Popovic, Sager connection deeper than two questions

It’s well known that San Antonio Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich, dislikes being interviewed by sideline reporters during games. He has been known to be short and uncooperative with his responses, preferring to focus on the game and his team rather than on questions from the media.

If there is one exception for in-game interviews by Popovich, it’s with TNT’s sideline reporter, Craig Sager.

“He’s just been such a genuine person who really does love the NBA and he loves the game. It comes through and you know that.  Even though he does what he does fashion wise, you know, it’s part of the shtick.  But his questions are always sensible, they are answerable and he does it with fun, he does it with humor. I react to that very positively so we have a good time.”

Over the years, Popovich and Sager have come together for some humorous, and sometimes cringe-worthy, sideline interviews. Sager would ask his questions, only to be met by Popovich with a dismissive, three-word answer or a joke about his colorful wardrobe.

“Coach Popovich used to always criticize me,” said Sager on HBO’s Real Sports. “He goes ‘You’re trying to stand out, you’re trying to make a statement’  and I go ‘coach, you don’t understand. If I’m not wearing bright colors and I don’t feel lively, it’s not me.’”

It wasn’t until Sager was diagnosed with Leukimia two years ago that Popovich showed his true colors with a touching tribute to Sager, who had to miss work while undergoing extensive treatment for his cancer, “You did a great job, but I’d rather have your dad standing here,” said Popovich to Craig Sager Jr., who was filling in for his father as sideline reporter on TNT. “Craig (Sager Sr.), we miss you. You’ve been an important part of all of this for a long time, doing a great job. We want your fanny back on the court and I promise I’ll be nice.”

After being diagnosed with Leukimia the first time, Sager was told he’d have three to six months to live. His blood cell count was so low that he had to undergo six blood transfusions. Then he was told he needed a perfect bone marrow match, which is extremely rare, as even family members have only a two percent chance of being a perfect match, according to Real Sports.

The same person that filled in for Sager during his broadcast would end up helping again in much more significant way, as it was discovered his son, Craig Sager Jr., was the perfect match they were searching for.

After a successful bone marrow transplant, Sager underwent months of chemotherapy, losing around 60 pounds along the way. One year after his initial diagnosis, Sager was told his cancer was in remission.

He returned to his duty as TNT’s sideline reporter in March 2015 for one game before being told his cancer had returned. This time the doctors told him he had only two weeks to live.

His only option was to undergo chemotherapy for 14 days straight, 24 hours a day. An unheard of and dangerous procedure, Sager somehow survived the two weeks of non-stop chemo and was healthy enough to receive another bone marrow transplant from his son.

After another successful transplant, Sager had beaten Leukemia twice in two years.

He returned to his job this in December 2015 and was met by an old friend for his first interview back, “This is the first time I’ve enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview we’re required to do and that’s because you’re here and you’re back with us.  Welcome back, baby,“ said Popovich before leaning in for a hug.” Now, ask me some inane questions.”

The reunion of Popovich and Sager gained national attention, showing Sager has more than just a colorful punch line and Popovich as more than a salty, old coach. A commemorative pin was made to honor that moment, with all proceeds of the sales going to cancer research.

Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived.  This past February, Sager was told his cancer was no longer in remission.

“I’ve already had two stem cell transplants, very rarely does someone have a third,” said Sager on HBO’s Real Sports. “I asked ‘what are my chances? How long do I have to live? Is there a cure?’ They talked in terms and said everybody’s totally different. And I go ‘I know, what are the chances?’  ‘Well, normally, you’ve got three to six months to live, but somebody may only have a week, somebody could be five years. You could be the first one to five years.’ I go, ‘well, whatever it takes, let’s do it. Because I’m not going to be that three to six months, I’m going to be five years and I’m going to make medical history.’”

If there is one thing we have learned about Sager is that he can overcome the odds.  He continues to work, wearing his signature bright colored suits and a smile on his face. With the help of his wife, Stacy, his five kids and a relentlessly positive attitude, Sager has beaten Leukimia twice. Here’s hoping for a third.

Real Sports Popovich Interview

Popovich/Sager Preseason ’13 Interview

Popovich/Sager April ’14 Interview

Popovich/Sager March ’14 Interview

Popovich/Sager Jr. Interview

Popovich/Sager Reunion Interview

About Keff Ciardello

Keff Ciardello has been an editor and writer for Project Spurs since February 2015. He has written for many publications, covering high school football for the San Antonio Express-News, the Austin American-Statesman and the Hays Free Press, while covering Texas State sports and recruiting for the Rivals.com, Scout.com and now for BobcatsInsider.com. He graduated from Texas State with a degree in Mass Communication in 2012.