NBA stars, coaches welcome Sager back with touching tribute

After an 11-month absence, the only person who could make Benny the Bull look like a conservative dresser was back, as Craig Sager worked Thursday night's game in Chicago between the Bulls and Thunder.

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Craig Sager returned to his familiar spot on the NBA sideline Thursday after being treated for leukemia.

The sideline reporter worked Oklahoma City’s game against Chicago for TNT, 11 months after he was diagnosed with leukemia.

"I’m 60 yards shorter off the tee, but I feel good," Sager told The Associated Press upon his arrival at the United Center.

It didn’t take long for the NBA world to welcome him back on social media.

Miss you very much Craig!!!!! Welcome back and can't to see u. Been to long. #SwagChamp Haha!

A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

And before the start of the game, TNT aired this touching tribute video, including words from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose verbal spars with Sager over the years have become something of legend.

Best known for his outlandish outfits, Sager wore a red, black and gray plaid jacket and matching Nike shoes that sparkled in the dark for the occasion.

"Bulls colors," he explained.

The 63-year-old Sager hadn’t worked a game since April 10 in Dallas when he felt ill and sought treatment from Mavericks team physician Dr. Tarek O. Souryal, who had previously performed Sager’s knee surgery.

With a dangerously low hemoglobin count, Sager had six blood transfusions over a 24-hour period before returning to Atlanta.

The hottest player in the NBA, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, meets up with the real star of Thursday night’s game, welcoming Craig Sager back to sideline before Oklahoma City’s game against Chicago.

"It’s not just the games. It’s the people," Sager said when asked what he missed most in the interim. "The NBA is such a family. I try to get there three hours before the game, talk with the ushers and the security guards, the coaches and the fans . . . I just missed the whole atmosphere. I like being there."

Sager had a bone marrow transplant from his son Craig Jr. and spent part of his absence in isolation. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — who has had several memorable sideline interviews with Sager — and Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett were among those reaching out in support.

Sager, a 34-year Turner veteran who said he had never missed a day of work before his ordeal, had hoped to return for last fall’s baseball playoffs but had a bout of pneumonia. He is cleared to resume his usual schedule and does so not far from Batavia, Illinois, where he’s from, and Northwestern, his alma mater.

"I can’t say this has been any great revelation that turned me into a different person," Sager said. "I’ve always appreciated my job. What I do appreciate more is the time I spend with my family. Now I don’t pay as much attention to how far it is to the green as much as the smell of the grass and the sound of the birds around me."

The on-court star entering the game, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, failed to pick up his fifth consecutive triple-double, and for one of the few moments this season, the closing seconds didn’t go his way as the Bulls won a thriller, 108-105.