Craig Sager grateful to return to job

CHICAGO -- Popular Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager had an emotional return to work courtside Thursday night, signaling his return from an 11-month battle with cancer.

"I'm very grateful, very thankful, and I got up today and it was like the first day of school," Sager said after the Chicago Bulls finished their shootaround in preparation for their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which the Bulls won 108-105 in dramatic fashion. "You're a little nervous. I've done it before but everything's a little different. It's a long 11 months, believe me.

"But I was very fortunate I had some doctors I believed in, had some good care. I'm back. A little bit lighter, I don't know if you can see it on TV but I lost close to 50 pounds, got some of it back, but I had to get some new clothes because all those great things I had before don't fit anymore."

Sager's clothing did not go unnoticed.

While Sager's frame has thinned out, his style hasn't changed. He started the game wearing a black-and-red suit for the Thunder-Bulls game, joking that "I will come tonight, and you may actually think I'm Benny the Bull.

"I have a lot of love for my Chicago Bulls," he said pregame. "Normally, you don't show a lot of favoritism for one or the other team, but since Chicago means so much to me and coming back here, I said I have to show some love to the Bulls and to Chicago. I don't think I'll get booed by too many people for what I'm wearing here tonight."

When told of Sager's plans, Thibodeau smiled in approval.

"I'm happy about that," he said. "I'm very happy about that. He has good taste."

"I'm back. A little bit lighter, I don't know if you can see it on TV but I lost close to 50 pounds, got some of it back, but I had to get some new clothes because all those great things I had before don't fit anymore." Craig Sager, who says he'll wear a black-and-red suit for Bulls-Thunder

The Bulls went one step further.

After the first time out in the first quarter of Thursday's game, the Bulls played a welcome back video for Sager and mascot Benny the Bull presented Sager with a red-and-black plaid Bulls jacket for his collection. Sager stood in front of his seat on press row, acknowledging a standing ovation from the United Center crowd. He blew kisses and waved at the fans in appreciation.

Sager said Thursday he's "totally in remission." According to previous reports, he had bone marrow and stem cells transplanted from his son, Craig Sager Jr.

Sager, who has made a name for himself over the years because of his colorful interviews and even more colorful clothing, said that while the process of returning to work has been arduous, he has tried to stay positive since the leukemia diagnosis.

"I never had a bad day mentally. I really didn't," he said. "I was very optimistic, positive, believed in my doctors. Sure, some days physically were worse than others, but I always felt that if I did what they said to do, I'd be all right. It took longer than I thought, because I had a very tough infection and then I came down with pneumonia, and when you compound pneumonia with leukemia, people start talking mortality rates and all. I didn't pay any attention to it. Maybe I was naive, but I really didn't think about the negative things. I just said, 'I want to get back.' "

Sager was giving hugs and receiving handshakes throughout his time on the United Center floor Thursday.

"It's one of the great stories in the league," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's a big part of this NBA family. We're all thrilled to have him back. He's been a great inspiration to a lot of people. His courage, his determination, the way he's fought. So we're just thrilled to have him back."

Prior to the game Sager said the support he's received from all over the league has aided him in his recovery.

"It really has been amazing," he said, "because when you think about what I do, you see the coaches, and I'm intruding on their space, I'm a nuisance, they want to avoid you, and you're just doing your job. But it's amazing. I literally heard from virtually every team. I heard from the coaches and players, saying they wish me the best. [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver called me last night or the night before and said, 'Glad to have you back.' "

An Illinois native and graduate of Northwestern, Sager is prideful that his return comes with the team he pulled for in his youth.

"The Bulls obviously have a special place in my heart," Sager said, "because I'm from here and I married a Luvabull [cheerleader], so they're very supportive, from [executive VP John] Paxson to Thibs to [assistant coach Andy] Greer. It was amazing. Normally, you hear great things, people talk about a career, what somebody did, and it's usually at someone's eulogy or funeral, but I was actually alive to hear these nice things said. So it was very uplifting, very therapeutic, very helpful in my recovery."