On March 27, two hours before Alonzo Mourning made his return to the Heat (page 54), he was leading Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager through the bowels of American Airlines Arena, looking for a place to tape a pregame interview. As the duo barged through door after door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, they happened upon Miami coach Pat Riley. "What the f—- is Sager doing here?" Riley demanded. A sheepish Sager quickly changed direction, with 'Zo in his wake, but still got his interview, which he taped at a practice court.
In a way Riley was on to something: This season Sager, 49, has been extremely well positioned. On Feb. 27 he did an interview in a courtside tunnel with Patrick Ewing at Madison Square Garden when Ewing returned to New York as the Sonics' center. ( Ewing, claiming he had to ice his knees, shunned Knicks outlet MSG.) Two weeks later the hustling Sager was practically the third man in the ring at the TD Waterhouse Centre when Magic forward Tracy McGrady scuffled with Kings guard Bobby Jackson. Moreover, Sager's low-key interviewing style ensures that just about anyone will go on air with him. "I try to let guys talk," says Sager. "If you respect players, they respect you."
It has been two decades since CNN hired Sager, a former meteorologist, nightclub bouncer and collegiate mascot. (He was Willie the Wildcat for three years at Northwestern.) Since then, he has become the best-known sideline interviewer not named Jim Gray. Part of that recognizability, Sager concedes, is due to his outlandish wardrobe, which is best described as Miami Vice meets Soul Train. When, in February, Sager wore a reflecting silver suit on NBA All-Star Saturday, TNT analyst Charles Barkley commented, "I don't have anything against black people, white people or any kind of people, but when you start letting pimps interview people, that's where I draw the line." Bucks guard Sam Cassell, however, proffers the compliment that "sometimes [ Sager] gets jiggy with it."
For his part, Sager hints at new heights of jigginess to come. "Certain things in my closet haven't even come out yet," he says. "Just wait until the playoffs."