Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers had so many telephone conversations — middle of the night and otherwise — with friend Flip Saunders that he can’t come close to remembering or quantifying them all.
But he’ll never forget the final one in late summer, when Saunders believed he was well on his way toward beating a cancer that attacks the immune system.
The two men talked about the usual things — family, basketball, life in general — and something else Rivers can’t remember his longtime friend saying before.
“The last thing Flip told me, literally, was we’ve got to take care of each other,” Rivers said. “At that time, obviously he thought he’d be fine. I never talked to him again.”
Nearly two months later, Saunders died at age 60 because of complications resulting from his treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Those who knew Saunders best knew for weeks that his life was threatened, but Rivers called the news of Saunders’ death last Sunday a “shock” nonetheless and an important reminder of his own mortality.
Rivers is 54 and hadn’t given such matters much thought until now.
“When he said we’ve got to take care of each other, he meant healthwise,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to get our checkups, we’ve got to be sure we do our stuff. Our job as coaches is to work, work, work. We have to think about our health a little more.”
Rivers and Saunders were friendly before Rivers and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo served as U.S. assistants on the Goodwill Games team Saunders coached in Australia in 2001. They became fast friends going forward, united by their love and obsession for the game and by life’s unexpected twists and turns that kept bringing them closer together.
When Rivers’ Boston Celtics team traded for superstar Kevin Garnett two years after the Wolves had fired Saunders as coach, they had something in common — “How to coach Kevin,” Rivers said — to discuss at length. Same thing later in that 2007-08 season when veteran Sam Cassell, whom Saunders coached in Minnesota, played 17 games for Rivers and the Celtics.
In 2012 after Washington fired Saunders as coach, he served as a de facto Celtics assistant coach during the playoffs, riding on the planes, observing practice, contributing his thoughts. And also starting a tradition with Rivers in which they would walk back to the team hotel together after morning shootarounds, even if that meant a 7½-mile stroll through some of Philadelphia’s tough neighborhoods.
“We just talked a lot,” Rivers said. “To me, Flip was a confidant. I could share anything about players, about what I was doing offensively, defensively. He would do the same. We had great camaraderie. We shared a lot. If he ran a play I liked, I’d call him and ask him what his thoughts were, why did he run it, why did he run it at that time? Flip loved offense. He loved creating stuff. It was just fun to be around him.”
Saunders gave Cassell his first job as an assistant coach in 2009 in Washington. Five years later, Rivers hired him as an assistant. The two men were scheduled to fly to Minnesota along with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle as well as LA Lakers assistant and former Wolves forward Mark Madsen, among others, on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s private jet for a Saturday memorial service that celebrated Saunders’ life.
“He loved coaching, he loved basketball,” Rivers said. “I don’t know anybody who enjoyed basketball more than Flip. He knew everybody. It’s just really sad.”
NBA Short Takes
Mavericks: Jordan who?
Dallas and the L.A. Clippers met Thursday night in a TNT game for the first time since last summer’s drama, when Clippers center DeAndre Jordan agreed to sign with the Mavericks and then changed his mind about the four-year, $80 million offer.
Jordan had six points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots in the Clippers’ 104-88 victory on a night when Mavs fiery owner Mark Cuban said he likes his team now better anyway after it added Deron Williams, Wes Matthews and Zaza Pachulia instead.
He told reporters he doesn’t give a you-know-what about the Clippers and also said, “Look, the Clippers are the Clippers. You can change the owner, you can change the players, but the Clippers are who they’ve been for the past 30 years.”
KG, Kobe two dinosaurs
On the same night Kevin Garnett tied Kevin Willis and Robert Parrish as the only players to play 21 NBA seasons, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant set a league record by becoming the first to play 20 seasons with the same franchise.
“It’s unbelievable, I don’t know if we’ll see that again,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott, whose final season as a player was Bryant’s rookie year. “You’re talking about two dinosaurs. These guys play because they love the game. They don’t play for money or anything else. They play because they love to compete. I don’t think you’ll see that again for a while. We won’t. Nobody in this room will.”
Trash talk welcomed
Lakers second-year forward Julius Randle’s rookie season ended with a broken leg on opening night a year ago, so Wednesday’s season opener against the Wolves was his first experience with Garnett and Garnett’s legendary trash talking.
“I like it, it gets me going,” Randle told reporters afterward. “It doesn’t scare me. … That’s what he does, tries to get into people’s heads. I’ve been watching him all my life, so I knew what to expect.”
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Portland (FSN)
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Miami (FSN+)
Saturday: 5 p.m. at Chicago (FSN+)
Player to watch: Damian Lillard, Portland
The Blazers lost four starters from last season — including star LaMarcus Aldridge as a free agent to Portland — but they still have perhaps the best clutch young point guard in the association.
“The Utah Jazz.”
— TNT analyst Charles Barkley’s answer on the Thursday night “Who He Play For” segment when asked about Andre Miller. Barkley went 0-for-5 and didn’t know or remember that the Timberwolves signed the 39-year-old guard last summer.