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A Game Without Flip Saunders

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Some personal reflections after Coach Saunders passed away Sunday.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight is the night we've all been waiting for: the Timberwolves 2015-16 season opener.

I think a lot of us half expect to see Flip Saunders joining the team on the sideline, coaching like we've watched him do thousands of times before... it still feels surreal that he won't be there.

Although I exclusively write about the Wolves here at Canis, most of you know I'm also a dedicated Vikings fan, and there's not much that will pull me from a game. In the middle of Sunday's game against the Lions, however, my friend Joe texted me to say he had seen a post online that Saunders had passed away.

My heart sank.

I told my Dad, to which he responded in disbelief, "no he didn't." It only took a few seconds to open up Twitter and see countless headlines confirming the report.

We all knew that he'd been sick, but doesn't it seem like just yesterday that we were hearing how treatable the diagnosis was, that it wouldn't affect his coaching duties? There had been speculation over the past several weeks that things were worse than originally anticipated, and on Friday when Glen Taylor announced that Saunders wouldn't be coaching at all this season, that seriousness hit home.

But still—and I think I'm speaking for all NBA fans—seeing that ESPN headline bar slide across the screen Sunday seemed impossible to believe.

I immediately scrolled through messages that various players had posted upon hearing the news about their current or former coach. I know I'm echoing the masses when I say that Kevin Garnett's touching photo brought up plenty of feelings. As I showed the photo to my parents and my mom asked me to read the caption, I couldn't get through it without choking up.

When I thought about writing this piece, I wasn't sure if I wanted to or not; I wasn't sure if I should, or if I had the right. After all, I didn't know Flip personally, and I can't imagine the pain that his family and friends are experiencing in having to say good-bye. Even in some of my media experience, I can't say I knew him in that context like so many others did.

But, the sadness is there. Like so many other Minnesotans who grew up watching Coach Saunders, I feel like I knew him.

Last season, I had gone down to the Target Center for a meeting, and I made the mistake I often do: texting and walking. It's not something I'm proud of, but my eyes were glued to my phone as I walked through the skyway and in the general direction of the offices. A route I know by heart. As I rounded the corner, I walked straight into a man wearing a blue suit, stepping on his feet and awkwardly stumbling to keep myself upright.

"I'm so sorry!" I mumbled, flustered, probably beat red. Flip just chuckled and offered me a smile.

"It's no problem," he said in that soft-spoken way. "Have a good day."

In my media and journalism role, I've learned to separate myself from the "celebrity" factor; but I'll admit that was a day I felt star struck at [literally] running into the coach I had been watching from a young age. In those few seconds, I personally experienced the friendly, down-to-earth person everyone always said he was.

He was that way with everyone.

After a game last year, I shuffled toward the parking ramp along with a congested crowd murmuring disappointments about the loss. Above the buzz, I heard a woman excitedly yell, "Flip Nelson! That's Flip Nelson!" as the coach slipped through the admin doors and into the chaos. I remember laughing, completely confused by this woman having no idea she was calling him by an incorrect name, and frankly feeling embarrassed for her.

Flip, who I'm sure had hoped to make a quiet exit, smiled and waved at both the woman and her friend while thanking them for coming to the game.

That's just the kind of guy he was.

I can't say that Flip had anything to do with starting my love for sports—I have my Dad to thank for that—but I can say how much I enjoyed watching him coach and felt somehow connected to him, as if he would know who I was that day last year.

When he started coaching in 1995, I remember loving his name; "Flip" is a fantastic name to a 7-year-old. Every game I watched on TV or attended at Target Center, I loved observing his coaching style, his mannerisms. I don't remember a time before Flip coached the Timberwolves; to me, he's part of their identity.

Flip left Minnesota for Detroit when I was 17, and it just didn't seem right to have someone other than him in that spot. When I landed an internship with the Wolves as a web reporter for the 2009-10 season, I'll admit I was disappointed he wouldn't be the coach I'd be interacting with.

And when he came back for his return stint with the Wolves, I couldn't have been more excited. To see him and Garnett reunited in for 2014 was just short of a dream come true for a Minnesota girl who spent her whole childhood watching the duo work together.

Several times over the years, I've talked with Dad about how he seemed like such a quiet, friendly guy but would get so passionate and worked up on the sidelines. From a young age, I understood that the balance made him a great coach—he was sold-out for the game, he held his players to high standards, but he cared so much about them... both on and off the court.

I think that's why KG's photo made so many of us cry on Sunday.

Flip had been a part of Garnett's life for 20 of the player's 39 years; the image of Garnett sitting in the parking space of his coach who will not see his last game confirmed what we all thought about Flip Saunders already:

He was more than a coach. Flip Saunders was a father, a mentor and a friend... and he will be greatly missed.