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posted: 2/8/2010 12:01 AM

TNT's Craig Sager has deep ties to Illinois basketball

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Craig Sager is known for loud sport jackets and short sideline interviews during NBA broadcasts on TNT.

That description doesn't do justice, though, to the passion for basketball he developed in one of the sport's suburban hotbeds.

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Sager grew up in Batavia, attending high school at the same time as future Hall of Famer Dan Issel and future Super Bowl quarterback Ken Anderson.

"It was unbelievable," Sager said between preparations for Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Dallas. "You talk about Illinois high school basketball - that epitomized what it was like."

Those were the days of a single state tournament in Illinois. There was no cable TV to keep people tethered to their family rooms. So high school basketball became a passion.

"Days of games, the whole town would shut down," Sager recalled. "There's wasn't much to shut down in Batavia. At that time, there were no restaurants and no hotels. We didn't have a McDonald's or anything. But everybody cared and we'd have caravans from the school. To get tickets to those (state) tournament games, you'd camp out early in the morning. It was kind of like Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium."

But small-town schools on the outskirts of Chicago had some tough draws in those days, which explains why there are no entries on Batavia's state tournament history between a fourth-place finish in 1921 and a trip to the state quarterfinals behind Corey Williams in 1991.

"We pretty much dominated our conference, won 58 conference games in a row over the years," Sager said. "Then when we got to the tournament, we always had to run up against Proviso East or East Aurora, or we'd have to feed through teams from Chicago to get downstate. It was tough. If we had classifications then like they do now, I think Batavia probably would have won the state championship five or six years in a row."

To help illustrate the intensity of Batavia basketball in those days, Sager told a story that's hilarious now because it occurred more than 40 years ago. If it happened again next week, it might not seem so quaint.

Batavia was battling East Aurora, with future Kansas star Tom Kivisto, in a sectional game at West Aurora. Sager thinks the year was 1967.

"The calls were not going Batavia's way," he said. "It was so bad that people started booing and doing things and maybe even throwing things on the court. Our principal actually stood up in the stands and told the Batavia fans to settle down.

"It got so bad that my mother (Coral) couldn't take it any longer. She got out of the stands, went down on the court and just pointed her finger and started yelling at the officials about how bad they were. The cops came and they hauled her out of the gym, but she got a standing ovation.

"We ended up losing the game in double overtime and so the caravan went back to the high school and everyone was crying and everybody was upset. Our dreams of going to state were over. My mom walks into the gym and everyone went crazy. They gave her another standing ovation."

After high school, Sager attended Northwestern and tried to stay involved in sports. He walked on to the football team but was knocked unconscious twice in the same day. He went out for basketball and earned some playing time when Rick Sund, now general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, broke his leg. In order to stay close to the football team, Sager spent time inside the Willie the Wildcat costume.

His career goal was to join Jack Brickhouse on Cubs broadcasts, but he ended up working as a weatherman in Tampa, Fla., before becoming a sports anchor. He started working for CNN in March 1981.

Sager still has Chicago ties. His wife, former Luv-a-Bull Stacey Jo Strebel, is a Rolling Meadows High School grad.

Even in his current job, Sager is constantly reminded of his roots in Illinois high school basketball.

"You look at that time, I used to play against Rick Sund," he said. "Doug Collins was playing downstate in Benton. Not too far removed was (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich was playing at that time (in Merrillville, Ind.).

"Later, there was Doc Rivers and Isiah Thomas. Before that, we had Jerry Sloan and Jerry Colangelo. There's just a tremendous bond between those of us who played high school basketball in Illinois."

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