Monday, January 9, 2017

Craig Sager (1951-2016)

Many of my clients know that I had a long-standing relationship with Craig Sager, which was as colorful as Craig was when he dressed for his TV appearances. Craig recently passed away after a three-year fight with acute leukemia. Craig was one of those individuals who you thought would never die. In the 30 years I have known Craig, I cannot remember a time, prior to his leukemia diagnosis, when he was not in top physical condition.

While attending college, Craig was the mascot on the Northwestern University campus in Chicago, Illinois. More importantly, according to Craig, he was also the President of the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. This was the actual fraternity house that the movie Animal House was based upon, and he assured me that his recollection of the fraternity was just as rowdy and colorful as the movie.

In 1987, I was approached by two of my NBA clients who were considering investing in a restaurant in Atlanta. I told both of them that the investment was not very smart, and it would just be a matter of time before they lost their money. Against my advice, they invested anyway deciding they would have fun while it lasted. I was not involved at all in those early days, but was shortly after, much to my surprise.

1987 - The Original Jocks
Randy Wittman, Craig Sager, Doc Rivers, Mike Small & Scott Hastings

1988 (or so) - I was added to the Jocks crew.

Around this time, I had become friendly with Craig Sager, since he originated the concept. To Craig, every day was a good day, and the next would certainly be better. When I was asked to come in and see why their bar was not successful, I did not realize the owners were transporting alcohol from Cobb County into the city of Atlanta, which unbeknownst to them was illegal. I also found out that the owners, comprised of professional athletes, had not applied for health licenses, liquor licenses or anything else required to operate a restaurant. After rectifying those shortcomings, I then became part owner of this non-thriving business that was losing money and appeared to have no future.

But the restaurant grew, and Jocks & Jills became the first sports bar in Atlanta and is still being copied by many new establishments opening up today. Our 10th Street location began with total sales of roughly $10,000 during an extremely good week. After 20 years, we owned the most successful sports bar in America and sales were $500,000 per week. We started with a total of five employees and had 1,500 at the end. Much of this growth in the business was due to Craig’s notoriety and his never-ending promotion of the restaurants. I ran the operations, he handled the promotions. It was an exciting time.

In retrospect, I could tell you many stories about Craig and the wild and crazy things we did over the last 30 years. One of my favorite Sager stories was when he invited me to play golf at Pebble Beach. Typical Craig, everything happens in the spur of the moment. On Thursday, he informed me that we had a 9:00 am tee time on Saturday at the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, and if I would like to play he would meet me there. Purchasing a last-minute plane ticket to San Francisco was outrageously expensive, but I flew there on Friday and drove down the coast line, virtually in the dark, to reach the Inn at Spanish Bay at roughly 7:00 pm.

I checked with the front desk, but they had no knowledge of Craig Sager even being in the area. Given the rates of the hotel, I had become somewhat concerned that Craig had stood me up 3,000 miles away from home. The next morning, I checked with the front desk, and even with our tee time being less than two hours away, they had no record of him being on the premises. I was $3,000 into this trip and the tee time was not even in my name!

About 30 minutes later, I ran across Craig who had apparently shown up in the middle of the night and hadn’t bothered to book a room – just sat in the bar waiting to play. He packed no clubs and no change of clothes despite planning on leaving later that afternoon to spend a long weekend in Vegas. Typical Craig, he lived for the moment and tomorrow would be worked out later. After playing at the beautiful course, we headed back up the coastline toward San Francisco to part ways – I was flying back to Atlanta, and Craig to Vegas. Somewhere along the way, Craig decided he would just fly out of San Jose because the flight was cheaper. After dropping him off at the San Jose airport, I glanced back in my rearview mirror and there he was showering off under a local water hose before getting on the airplane. I would like to say that I could not believe it, but I have hundreds of stories about Craig which are mostly along the same vein.

1999 - Me and Craig at Pebble Beach

There were times when Craig and I would have conversations multiple times a day, and they were ALL positive. That is just the kind of guy he was; and when I introduced him to who would later become his wife, she was immediately drawn to his positivity and spontaneity as well. They subsequently had two children and reside in the outskirts of Atlanta.

There is no question that Jocks & Jills was amazingly successful and we definitely had a lot of good times during its heyday. Even more amazing is that this reporter out of Illinois, who jumped the fence when Hank Aaron hit his home run in 1974 (when he was making $95 per week), could end up being idolized on national television due to his contagious personality, close relationship with NBA players and outlandish clothing.

1974 - Craig Sager on the field when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record.

2016 - Cover of Sports Illustrated

Craig’s funeral was a couple of weeks ago, and it was heartwarming to see the personalities and athletes that showed up for the service. Even towards the end, I never really thought Craig Sager would pass away because his love for life seemed to overwhelm everyone around him. Although he is deceased, I wanted you to understand how far back we go and how deep our relationship was over the last 30 years. Around Craig, life was never boring – he will be missed.

Charles Barkley and Josh at Craig's service

"Joe, thanks for 30 years of friendship!" -Craig Sager

Best Regards,
Joe Rollins