(this article was first written before Flip Saunders died of cancer. It has been updated).
When Flip Saunders announced he was battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the white blood cells, cancer survivors were skeptical he’d be back on the sidelines in eight weeks. Chemotherapy, which was a significant part of Saunders wellness plan, creates immune system deficiencies and extraordinary fatigue. Often the symptoms last longer than a year. Worse case scenario, there are complications that transition into something far more heartbreaking. So it was no surprise when it was announced that Saunders would not be ready in a month to reclaim his job because of complications relating to his cancer.
It is those very ugly complications that evolved into grave sickness and then the death of Flip Saunders at the age of 60. It has left a coterie of grief.
Sam Mitchell will be the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the recipient of a tragic turn of events in which his mentor battled bravely but ultimately succumbed to cancer while a community cries.
The Timberwolves will take the floor on October 28th in Los Angeles against the Lakers in their season opener and Flip Saunders will be hovering around the arena, the coach who should have been on the sidelines but isn’t. But this is a cancer world; the unexpected are suddenly stricken and the world is forced to move on.
Sam Mitchell hasn’t been a head coach in seven years. His coaching career began in Milwaukee in 2002 as an assistant. His only head coaching position was with the Toronto Raptors and his best player was Chris Bosh. He has on his record a 47 win season. He also has on his record the Kobe Bryant 81 point game.
After Mitchell was fired from Toronto and couldn’t land another job, he privately wondered if he was being blackballed out of the league. The critics maligned his coaching decisions and held him accountable for Bryant’s 81 points, as if Bryant didn’t have rarer than rare ablity. Mitchell was blamed for not double-teaming Bryant, blamed for not fouling him when it mattered and blamed for not taking the ball out of Bryant’s hands. In fact, Mitchell’s Raptors were spectators as Bryant launched three point shot after three point shot without much resistance. The defense was disinterested and then demoralized and Mitchell didn’t do much in the adustment department. Whether that game cost Sam Mitchell future earnings potential or if it was the brutal truth of his coaching mediocrity-in four years as a head coach he missed the playoffs twice and lost in the first round twice- is neither here nor there. He has a big job on his hands now.
The Timberwolves have a lot of young talent and how they grow together as a team will answer a lot of questions. First they have to figure out what they are going to do with Ricky Rubio. They drafted a point guard in Tyus Jones and added veteran guard Andre Miller so Rubio is expendable.
Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins in his second year is expected to exponentially increase production, particularly his three point shooting (31% in 2014-15). Zach LaVine is an athletic freak who is streaky and needs consistency. Number one pick Karl Anthony Towns is going to have to learn the NBA game. The Wolves still have Kevin Martin on the roster. Will he stay healthy?
Helping Mitchell will be Kevin Garnett who is in his 21st year of NBA basketball and who was Mitchell’s teammate when Garnett was a rookie, up until Garnett’s seventh year. Garnett’s voice in the locker room will help a young team with discipline, intensity, toughness and professionalism. Garnett the champion has an opportunity to go where Mitchell can’t and nurture the baby Wolves as they go through the ups and downs of a NBA season.
But the Wolves growing pains hardly register when considering the scale of grief that lingers following Flip Saunders cancer death. It is the elephant in the room. It is the ghost. You don’t want to talk about it but there it is, the thing that can’t be ignored, an entire community in morning, cancer once again proving its capacity to generate pain. Saunders death has altered this season of the young T-Wolves as everyone around Minnesota was excited to see them compete. But it has all mellowed into a different sort of somber thing. Saunders memory hangs low and in all the empty spaces. What was supposed to be a bright and exciting Timberwolves future is something incredibly sad.
photo via llananba