On the same day they revealed Flip Saunders has been hospitalized because of cancer-treatment complications, the Timberwolves implemented a contingency plan Friday to temporarily replace their part owner, president of basketball operations and head coach by expanding General Manager Milt Newton’s duties and promoting associate head coach Sam Mitchell to interim head coach.
Citing the Saunders family’s desire for privacy, the team provided few details about his condition, other than stating Mitchell will be coach when the season opens Oct. 28 and measuring Saunders’ expected return from a leave of absence in terms of months rather than weeks.
The team also revealed at a news conference that Saunders recently was admitted to a hospital after he completed chemotherapy treatments received since June to treat Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system that Saunders’ doctors last month deemed very treatable and curable.
In September 2013, Saunders hired Newton to assist him in the front office, reuniting two men who had worked together for the Washington Wizards. After Saunders decided nine months later to hire himself to coach as well, he brought Mitchell back as an assistant to the franchise where Mitchell had played 10 seasons, including the past seven when Saunders was coach.
With training camp a little more than two weeks away, Mitchell and Newton are responsible for leading a team that’s now without the man who hired each.
“We have a job to do and Flip brought us here to do that, in case something happens,” said Mitchell, the 2007 NBA Coach of the Year who coached Toronto for four-plus season in the mid-2000s. “Out of respect, you don’t want to step in under these circumstances, but, you know, Flip brought us here for a reason. … I just think the most important thing we can do is carry on for Flip. He has to have the time to get healthy. That’s the most important thing for him. For us, it’s to carry on what he’s put together.”
In a team-issued statement released Friday, Saunders’ family thanked the medical team that has treated him, expressed its gratitude for the concern and support people have shown and asked for privacy.
“We are fully committed to Flip’s long-term health and look forward to him returning to his Timberwolves’ responsibilities at the appropriate time,” the statement said.
In a separate statement, Wolves owner Glen Taylor said he remains confident in the team’s direction and called Saunders’ return to good health “our priority right now.” To that end, he has instructed the team’s staff — from CEO Rob Moor on down — to give Saunders time and space alone to rest and heal.
That’s a telling directive for anyone who well knows Saunders’ compulsive nature and attention to detail. This is a man who has involved himself with billboard design and game-night video production as well as conceptualized the “Dunks After Dark” production that kicked off last season in Mankato, and a mock “Bruise Brothers” album that promoted Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic a few years back.
All while holding perhaps the most power — three different roles — over one franchise of anyone in the NBA as his day job.
“You know Flip,” Moor said. “He’s going to want to talk about team stuff.”
Newton said he has talked to most of his team’s players — some of whom have been playing international competition from Mexico to Europe and Africa — in recent days about Saunders’ condition and the team’s transition. Included are veterans Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, both of whom signed with a young Wolves team this past summer near the end of their careers primarily because of their history with Saunders.
Newton used one word to describe the basketball-operations staff and players Saunders has assembled since he was hired to replace fired David Kahn as the team’s chief decision-maker in May 2013: “Professional.”
“They know there is a job to be done,” Newton said. “All their thoughts and prayers are with Flip and his family, but at this point they know training camp is coming up and we have a vision that has to be worked on. We expect nothing less from them, to be professional.”
Players report for media day Sept. 28. Training camp practices start the next day.
“This is a part of life,” Newton said, noting that his team’s players have relatives who, like Saunders, are fighting cancer as well.
The ball bounces and play continues on.
“It’s tough because Flip was not only my coach, he was my friend, he was a mentor,” Mitchell said. “I learned a lot of basketball from Flip. The best thing I can do in his absence is do what he brought me here to do and that’s coaching. My job is to just keep this train moving on the track and developing a culture that Flip would want: a culture of mental toughness, playing hard, playing together, playing with passion, playing with pride.
“I’m just going to keep my head down and take it one day at a time and coach the team to the best of my ability.”