live. In fact, the best person to speak on the topic of appreciating time is Craig Sager himself. In a stirring acceptance speech after receiving the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs, Sager talks about time, and how precious and finite it is. The book ends with Sager describing this night, how it came about, and how he prepared for the speech. In those few moments up on the stage, he became immortal, like Jim Valvano two decades prior.
Even with the knowledge of his passing, it was impossible to read this book and feel depressed. That is a great testament to Sager’s personality and love for life – even under seemingly impossible circumstances, he still managed to write with an upbeat personality, always looking forward to the next adventure. He was not naive – he knew what he was up against, but he knew no other way than to be positive.
His attitude and example will stay with me for the rest of my life. I often talk about the role models who have helped me – and continue to help me – on my own disease journey. Craig Sager is right up there with Carly Hughes, Sam Berns, Pete Frates, and others. Their examples are a perpetual source of inspiration.
The calendar will say that he lived for 65 years, but there’s no doubt that with a life as unique and well-lived as Craig Sager’s, he will always live on in the lives of his family, his friends, and his adoring fans.
And his suits! Those will live on as well, although some of them in infamy.