Flip Saunders Worked For This

This August excitement was what Flip Saunders worked  so hard for. He traded for Andrew Wiggins. He drafted Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns. He was beginning a rebuild that would reap rewards once player development transitioned into player excellence, and if life was fair, Flip Saunders would be feted for his acumen. But the man who Minnesotans called, “one of us”, succumbed to the greatest opponent he ever met nearly two years ago. He never got to see the blocks he built reach full potential. 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 was drowning when the stunning news hung like a dark cloud never to disappear. One of their own slipped 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 G-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 was 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 were duly burdened, Saunders coached the Detroit Pistons who just lost in the NBA Finals and parted ways with coach 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 to teach. In the infancy of his career, Wall had to control his speed and do something about his jumper. The Wizards were a very inexperienced team. Those are the ones that cost coaches their jobs. 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 the number one draft pick. It was to be Flip Saunders coming full circle on October 28th, 2015.

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, Saunders, always thoughtful, 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 least 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 but in September, two years ago, 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, filled in after his death but it was a bandaid over a wound. Nothing stopped the bleeding.

Flip’s memory was an unbearable prism, one that hung over the team like a fugue. There was no perfect movie ending where the team guts out wins in honor of their beloved mentor. The team was awful after Saunders tragic passing.  Towns won Rookie of the Year which was the lone bright spot for a team that won 29 games. The Wolves had multiple holes. They were an insufferable three point shot taking and shot making team. They didn’t rebound and played zero defense. Last season, the defensive woes continued. The numbers remained the same, no effort, no toughness on the defensive end and they remained a catastrophic three point shooting team, fewest attempts in the league. Amazingly, the rebounding numbers had no change from Sam Mitchell to Tom Thibodeau. It legitimized whispers: maybe it was not the coaching but the personnel.

NBA excellence is cliche dependent. No rebounds, no rings. Currently, you have to take and make threes for efficiency. The Wolves added Jimmy Butler, a quality defender but an iso player who is a decent three point shooter but not Kevin Durant out there. Jeff Teague is an upgrade over Ricky Rubio but his three ball is similar to Butler’s, good but not great. Taj Gibson will help in the rebounding. But it still is unclear how all of these pieces will fit together to be a cohesive unit.

Regardless of what happens next, this is the team that Flip Saunders built, that he envisioned, that he toiled over. And then he was stricken. After he died, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said: “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 gaping hole in the fabric of our league.”

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said: “The Timberwolves have lost a brilliant leader and Minnesota has lost an outstanding citizen.

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…”

Nothing about this upcoming season feels the same. The Wolves are loaded with young and veteran talent. The expectations are high, a playoff berth at the very least. Flip should be here. He should be part of this Wolves team and Minneapolis excitement. But life isn’t fair. It isn’t.

Flip built this. He was the engine, the starter, the genius. He was the visionary. He is talked about less and less now that Tom Thibodeau is putting his stamp on the organization. There is a slight breeze where Flip used to be, his presence is just a vague memory now. Pages are turned. Chapters end. Does anyone remember Flip Saunders?

Because we live in the present tense, and not in the past, anticipation is never in a bubble. It all had to start somewhere, with someone. That someone was Flip. He was Minnesota through and through. The Timberwolves were his and even though life goes on, there is something to be said about woeful sadness creating art. The Wolves are that art, they are supposed to do extraordinary things.

Flip is not here in one sense. But he is still the Wolves quiet strength. He is gone. But quietly hovering.

photo via llananba