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NBA Q&A: TNT reporter Craig Sager on fighting leukemia, Gregg Popovich and retirement

SAN ANTONIO – TNT’s Craig Sager is one of the most well-respected sideline reporters in sports. Known for his colorful suits and ties, Sager, 64, has also been lauded for his public battle with leukemia over the last two years.

He was first diagnosed with the disease in April of 2014 and it returned in March 2015, forcing Sager to miss the rest of the season. Sager returned to the sidelines this season, but in March, Sager was informed by doctors that his leukemia was no longer in remission. He's currently undergoing clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

He’s still fighting, covering Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals in San Antonio.

The Oklahoman: What did you think of the way the Spurs dominated Game 1?

Sager: “I don’t care who you’re rooting for. If you know the game of basketball, watching that first half was a joy. A pleasure. It was like ‘Wow. This is the way the game’s supposed to be played.’ Now, second half the game’s over and it’s kinda boring because you knew what the outcome was, but it’s just beautiful to watch.”

When you first started interviewing Gregg Popovich during games, it seemed awkward from a viewer’s perspective. Over time, do you think you and Popovich have developed a better relationship?

“People always come up to me and say ‘God, that Popovich is a jerk.’ And I say ‘no he’s not.’ If I was him I wouldn’t want me coming into the middle of a huddle in a playoff game in the middle of the third and fourth quarter. You’re trying to make adjustments, you’re trying to win games, you’re trying to tell your assistant coaches what rotations to have and who’s gonna come in and do what. You’ve gotta stop and talk some reporter on the sideline? So I understand, but those are the (NBA) rules. As long as those are the rules, I’m going to keep approaching him at the end of the third quarter at home."

What do you think Popovich thinks of you?

“I always viewed myself as a nuisance in his mind. I thought ‘Oh God. Here comes Sager. I’ve gotta talk to him,’ but I think over the years he kinda understood me more. I think I earned his respect. Then, talking to him off camera he was always great. I think he has fun now with these interviews.”

You’re required to talk to the coach at times during the game, but is there a time that’s off limits?

“Last night (Game 1) … we have a 20-point rule. If a team is up or down by 20 points, you don’t interview the coach because it’s like the coach ahead is gloating and the coach behind is rubbing it in. But last night it was close to 40 and they (Turner Sports) said ‘you can do the interview with Pop.’ I go ‘What?’ They said ‘yeah the NBA approved it because you guys get along so good. Just don’t ask him specifics about the game.’ I go ‘what do you mean don’t ask him about the game?’ They told me (the NBA) doesn’t want that. I say  ‘if I make it light-hearted he’s gonna be p***** as hell at me, because I don’t joke with him. I let him do what he wants. I don’t fire back.

“So I just asked him about the focus of the team. We aired it, but that’s how far it’s come. It’s come to from the point where you dread to hear what he’s gonna say to me to the point where it’s Can’t Miss TV. We even try to get extra opportunities to do it.”

When the league first started doing in-game interviews, were you apprehensive about doing it?

“No. I always used to stick my head in huddles and try to hear what’s going on. I always had players at the end of the bench I’d talk to. Not that they were snitches but there were always certain players that will tell you stuff. The guy with the Bulls in the glory years was Larry Krystkowiak. I’d go to Larry, he’d be outside the huddle and we’d all talk … he can’t get in there with Phil Jackson or Michael (Jordan), and every once in a while he’d give me some stuff.

“I’m all set up for this playoff game. I had Larry there so he’d give me some information about what they’re doing. Sitting on the bench as a 12th man, Krystokowiak got thrown out like three minutes in, and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ He was yelling at the ref for something on the bench. Everybody else was like it wasn’t a big deal he wasn’t going to play anyway, but to me that was my source! He’s gone! What am I gonna do now?"

What did you do?

“Went to Plan B, whatever that was. It’s great. It doesn’t always work and they don’t always tell you something, but if you listen to the broadcast they may have some questions and I play off of what they’re saying on the broadcast. I’d probably ask the coach something that’s pertinent to the game. I like  it. I enjoy it. I never go in with preconceived questions. I always let the game dictate what I ask.”

Do you feel like remaining around the game has helped you with your illness?

“Oh jeez, there’s no doubt. It’s so therapeutic. If I didn’t have to get up this morning and get ready to go to practice, I’d be laying around in bed  … not feeling sorry for yourself because I’ve never felt sorry for myself … but just moping around … My platelets in the first round dropped down to like four. Yours are like 140, 150. Anything under 10 is critical. I was running really low between Cleveland and Detroit. I went to the Detroit team doctors when I landed. The night before the game I was in Sinai Hospital in Detroit spending the night. They’re saying ‘you shouldn’t even be out. You should not be walking around. You can get cut by a paper clip and you can bleed to death.’ And I just said ‘listen, I’ve been through this for two years. Call my doctors at M.D. Anderson and they’ll tell you I’m OK. Let me go. Give me some blood, give me some stuff and I’ll be alright.’”

Have you given any thought to when you want to finish?

“Finish what?”

Your career.

“No! My God … retirement has never been any idea. My father was a very successful businessman at an advertising agency. He retired and went downhill. You see them retire they lose their focus, they lose their minds, they don’t think as much, they’re not as busy. I play golf now, so I don’t have to wait until I retire to play golf. I’ve always felt that I’ll work forever.”

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Erik Horne

Erik Horne is in his fourth season on the Thunder beat. Horne joined The Oklahoman as a sports web editor/producer in September 2013 following a five-year stint at The Ardmoreite (Ardmore) – first as a sports writer, then sports editor. At The... Read more ›

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