The statement Craig Sager released on Friday was characteristically poetic and flashy. He announced that he'd been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia with typical panache. Three horrible, terrifying words wrapped in silk and sequins, the Sager way. His announcement was too long for a standard tweet, but pithy and succinct nonetheless.
Statement on behalf of Turner Sports Reporter Craig Sager: "My favorite time of year – city to city, round (cont) http://t.co/CYLthFfsu9— TurnerSportsPR (@TurnerSportsPR) April 18, 2014
Craig Sager announced to the world that he may never again prowl the sidelines of a basketball game, but he did it with such ease that it would've been easy to miss the pain behind his words. I don't know the man but I imagine that's exactly the way he wants it. The affable professional wants us to feel comfortable with his struggle.
His statement was also notable for the one person he included. He said it was too bad because he had some probing questions for Pop.
Currently there are 16 coaches leading their team in the NBA Playoffs, but Sager singled out Gregg Popovich in his press release. Sure, it's a nod to the sideshow that has become the much anticipated Popovich in-game interview, where he famously says nothing at all. And it's a nod to the back and forth that has become a fixture between the two men through the years. But it's also an acknowledgement that everything you've seen take place between these two men has been an act; something out of sync with the true character of the men taking turns speaking into the microphone between quarters.
Because they have a job to do. Sager is assigned to report on the game and entertain while Popovich is there to coach his team. It has become America's favorite past time to watch the train wreck that is the interview between the two. But it's not real.
Those of us that get an up-close chance to observe Coach Popovich regularly would say that his actions during Game 1 of the Western Conference Playoffs on Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks were of no surprise, but to the rest of the country it must have been quite a shock. Here was the man, famous for his snarl and six second press conferences, smiling at Craig Sager Jr. before looking into the camera to deliver a heartfelt and emotional message to the young man's father.
The cold blooded, ruthless leader of this calculating, metallic, lifeless machine that is the Spurs gave you a peak on Sunday into his secret for sustained success. Put simply, the key is to be your true self when it matters, not when it's just for show.
The game was tied and the Spurs were fighting for their life in Game 1 against the Mavericks, but Gregg Popovich wanted to do this interview. TNT originally scheduled the conversation between Pop and Craig Sager Jr. before the game, but Pop insisted they do it at as normal, after the end of the 3rd quarter. In the heat of battle Pop wanted to speak to young Craig and deliver his seemingly nervous, almost awkward, yet terrifically perfect message to Craig Sager Jr. and his father watching at home.
His halting delivery spoke volumes and shed light on the side of Gregg Popovich that most don't often see.
A few months ago the 76ers were in town and Popovich was asked how Brett Brown would approach his role in Philly. He said, "he's gonna work 'em to death and then he's gonna love 'em to death." That quote always stuck with me because that's exactly how Popovich operates. The only catch is that it's a lot easier to see the work than it is to glimpse hard evidence of the love.
But believe me, it's there.
Just prior to the 2013 Playoffs, Pop famously cut Stephen Jackson. The fallout wasn't pretty, but it passed quickly. Why? Because Popovich and Jackson were neighbors, and they still are.
When Avery Johnson comes to town, he clears his calendar for Pop and the Spurs. The family meets for dinner after the game, and Johnson spends the evening at casa Popovich.
Sean Elliott is a famous former player and now does color commentary for the Spurs on Fox. He always refers to the Spurs as we and us, often drawing the ire of those who love to point out examples of homerism. But they miss the underlying theme: Elliott's words express how he still feels a part of the family. A family defined and perpetuated by the organization that's an expression of Popovich himself.
Pop's treatment of Craig Sager is a shining example of his philosophy and the regard he has for a select group of professionals he interacts with in his job of coaching an NBA team: He'll work you to death but he's gonna love you to death.
And Craig Sager is undoubtedly part of the Popovich family.
While watching Craig Sager Jr. on Sunday I saw the greatness of his father. The young man was poised and professional. It's a testament to his parents that he could step into that situation and perform so flawlessly. Interviewing Gregg Popovich on National TV isn't on the level of performing brain surgery for the first time, but he displayed a steady hand nonetheless.
And as an aspiring reporter, I draw strength and wisdom from men like Craig Sager. His suits are famously spectacular, but I've watched from up close as he stalks the sidelines during NBA and NCAA basketball games, searching for the story. That's what impresses me most about him. He always gets the story.
So here's to you Craig Sager. I'm praying that you recover quickly and take your place courtside again soon.