HOUSTON (AP) — I spent a couple of hours with Craig Sager the day before he underwent a rare third bone marrow transplant, and it was clear that he was spent.
The process was tiring and my relentless questioning didn't help, though he and his family were gracious enough to share what they were going through at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in those still-hopeful days back in August. After I'd listened to his transplantation physician, Dr. Muzaffar Qazilbash, explain that almost no one gets three stem cell transplants and as I was gathering my belongings to leave, I was summoned back to Sager's room.
I slowly entered, unsure of why he asked me to come back when he obviously needed to rest. When I pulled back the curtain that separated his hospital bed from the door, I heard his booming voice.
"Pick up that ball and sign it for me!" he bellowed.
Nearby was a marker and a basketball covered in signatures of all shapes and sizes.
"You don't want me to sign this," I replied. "I'm not famous."
He didn't miss a beat despite the toll the years of cancer treatments had taken on his body.
"Everyone who visits me is special. Sign the ball!" he said.
I scribbled my name and thanked him again for his time. I had never met Sager before that day, but I quickly realized why he was so beloved across the NBA and beyond — and why the sadness ran so deep Thursday after he died at the age of 65 .
I spent nearly two days with him as he shared an intimate look at his last-ditch bid for life. His son was the donor for the first two transplants; this time , it was someone anonymous.
It was clear by looking at him that he was very ill, but if I were to close my eyes and listen to what he said and how he said it, I doubt I would have known he was sick. Anyone who knows him knows that he's a character (see: flamboyant wardrobe). What was surprising was that even when he was staring down his own death, he maintained his TV-perfect smile and positive attitude.
The relationship Sager had with his wife, Stacy, was clearly extraordinary. He gazed at her with a look of pure love, adoration and esteem. Stacy, who had two young children with Sager, fought back tears when we spoke about his fight.
I asked her if he was as upbeat privately as he had been with me and while roaming the sidelines reporting. And I asked her if ever talked about fearing death.
"We don't really have those deep, dark conversations," she said. "We don't have any negative conversations. Everything is one day at a time and let's be grateful and blessed that we have this day and enjoy it. Who knows how many days anybody has? So we just take it one day at a time and be happy."
During an interview the day before his transplant, the one that sadly couldn't save Sager's life, Charles Barkley sat and listened as we talked. Sir Charles was quiet as a mouse as Sager spoke of all the treatments he'd gone through and how much the support of his NBA family had meant to him.
As we spoke, I noticed a black-and-white photo of a child with some baseball players hanging on the stark hospital wall above Barkley's head. I motioned toward the picture and asked who was in it.
"That's not a picture, that's actually Charles Barkley," Sager deadpanned, cracking up the room.
After we composed ourselves, Sager described the picture, which was of him as an 11-year-old with Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks and some of his teammates. Sager then explained that he'd been a Cubs fan since that moment and bragged that he got to throw out the first pitch at one of their games earlier this year. A big deal for a native of Batavia, Illinois.
The interview soon devolved into a conversation about how he bet on the Cubs to win it all every year and they never came through. When they captured their first World Series title since 1908 a couple of months ago, Sager was the first person I thought of, knowing what it meant to him.
And when the Cubs posted a video of his day at Wrigley Field on their account Thursday, I knew that Sager was somewhere smiling to know that the world champions were now honoring him.