He had covered all the big guys in his time in the NBA, Craig Sager had, done that with his talent and his charm, and an understated professionalism that went against one of the loudest wardrobes in the history of sports television. Sager had seen the best of Michael and Magic and Larry and Kareem, and he had become this wonderfully essential part of that world. But it took LeBron James to speak for all of them, for all the great players from the sport Craig Sager loved as much as he did, at Game 6 of the NBA Finals last June.
Because of television contracts, Sager had done just about everything he could ever have wanted to do in the NBA except work the Finals. But there he was on the sidelines last June, at last. We all knew how sick he was by then. But it did absolutely nothing to affect his game.
It would be perfectly appropriate, not long after the Finals ended, that Sager would be awarded the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs, because he made you remember what Jimmy Valvano had said the night he was given the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the ESPYs in New York City in 1993, when cancer was killing Jimmy V the way acute myeloid leukemia killed Sager on Thursday at the age of 65.
Craig Sager's disease could not touch his mind, heart, soul. Of course, when he got to his sport's very biggest stage, to the NBA Finals, he brought his best game. For one night, he was covering as big a story, LeBron and the Cavaliers' comeback against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, as he had ever covered in his life.
And when Game 6 was over, LeBron spoke to all of that.
"First of all, let me ask you a question," he said to Sager. "How in the hell do you go 30-plus years without getting a Finals game? That don't make no sense … but I'm happy to see you, man. Much love and respect. I'm happy I was able to witness it in front of these fans. We really appreciate you."
When he was presented the Jimmy V Award by Vice President Joe Biden in July, Craig Sager said this:
"If I've learned anything through all of this, it's that each and every day is a canvas waiting to be painted -- an opportunity for love, for fun, for living, for learning. I will continue to keep fighting, sucking the marrow out of life as life sucks the marrow out of me."
He died too soon and too young. His battle against disease wasn't any braver or more noble than anyone else's, any man or woman or child who has fought any form of cancer. His was just the one that we witnessed over the past couple of years, from the time he was first diagnosed in 2014. He was in and out of hospitals after that. He got weaker and got stronger and eventually had three bone marrow transplants. Maybe you remember the pictures from when Charles Barkley went to visit him in a hospital in Houston in September.
This was a time when Sager's wife, Stacy, was unable to be with him in the hospital because she had come down with a cold, and the doctors were taking no chances that she might transmit it to her husband. When Barkley heard about that, he flew from Phoenix to visit his old friend. Charles had recently undergone hip surgery and wasn't supposed to be flying anywhere. But the big man told his own doctors that it was an emergency.
The emergency was that he thought Sager, his teammate at TNT, needed some company, and to maybe feel less alone without Stacy, even for one day.
"Craig Sager is one of the most interesting people I've ever met," Barkley said at the time. "We go to see Sager to cheer him up, and by the time you leave, you're like, 'Is anything wrong with him?' He has the most positive attitude."
"He managed to make what had once been a nondescript job and make it distinctive," Bob Costas said from Seattle on Thursday. "First it was through his distinctive wardrobe, which actually was a touch of genius on his part, because how do you get remembered when you only have 45 seconds a pop?
"But what was much more important was his sheer buoyancy. It was the sense of enjoyment he conveyed that stuck with people, even more than the specific information he conveyed."
That was the thing, wasn't it, whether it was a regular-season game in the middle of December for TNT, or the biggest playoff games? You could see how much Sager loved being there, loved being as close to the action as he could be, loved the relationships he had so clearly built up with the players and with the coaches. Maybe it was no more complicated than this: He made you want to be at the game with him. And there is a genius in that, too. Only the clothes were loud with Craig Sager, in a culture of sports television where people think loud is the only real genius.
The night of the ESPY Awards, you better know he wore a sports jacket covered with big pink and yellow flowers. If you had watched him over the years working the sidelines at NBA games, you worried that he had dressed down that night.
"You try to live a lifetime of moments in three weeks, but then you say, 'The hell with three weeks!'" Sager said, talking about when he had learned of his dire diagnosis. "Time is something that cannot be bought, it cannot be wagered with God, and it is not in endless supply. Time is simply how you live your life."
He wasn't around the NBA as long as another TNT colleague, Marv Albert, has been. He was never close to being the kind of star that Barkley has become. But Sager, by the force of his own personality, did become a television star of his sport. But that is not what you remember about him, if you were lucky enough to spend any time with him at all. What you remember is what a nice man he always was, what kind of gentleman he was. There will be none of the phony or self-serving rhetoric of death in response to his passing. People mean what they say. People in Craig Sager's sport genuinely loved him, never more than over the past couple of years as they watched him fight.
He worked baseball when he was young, Craig Sager did, and he interviewed Henry Aaron after Aaron hit No. 715. He worked the Olympics and college football and did studio shows. But he will be remembered best for working the sidelines at pro basketball games, and making you believe, truly, he had the best job in the world. That was his canvas, 45 seconds a pop.