CHICAGO – A video segment titled “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” appeared on the United Center scoreboard during halftime of a recent Bulls game.
In the video, Bulls players served as the voters, although they made their decisions by using oversized foam thumbs instead of paper ballots.
The topic: TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager’s colorful wardrobe.
“I think it’s dope,” forward Taj Gibson said with a giant thumbs up.
“Too flashy for me,” guard Kirk Hinrich said with a quick thumbs down.
“I like it,” guard Jimmy Butler said, thumb flipping up. “It’s different. I like different.”
So does Sager. He has strived to be different ever since he was a kid growing up in Batavia in the 1960s, which then was a quiet farm town instead of a busy suburb.
Before he donned a velvet suit jacket with a matching purple tie and handkerchief, Sager reflected on his journey from a small-town basketball star into one of America’s most colorful sports media personalities.
What was life like as a kid in Batavia?
It’s totally different now than it was when we grew up. It was such a small area and you were so far out. Now, it’s one big suburb all the way through. But we were kind of isolated in the middle of a cornfield out there.
Our big thing was basketball. [Basketball Hall of Famer] Dan Issel was a senior, [Cincinnati Bengals quarterback] Kenny Anderson was a junior, I was a freshman.
Back then, you didn’t have classifications. So for us to go downstate, we’d have to beat Proviso East and all of these bigger schools. If we had classifications back then, I seriously think we would have won several state championships. Because we won 58 conference games in a row. We dominated.
When did the light go on that you could be a broadcaster?
I always wanted to do that. I always said I wanted to go to Northwestern, I wanted to play for the basketball team and I wanted to be a cheerleader for the football team because I loved to do all of those flips and all that stuff. …
I ended up walking on at Northwestern. I was involved in all of the sports. I just felt that was the one area that I wanted to do – I wanted to be an announcer. So I had that plan basically since when I was in junior high.
What’s the best part about your job?
I think it’s traveling to the best games there are and doing what everybody else wants to do. What people pay to do, I get paid to do.
To have the opportunity to go to all of these events, to have the privilege of interviewing these players, when everybody else just watches them and sees them from afar, to be able to try to extend what they’re seeing and to ask the right questions and get involved – I’ve never missed a day of work in my life. It will be 33 years coming up and I’ve never called in sick one day. That’s the work ethic you had in Batavia, too. If you’ve got an opportunity, you take advantage of it.
The first thing people notice is your suits. Where did that start?
Well, in Batavia, they told us for our high school picture for the yearbook when we were seniors [in 1969], you had to wear a black or navy blazer. And I thought that was kind of boring. And I was a big fan of The Monkees.
I had this Nehru jacket that was electric blue, and it had a white collar. And I can just see me right now – like, ‘Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees!’ – so I wore that. And they said, ‘Sorry, Sager, we took your picture, but you’ve got to reschedule. We’re not going to put that in the yearbook.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, come on, why not?’ And they said, ‘No. We told you.’
But the school was so small, and I was president of the National Honor Society and I was in all the sports and I was in the plays and everything else. So they kind of had to have my picture in the yearbook. (laughs) So they put it in there.
Now, at the reunion, when we go back [and look at the pictures], everybody looks the same. And all of a sudden I look like I’m going to the priesthood. I’ve got this Nehru jacket and the big collar and the white collar.
It didn’t extend like that always, but I was in radio and then I wanted to get a job in TV in Sarasota, and I didn’t have a jacket. So I went to like a Goodwill thrift shop and I found this yellow, blue and white Seersucker suit. It was gorgeous. So I bought that and I wore that to my interview in Tampa as the weatherman at Channel 10.
I remember I was Golden Guide and I did all that. So I knew my meteorology, and I got the job. But they said, ‘Listen, you can’t wear that on TV.’ I go, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Because our cameras don’t focus.’ It was just kind of a blur.
Obviously, now our technology is better and I can wear brighter colors and wear different things. I’ve always had that urge. Growing up in Batavia, with the cornfield, I just wanted to be bright and lively.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.