By the team he was a senior last year, Breck’s Will Culliton had developed into one of the state’s top outside shooters, hitting 100 three-pointers while leading the Mustangs to a 20-9 record and the Class 2A, Section 5 championship game.
Culliton’s long-range prowess, coupled with a stellar academic career, earned him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and a spot on Army’s Division-I basketball team.
Like many Minnesotans, Culliton was shocked by the recent death of Flip Saunders and was moved to write a tribute to the former Gophers player and Timberwolves coach.
Culliton sent his letter to the Star Tribune to share:
“I met Coach Saunders 10 years ago when I was 9 years old. My mom signed me up for his basketball camp, and I really didn’t want to go because I knew I would be one of the youngest and smallest players at the camp.
“The first day of camp, Coach Saunders showed up in old sweatpants, a torn T-shirt and gym shoes. He wasn’t there to simply shake hands or sign autographs; he was there to coach. He split us up into teams, and when he asked me my name, he remembered it! He wanted to know why I liked basketball and why I played the game. I stumbled for an answer and he just laughed and said, “Will, I’m going to keep my eye on you.” It was crazy to think that this famous coach who worked with some of the best players in the world wanted to work with me. He told me I should become a point guard, so every day he’d pull me aside and push me to be a stronger ballhandler and passer. I got better during his camp, but not good enough to win any awards or take home any trophies. Yet on the last day, Coach Saunders pulled me aside and told me to stick with basketball. He said I had a future in the game. He also said he’d love to have me back as a camp counselor someday when I was playing college ball. Coach Saunders thought I could play college basketball! I’ll never forget those words and how they motivated me to push myself in the gym every day.
“On Sunday, I put on an Army-West Point basketball uniform for the first time. I thought of all the coaches and teammates who have helped me become a better person and player. It started with Coach Saunders. I was just a little kid, yet he saw something in me and encouraged me to chase a dream. I never had a chance to thank him or come back as a counselor and work for him. But I’ll always remember him. Thank you Coach Saunders.”