Craig Sager was reporter first, sideline superstar second

Craig Sager was a king who dressed like a court jester and mixed with royalty and commoners alike.

He also was a reporter. Let's not forget that.

It will get lost amid all the tributes and colorful video now that he succumbed to cancer, but Sager could gather information and tell stories with the best of them.

We were both covering an NBA playoff game in Denver in 2012, when a woman wandered onto the court while the ball was in play. By the time I made my way from my seat down to the court level to poke around and learn more, Sager had already spoken to police and arena personnel and had all of the details and background. Then Sager, being Sager, proceeded to share everything he knew with me. He had provided his update on air, so he was willing to help out another reporter working for another company.

"To know he had to be in extraordinary pain, and to fight through that and to want to be a part of an NBA game ... If that doesn't tell you about the passion and the drive he had for what he did, I don't know what could." Doris Burke, on Craig Sager joining ESPN's coverage of the 2016 Finals

I'd like to think this was because of our Northwestern bond (he was class of 1973; I was 1992), but he probably would have done it for anybody. He saw everyone who was in and around the league as part of the NBA family. That included the fans, for whom he always took time to take pictures and talk NBA.

I've known him for much of the time I've been covering the NBA. To have gone to big games over the past 2½ decades was to have spent time with Sager. It doesn't feel like our friendship evolved over that time, because it seemed like he was as warm and friendly with me from the beginning as he was so many years and job changes (for me) later.

But outside of Sager's wife and children, his colleagues at Turner Sports were closest to him, and they are feeling his loss in ways the rest of us can't imagine.

"He never had a bad day," Turner Sports Vice President of Talent Relations Tara August said via text message. "He once drove me around the ropes in a golf cart at the PGA Championship and told me the entire story of how he fell in love with Stacy on their first date and slept on her couch until she fell in love with him. He always had a story."

August doles out the assignments for Turner's on-air talent. She bosses around the likes of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, gets them to move at her whim in a way that a generation of NBA big men failed to do. (Shaq jokingly calls her "She-del Castro.") Their obedience often comes with a lot of grumbling. That wasn't the case with Sager.

"I loved him very much. He was always great to me," August said. "Never complained about working a game, no matter how big or small."

For one game, we at ESPN called Sager a colleague. Turner "loaned" him to the Mouse to give him the chance to work Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June.

We should elevate Sager's performance alongside LeBron's when we look back on the 2016 Finals. The reason Sager couldn't work the earlier games -- the guaranteed games -- was because he was getting eight days of chemotherapy treatment in Houston. He came back from eight days of poisonous IVs to do his job when it was an optional assignment. In the ranking of gutsy Finals performances, I'm going with Sager grabbing the mic first, Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel second.

"To see that man ... ," said Doris Burke, ESPN's sideline reporter for the series who gladly shared duties with Sager for this special event, "with those marks on his face -- lesions, whatever they were -- to know he had to be in extraordinary pain, and to fight through that and to want to be a part of an NBA game. ...

"If that doesn't tell you about the passion and the drive he had for what he did, I don't know what could."

It makes those of us who do NBA sideline reporting more appreciative of what we do. But his mere existence was a little intimidating, because we knew we'd never match up to him. Only Sager was getting a hug and a "love ya" from Pop.

Burke had long admired Sager's work from afar and had a unique understanding of how good he was from having done the same job herself.

"He had such great love for the game of basketball that it allowed him to pull off the outlandish clothing and giant personality, while still commanding the utmost respect from every player and every coach," Burke said. "I don't know if people understand how hard that is to do. There's only one person that I know that's been able to do it, and that's him."

When she walked around Quicken Loans Arena with Sager, it reminded Burke of entering an NBA building with Hubie Brown. There was a similar reverence from everyone they came across. Then she saw Sager go to work in the pregame meetings with the coaches.

"It probably shouldn't have surprised me, but he took it so seriously," Burke said. "He embraced the opportunity to work a Finals game. He went into work mode, but it was really cool for me to watch him in work mode. My man started firing questions, and they were all on point. For somebody I had watched work for so long and who I had admired for so long, it was an incredibly special chance to watch him do the behind-the-scenes work."

I've been fortunate enough to see the non-work side of Sager as well. You could usually find him at the bar following the game. Or the night before the game.

One of my enduring memories of Sager comes from after the 2008 All-Star Game in New Orleans. Sunday night had turned into Monday morning, and I had an early flight looming. We crossed paths on Canal Street, chatted a bit, and then I called it a night, while Sager, 19 years my elder, marched off into the French Quarter to see what awaited.

That's the way I prefer to think of him now. Not departed, but moving on, in search of another adventure, in search of another story.