The man who Minnesotans called, “one of us”, succumbed to the greatest opponent he ever met. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was the cruel villain in this perfect story of Flip Saunders, the man who only had friends, the man who only had charisma and a chalkboard, the man who had Kevin Garnett and John Wall. If grief is like the ocean, then the entire state of Minnesota and the fraternity that is the NBA, is in the midst of a high tide. One of their own has drowned beneath the icy waters and sorrowful reality of lymphoma cancer and at 60 years old.
Phillip Daniel Saunders was a coaching lifer. He began coaching at Golden Valley Lutheran College where he never lost a home game. He earned his way up. At the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, where his teammates were Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson, he was hired as an assistant coach. The Gophers won the Big Ten title in 1981. The University of Tulsa followed his Minnesota stint and Saunders was there for two years until something bigger came along.
Before there was the D-League, the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) was the minor league of professional basketball, the feeder system. It was where Phil Jackson learned the ins and outs of the coaching profession. In 1988, it was Flip Saunders turn. He became the head coach of the Rapid City Thrillers. Later he won the CBA championship with the LaCrosse Catbirds; he did this twice. When he became the general manager and team president of the Sioux Falls Skyforce in 1991, it was a peek into what lay down the line for Saunders. Coaching yes, but team building, putting his mark on an organization to reflect his basketball identity.
The success of Saunders in the CBA was reflective of his honors. Twice he was Coach of the Year. 30 or more wins in seven straight seasons. Two titles. On his watch, 23 CBA players migrated up to the NBA. Most important of all was the 253 victories, the second most in CBA history.
Saunders started as a general manager in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His boss was his former teammate Kevin McHale. It was the year the Timberwolves drafted a high schooler and in doing so would change the entire arc of the NBA, veering the league towards athletic potential rather than accomplished collegians. The next season Saunders became the head coach of Kevin Garnett. The Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time ever. As an encore, the next year, the Timberwolves had their first winning season. Saunders would guide the Timberwolves to 50 win campaigns in 1999-2000 and 2001-2002 and eight straight playoff appearances. In 2004, the Timberwolves made the Western Conference Finals. Saunders had been their coach for eight seasons.
Fired from Minnesota after they failed to make the playoffs and burdened with bad contracts, Saunders coached the Detroit Pistons after they won the NBA championship and lost in the NBA Finals, and got rid of Larry Brown. Saunders set a Pistons record for most victories (64) in 2005-06. He was coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
In Washington, Saunders had a very young John Wall who he had to teach to control his speed and of course to do something with his jump shot. The Wizards were a very inexperienced team. Those are the ones that cost coaches their job. It was true with Saunders and he returned to Minnesota where he reorganized the structure. He traded a disgruntled Kevin Love for #1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins who would become Rookie of the Year. He drafted hyper-athletic Zach LaVine. He chose Karl Anthony Towns instead of Jahlil Okafor as this year’s number one draft pick. It was to be Flip Saunders coming full circle on October 28th.
That was when he was to be on national television on opening night, something that never happens in the Minnesota Timberwolves orbit.
After being diagnosed with cancer this June, Saunders thanked his doctors.
“I want to thank Dr. Burns as well as my medical team at the Mayo Clinic for their hard work in diagnosing my situation and creating a plan to help me achieve a cancer-free plan.”
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is the less common form of the lymphatic system cancer(s). Only 1% of all cancers are Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma disease presents itself in young adults (15-35) and in those over 55 years old. Saunders was diagnosed at 60.
Saunders Mayo Clinic doctors expressed optimism regarding his recovery and Saunders expected to be the coach of the Timberwolves this season but in September he had a setback and on October 25th, he died.
Saunders won a gold medal in the Goodwill Games in 2001. He won 50+ games seven times in his NBA career. He coached in 4 Conference Finals. He won 654 NBA games.
One of Flip Saunders former Timberwolves players, Sam Mitchell, takes over coaching duties and will guide the young Timberwolves this season. Saunders son, Ryan, is an assistant coach. Saunders is survived by his wife and four children.
Naturally the NBA world and beyond is in shock.
Adam Silver: “The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders. With more than 40 years around the game, 20 of them in the NBA, Flip’s untimely passing has left a gapiing hole in the fabric of our league.”
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton: “The Timberwolves have lost a brilliant leader and Minnesota has lost an outstanding citizen.”
Detroit Pistons: “Flip was a great ambassador to the Metro Detroit community and had a positive influence on those who had the opportunity to spend time with him.”
John Wall: “The sting of losing another loved one to cancer doesn’t get any easier.”
Ricky Rubio: “He was all smiles passionate and really loved the game. He gave everything to the Timberwolves and did amazing things for us. He was our leader. Really going to miss you coach.”
Karl Anthony Towns: “Words cannot describe how special and important Coach Saunders was to me. I want to thank you coach for giving me the opportunity to play in the NBA and achieve my dream. I love you coach and I am going to miss you so much.”
Kris Humphries: “God works in mysterious ways but this loss really hurts.”
Kevin Garnett: “Forever in my heart…”
Flip Saunders. Coach. General Manager. Mentor. Father. Husband. Friend. Forever…
photo via llananba