Minnesota Timberwolves part owner, president, and head coach Flip Saunders died yesterday of complications stemming from Hodgkin's Lymphoma that was diagnosed over the summer. He was 60 years old, and leaves behind his wife, Debbie, and four children.
Flip, although a native of Cleveland, was Minnesota through and through. He played point guard at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, and afterwards embarked on a coaching career that took him from college to the minor leagues before he finally got his chance with the Wolves in 1995. He coached the Wolves into the 2004-05 season before he was fired, and led them to all eight playoff appearances in franchise history.
After his first stint with the Wolves, he coached the Detriot Pistons and Washington Wizards, and worked for ESPN before returning to Minnesota to head up basketball operations. A year after his return, he traded Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, and took over the head coaching job from Rick Adelman. His one year on the bench was a trying one, as the Wolves staggered to a league low 16 wins, but his enthusiasm for the job and the project never waned. He oversaw this summer's draft, which included the first pick Karl-Anthony Towns, and a trade for local hero Tyus Jones, before his diagnosis.
You can read more about Flip in this obituary published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Saunders was beloved throughout the basketball world thanks to his long years in the game, his enthusiasm, and his renowned kindness, all of which was remarked on by those expressing their feelings today via twitter. He was well known for his willingness to give people time, his ability to remember people he had met infrequently, and for his love of talking basketball.
If there was one quality that people seemed to notice and treasure the most about Flip Saunders it was his genuine kindness. People spoke of his sincere interest in their lives, of his genuine inquiries about their lives and families, about how he cared about people as individuals whether he knew them well or met them once.
He was especially close with franchise icon Kevin Garnett, who he talked into coming back to the team to end his career last year, and to re-sign to help teach a young team this year. Stories had it that Garnett and Saunders had a plan to take over majority ownership of the franchise from Glen Taylor at some point after KG's playing career ended. Garnett posted this to his facebook page yesterday:
Owner Glen Taylor issued this statement:
"It is with tremendous difficulty and deep sadness that the Timberwolves acknowledge the passing of our President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, Flip Saunders. Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization. He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered. Today is not a day to reflect on Flip's accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large. We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss."
All over the internet you can find tributes to the man who seemed to know everyone in basketball, and who was so well liked by everyone he met.
One of the saddest days in the NBA that I can remember: Flip Saunders, great coach & great man, has passed away at a mere 60 years old #RIP— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) October 25, 2015
Tributes from players past and present can be found in this compilation at espn.com.
In truth I could go on forever copying tributes into this article, but suffice it to say that there was no end to the outpouring of grief and testimonials from fellow coaches, players, media members, and others who knew and cherished Flip Saunders.
On a personal note, I did not know Flip. Never met or communicated with him in any way, and in large part that was by design. While I'm happy to help John and Lindsey and others cover the team from press row because it's something they like to do and it adds to our coverage here at Canis Hoopus, my policy since taking on management of this site has been that I want to be "outside." I never had interest in having sources or in knowing the people involved in running the franchise or playing the games. I never wanted my opinion colored by personal feelings, and I've always thought that it's impossible to really know people publicly. Too often the image that we are presented with through interviews, articles, and the like about the players and coaches we follow turns out in the long run to be entirely untrue. I want to write honestly about what I see happening with my favorite team, on and off the court, and I always thought that being apart from the team was the best way I could add to the conversation. There are plenty of people who work from the inside.
I write this because I suspect that Flip Saunders is one of those people whose public persona was real. The nice guy who had time for everybody, loved the game, loved his players, loved his family...I think that's the reality of the man. Regardless of my opinions on his coaching and management, it's undeniable that Flip cared about this franchise. And he cared about the entire experience--not just personnel moves or coaching tactics. He clearly had a desire to make the Timberwolves experience a fun one, something it's easy to lose sight of sometimes--that this is supposed to be fun.
So he not only helped get a fantastic new training facility built that would make the workplace better for his (and the Lynx) players, he also came up with things like Dunks After Dark. He introduced new players at the Minnesota State Fair. In short, he didn't lose sight of the fact that fans are a vital part of the NBA, and he cared about their experience.
This is a major loss for the Timberwolves and the NBA, and what the future holds in store for the franchise remains to be seen. Sam Mitchell is in place for this season on the coaching side, and Milt Newton on the management side. How Glen Taylor decides to proceed will be something we watch and cover as things unfold.
But of course that loss is nothing next to the loss no doubt being felt by his family and friends today, as they try to come to grips with the passing of a man who was full of vibrancy and zest for life at the far too young age of 60. Cancer can and often does strike quickly--Flip passed less than six months since his diagnosis, and as recently as 10 weeks ago, the prognosis was good and he was expected back on the sidelines.
That will never happen now, and while we mourn the loss from varying degrees of distance, we extend our deepest condolences and best wishes for finding peace and meaning to those who were closest to him.
Rest in Peace.