Henricksen: Batavia basketball, community to celebrate the life of its native son, Craig Sager

SHARE Henricksen: Batavia basketball, community to celebrate the life of its native son, Craig Sager

Craig Sager acknowledges the crowd during a timeout in an NBA basketball game between the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Chicago. File photo.

As Dan Issel, a 15-year star in the ABA and NBA, grew up in Batavia as a kid, his family’s back yard met up with his friend, Ken Anderson’s back yard.

Like Issel, Anderson went on to a terrific pro career. He became a NFL Pro-Bowl quarterback and played 16 years for the Cincinnati Bengals.

As longtime, highly successful professional athletes, Issel and Anderson are the biggest sports figures to ever come out of Batavia. But Craig Sager, a Batavia native and an iconic figure in his own right, was maybe the most revered.

“Craig Sager never forgot where he came from,” former Batavia coach Jim Roberts said of Sager, who became an award-winning and well recognized television sports reporter. “And he never missed an opportunity to say he was proudly from Batavia. People in Batavia always appreciated that.”

Sager passed away last December after a nearly three-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia.

Sager, an athlete in Batavia while growing up and three years younger than Issel and Anderson, will be remembered and celebrated in his hometown.

A celebration of the life of Craig Sager will be held in Batavia High School’s gym from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 13. The event will include special guests and speakers, including Issel, along with video highlights of the renowned reporter.

The public is welcome and there is no charge for the event.

Batavia Mayor Jeffery Schielke, a 1967 graduate of Batavia High School, will be the master of ceremonies for the Craig Sager Celebration. He watched Sager’s rise on the national stage and, like Roberts, was always proud to see and hear Sager recognize Batavia through the years.

“It didn’t matter if he was at the ESPYs or singing the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley Field where he yelled, ‘Let’s sing it so loud they can hear you in Batavia,’” says Schielke, who has been the Mayor of Batavia for the past 36 years. “Craig never forgot where he came from. There has always been a lot of community pride and admiration for Craig.”

Sager attended Northwestern University where he spent time on NU’s sideline playing the role of Willie the Wildcat, the school’s mascot.

Sager as Willie the Wildcat does not surprise anyone who remembers and loved the work Sager did as a colorful sideline reporter. He became synonymous for his personality, the respect he had earned from NBA players and coaches, and the many eye-popping suits and sports coats he would don on TNT’s NBA telecasts.

Issel’s late brother, Greg, was close friends with Sager, thus the NBA All-Star also spent a lot of time with Sager. They played sports and watched the Cubs together while doing what young boys do while growing up in a small town together.

“To see him have the success he had on the national level was so gratifying to all of us,” says Issel. “What Batavia instilled in all three of us –– myself, Kenny and Craig –– was a solid work ethic.

“I hope the people of Batavia appreciate how much Batavia meant to Craig and all of us, because we appreciate what Batavia did for us.”

Sager worked on NBC’s coverage of the National League Championship Series and World Series. He served as a reporter for Olympic coverage and everything from FIFA World Club play to Nordic skiing to the NFL.

Sager is the reporter who slept next to the stall of racehorse Seattle Slew the night before the horse won the Triple Crown. He interviewed Hank Aaron on the field after his 715th home run.

But where Sager became a larger-than-life figure was his work in the NBA. He became a fixture for viewers when it came to big-time NBA games.

In a touching example of professionalism in the final year of his life, Sager was “loaned” by Turner Sports to ESPN so that Sager could work his first NBA Finals telecast in June of 2016.

A month later he was awarded the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2016 ESPY Awards Show where he gave a moving and memorable speech. He was then inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December.

“I think this pulls at the heart strings here,” says Schielke of Sager’s passing and the upcoming celebration of his life. “This was a large personality with a colorful approach to life and who inspired others. He created a legacy as the kid from the small town that’s so proud of him.”

For all the success, fame and notoriety Sager received, he always remembered Batavia. Now Batavia will remember him.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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