MINNEAPOLIS — The radio stream didn’t want to play. No matter how many times I refreshed the browser on my desktop, nothing came through the speakers.
Afraid of missing out on even a word of the conversation set to come, I bolted out of my bedroom, ran down the stairs, swung open the door to the garage, and jumped into my car.
I had to hear what Flip Saunders was going to say about the Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jahilil Okafor debate, one that raged on for weeks as the most critical topic dominating Wolves’ conversations in the summer of 2015.
This happened more than once over the years; rushing to drop whatever else I was doing just to listen to the segment Flip did with Dan Barreiro on KFAN, the “Friday Funkadelic,” had become a weekly tradition for me and many others. It was the definition of must listen to radio for a diehard fan. Flip had this unique way of peeling back the layers more than most powerful sports people ever do, and since he held the throne in Minnesota as the President of Basketball Operations and head coach, the same role Tom Thibodeau fills today, his words always felt significant.
I never wanted to miss out.
Although Flip was never obligated to let people in a little bit more, allowing everyone to get that much closer to the process, he would often drop hints and clues that fueled conversations. After reflecting on it for a while, I think he truly enjoyed that part of the business; Flip absolutely loved the fan aspect that many decision makers seem to forget about.
At times, he even seemed addicted to hearing everyone’s opinion, ultimately in pursuit of fleshing out his own. As someone that’s prone to doing the same, I found comfort in his leadership. At Flip’s core, he was a Wolves fan like the rest of us and that had a way of easing my concerns during the dark days.
ON A MID-FEBRUARY NIGHT inside of the beautifully renovated Target Center that Flip surely would have looked upon with pride, the Wolves celebrated the most successful coach in the history of their organization. The team honored his life with a pre-game ceremony that included his wife, Debbie, and four children, Ryan, Mindy, Kimberly, and Rachel, as well as announcer Kevin Harlan, former players Chauncey Billups, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, Troy Hudson, Gary Trent, and Mark Madsen, and other significant individuals in his life.
I couldn’t help but think about how much I cherished sitting in my car listening to the Friday Funkadelic years ago. Everyone has a story about Flip, and that’s one of mine. Hearing his voice, and sometimes that sassy attitude towards Barreiro, is something I miss deeply. He craved conversation as much as the rest of us do. I always felt connected to him in that way.
A lot of fans ripped Flip for one thing or another over the years in Minneapolis, and anyone with that kind of power certainly deserves criticism, but nobody can look back and debate his accessibility or intense love for the game. He wanted to share Wolves basketball with us, and he treated everyone like they were worth sharing it with.
Since his death, I’ve thought a lot about my first season covering games for Canis Hoopus. I never knew exactly what to write after he passed away. I was never ready to write anything because...what could I say that others couldn’t better communicate. I was just a nervous blogger trying to learn as much as possible from the professionals around me. To be honest, I was just happy to be there.
The team went full tank mode, going 16-66. Little hope existed beyond Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and the future high first round pick growing into superstars, hopefully capable of rescuing the Wolves from another decade of incompetence. All I did was write about losses, over and over again, until every game blended together so purely that it became difficult to separate one week from the next.
The season was an avalanche of disappointment. But it was my dream to be there covering the games and when I think back, I don’t think about the tanking or staying up all night typing and deleting and re-typing sentences when the same thing could’ve been said more often than not.
When I think back, I remember about how optimistic Flip always seemed. There was always this deep burning belief inside of him that Minnesota basketball would rise back to the top.
THEN CAME TIP-OFF
After Flip’s banner was raised, and the game went on, as it must, the Wolves squared off against a Lakers team that seems one foot in and one foot out this season, with promising young players in the fold but with eyes on much bigger prizes this upcoming summer in free agency.
Through the first three quarters, there was little defense to speak of, a concerning trend for Thibs’ Wolves. 20-year-old center Ivica Zubac stood by the rim for uncontested putbacks on his way to the best game of his season, setting a season-high in points (19) and rebounds (11) marking his first double-double of the year. He had 23 total points entering the contest. Julius Randle charged the rim with aggression early and often on his way to leading the Lakers with 23 points on 8-15 shooting (adding nine rebounds and two steals). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Ingram both contributed 17 points apiece.
For a while, it seemed like the Wolves would never defend well enough to walk away with their 36th win before the All-Star break, but Jamal Crawford (15 points off the bench) and Tyus Jones (8 points, two steals, and one three-pointer from way out there—basically from Apple Valley, MN) acted as the spark plugs that ignited a comeback win.
It was the Wolves biggest comeback of the season, overcoming a 15-point deficit in the second quarter. “That may have been his best game of the year,” Thibs said about Crawford.
“I talked to the guys in the third quarter, it looked like we had no life. We had to inject some life into the game, inject some energy,” Crawford added in the locker room afterwards. “Me and Tyus talked about it, Gorgui as well, the bench guys. We got in there and tried to bring the crowd into it, bring our team back.”
Taj Gibson set a career-high in points, finishing the night with 28 and seven rebounds on 11-16 shooting (26: Feb. 6, 2014 at Golden State). Jeff Teague looks like he’s finally healthy again after dealing with multiple injuries this season. He had 20 points (6-9) and six assists, while Karl-Anthony Towns, despite going 2-9 from the field, recorded his 51st double-double with 10 points and 19 rebounds.
Jimmy Butler added 24 points (7-20) while grabbing five boards and dishing out four assists. He set a season-high with three blocks, including two clutch swats down the stretch. These are the types of sequences that make Butler so special:
I asked @JimmyButler about his back-to-back blocks. “I don’t know how high I jumped. I don’t think I jumped that high. It was on Isaiah [Thomas]. He’s low center of gravity. But I’ll take it. We won. I’m going into the break. Finna go turn up on this plane right quick.” pic.twitter.com/E4G78Dig6Y— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) February 16, 2018
The Wolves decided to play some defense in the fourth, on a night that, more importantly, was all about honoring the man that set this entire team into motion.
“It was amazing. Like I said, [Flip Saunders] is Minnesota basketball,” said Towns. “He embodies everything it is. He’s given his life for this state — coaching the Wolves, playing for the University of Minnesota as well. He is Minnesota basketball. I’m glad he got the honor he deserves. He’s truly one of the greatest legends to ever walk this land.”
Now the All-Star break is here and the Wolves, sitting at 36-25, are a threatening Western Conference foe, finally back to where where Flip wanted them to be.