When Craig Sager finally succumbed to the cancer he’d been fighting again in recent months, the sports world lost a beloved sideline icon.
As tributes poured in from around the sports and entertainment community, words and phrases being chosen were of the sort that made a person want to really know him: “zest for life and passion and joy”; “very unique, very special”; “all heart”; “irrepressible good nature”; “genuine person”; “one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met”; “sheer buoyancy”; “a true original”.
While sitting on the couch with my 16-year-old son and listening to tributes on the night of Sager’s death, he asked what I considered an obvious but perhaps overlooked question.
“So what made him so special that everyone is reacting like this?”
Certainly a question worth trying to answer.
What Made Him Special?
Everybody dies. The year 2016 saw the passing of many celebrities whose lives became part of ours as a function of the ubiquitous nature of the entertainment industry.
But everyone’s passing—whether a celebrity or not—is grieved differently. Not everyone is missed to the same degree. Not everyone leaves with honor in their wake or with the level of heart and soul tributes coming toward Sager at his passing.
So what is the difference? What is the difference between a death that deeply affects people such that they are searching for words to describe both the life and the loss versus a death that leaves relatively little behind?
What kind of life not only receives overflowing honor at its end, but also calls forth genuine appreciation and grief while causing people to seriously reflect on their own path?
What can we learn from the kinds of words being spoken about Craig Sager to consider for our own lives today?
The Value of a Good Name
“Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.” Proverbs 22:1
This has nothing to do with whether your given name made a Top 100 list for popular name choices in a particular year. Nor are we after the kind of superficial reputation that comes with being a popular celebrity for any number of inane reasons.
A good name of the sort Proverbs endorses has to do with integrity, living a life with a measure of weight to it because it’s characterized by the right things. A “good” name has nothing to do with popularity, but rather what your name implies when people speak or hear it. It’s not the pursuit of a perfect life; instead, a life flavored by traits that leave a good mark on other souls caught up in its wake.
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Sager left a good name behind, and based on the testimony of those who knew him, here are five reasons why:
He loved people
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who worked as an analyst alongside Sager at TNT, emphasized one word in his pregame tribute with the crowd at Oracle Arena. Kerr noted that “He loved his friends, he loved his family, he loved Bud Light, he loved golf, he loved atmospheres like tonight where he came and worked an incredible sporting event, he loved the Cubs—he loved people more than anything.”
When “love” for others becomes a chief characteristic by which you are described, you’ve acquired the cornerstone of having a good name. As NBA legend James Worthy Tweeted, Sager was a “Colorful dresser, spot on with his sideline reporting, but more importantly Craig Sager cared about people.”
Eccentricities and a great work ethic—characteristics shared by plenty of people—only become endearing in the context of the third element of love for people.
He didn’t take himself too seriously
Sager became known throughout the years as much for his outlandish wardrobe choices as for his approach to his job. In a high powered profession constantly tempted by the vices associated with ego, Sager became everyone’s crazily dressed but incredibly likeable uncle.
He took his job seriously, but apparently not his own ego.
Gregg Popovich describes his own willingness to engage Sager in interviews that he normally resists, saying “his questions are always sensible, they’re answerable and he does it with fun, he does it with humor. And so I react to that very positively…”
Sager could have fun because he wasn’t consumed—at least not anymore—with trying to embellish people’s perception of him. He came across as hardly concerned about what anyone thought about him at all, the essence of humility.
He pursued excellence in his vocation
Coaches, players, co-workers, and other peers held Sager in high regard for how he handled his craft. As Bob Costas recalled, Sager “turned the role of a sideline reporter into something distinctive,” without having to become the center of the show himself.
Popovich, who usually has little patience for the interference of sideline reporting, appreciated Sager’s work ethic and approach to the job.
“To talk about him being a professional or good at what he did is a tremendous understatement. All of us who knew him understood that fact, what he was all about as far as work was concerned, but he was a way better person than he was a worker, even though he was amazing in that regard. He loved people, he enjoyed pregame, during games, post-game — he loved all the people around it, and everybody felt that.”
He loved his job of reporting games and committed himself not only to giving his best each night out, but also to figuring out what it meant to do it better.
He continued to grow
Whether Sager grew in his personal life is not a public matter. However, that he continued to work at his vocation is evident.
He didn’t just settle for what took place on the sideline but looked for stories all around the game. He continued to work on shaping mundane questions in ways that would seem strangely fresh. He transformed the work of sideline reporting into a work of art.
Kevin Garnett acknowledged as much when he said that Sager was “The epitome of broadcasting, of sideline reporting. When you make something innovative in a way that you start to put your own swag onto it and make it to where people talk about it and they make it an issue and you start to stand out and carve your own niche into something, that’s what Craig was. He was his own thing. He was his own flair.”
But he also grew in the way he handled suffering and loss.
He fought through suffering with courage
Again, Popovich admired him not just for the job he did, but for the way he worked through his own suffering.
"The most amazing part of him is his courage. What he's endured, and the fight that he's put up, the courage that he's displayed during this situation is beyond my comprehension. And if any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every(day) as if it's his last, we'd be well off. We all miss him very much."
When Sager received the “Jimmy V Perseverance Award,” he gave one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the award, noting how grateful he was not simply for the acknowledgment, but for life itself in the midst of pain.
"Whatever I might've imagined a terminal illness would do to my spirit, it's summoned quite the opposite. The greatest appreciation for life itself....I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the marrow out of life, as life sucks the marrow out of me. I will live my life full of love and full of fun. It's the only way I know how."
To live “full of love and full of fun” in the face of suffering testifies to a strength of spirit. Such courage on display merited his closest friends “appreciation for the pleasure of his company” and for “a great man and a life well lived.”
As a man who made his living using words, Sager would perhaps affirm these lines from Othello, whose central character Iago agreed with Proverbs in valuing a good name.
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”