I remember leading up to the passing of Flip Saunders a little over a year ago, I would occasionally get texts from people saying they had heard things weren’t going great for the Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach. Maybe he didn’t have much time remaining. And yet, you always held out hope that it was just negative information being passed on, potentially bracing you for the worst-case scenario and making the comeback from cancer and treatment all that much better to rejoice.
The day he passed away, I was on shift for aggregating news for CBS Sports. We found out Flip was no longer with us and I was asked to record a quick video to put at the top of our newser about his passing. I couldn’t get through it without breaking down a bit. At the end of the video, I said goodbye to Flip and wished his family well in their time of mourning. Anybody else on our staff would’ve done a much better job with the video than what I was able to get out that day. Not to say they wouldn’t have been emotional about it, but I was definitely more emotionally invested in Flip as a person and a leader of the franchise I’ve followed since I was six years old.
That made it hard to say goodbye to someone I loosely knew and had talked to only a few times. But there was something about Flip that made you feel like you were a long time friend whenever you were asking him about basketball. He lit up rooms and arenas when he spoke. He reveled in talking about basketball in past, present, and future forms. Watching him massage the current state of a rebuilding Wolves team while beaming about the future wasn’t just good salesmanship, but it was real enthusiasm about the job ahead of him. He made you feel familiar with talking to a stranger. He made you want to talk things out with him and learn about everything he experienced in his rich and giving life.
It was his personality that made the passing of a stranger so difficult. It’s not just the basic human decency of realizing the empathy involved in a family losing a father or a husband or a grandfather; he made you want to know him on a deeper level because it just seemed like a fun way to go through life. You didn’t just feel like a family had lost someone special because you knew that the world had lost someone worth knowing and experiencing. It’s the same feeling most of us got from Craig Sager.
I’m not sure if Sager had the best life anyone has ever had, but you felt like nobody enjoyed or appreciated their life more than him. Maybe as much as he did but definitely not more. He was going to be tied for first in that statistical category. While he dazzled/baffled us with his eccentric and electric wardrobe, he made the impossible job of sideline reporting a joy to experience. It wasn’t just seeing the suits or the playful interactions with Gregg Popovich. Sager just knew how to draw you into those two questions and he often seemed to get great interactions with the coaches.
The real experience came after games when he’d interview a player on the court or ask questions in the locker room. He knew how to banter with the players and get them to open up. He connected with every media member he came across. He earned the respect of every coach in the NBA in an instant because they knew they could trust that he would do his job correctly, and in turn it often got them to give a little more than they would with most other sideline reporters.
Sideline reporting can be a frivolous experience. There are plenty of people doing the job who are unable to connect with the audience to add to the broadcast. But Sager set the standard for how it should be done, and his excellence at his profession ended up driving those who truly thrive at it to want to reach his level. His personality shone through television sets and his enthusiasm for life was far louder than his wardrobe ever could be. His playful and yet respectful approach to life was as inspiring as anybody’s could be.
I never had the honor of meeting Craig Sager. I passed him in the tunnels a couple times over the years and he was always engaged in a lively conversation with someone — be it a player, coach, media member, or official of some capacity. Laughter echoed through the hallways between him and the other person/people he was talking to. It felt wrong to interrupt those interactions just to introduce myself and I always felt like some day I’ll catch him alone in an arena and get a chance to express my gratitude for his impact on the sport I love more than just about anything.
Watching him explain his wardrobe in profiles. Watching him trade playful barbs with players, coaches, and analysts about his suits and color wheels. Watching his smile light up a broadcast. Listening to the joy and appreciation in his voice for the life he’s been able to live as one of the greatest contributors to the joy of basketball. It’s all stuff you lived in the moment and took for granted at the same time.
His positive attitude toward a seemingly impossible fight for his health and life made you believe he’d win. In a similar way it just seemed impossible for Flip to lose his battle, Sager was too much of a winner to go down without a great fight. That’s the inspiration and joy that overwhelmed tough odds and made you believe #SagerStrong was more than just a hashtag of support. It truly was and is a way of life. It’s led to other cancer patients fighting with a bigger belief that they can overcome what’s put in front of him.
Sager made us laugh, he made us proud, he entertained us, and he made us feel stronger and more confident that the impossible was always going to happen. He truly added to the experience of enjoying basketball, and his fingerprints will remain all over the sporting world for decades to come.
Someone said that Craig didn’t lose his fight, but that we simply ran out of time. That’s honestly how it feels to me — the same as it felt with Flip’s passing. They were the strangers you felt you knew. They were the strangers you wanted to get to know. They were basketball family that made this whole ordeal a lot of fun. And if you were lucky enough to talk to them or even watch someone else talk to them, you just hoped for more of it down the road.
Sager created avenues in this sport and industry that may not be there without him. He positively affected everyone who came into contact with him. But most of all, he lit up our lives with every smile, pattern, and interaction we were lucky enough to see.
Rest in peace, Craig Sager, and thank you for everything you brought us. You are missed.