Once deemed too small to make it big in the sport he so loved, Flip Saunders became a Minnesota basketball icon: a four-year starter at the University of Minnesota, the winningest coach in Timberwolves history and, in his second stint with the team, one of the most powerful executives in professional basketball.
The team announced “with extreme sadness” that its part-owner, president of basketball operations and head coach had died Sunday morning, four months after he began chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, then suffered complications from the treatment.
He was 60.
Saunders is survived by his wife, Debbie; daughters Mindy, Rachel and Kimberly, and his oldest child, son Ryan, a Wolves assistant coach.
Termed a “coach’s coach” by longtime friend and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, Saunders was remembered by everyone from Wolves owner Glen Taylor, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and National Basketball Association (NBA) Commissioner Adam Silver to Wolves players and the league’s biggest superstar, Cleveland’s LeBron James.
Taylor on Sunday called Saunders a “symbol of strength, compassion and dignity for our organization,” while Dayton said “the Timberwolves have lost a brilliant leader and Minnesota has lost an outstanding citizen.” Silver said Saunders’ death “has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league.”
In his earliest days as Timberwolves coach two decades ago, Saunders coached a gangly teenager named Kevin Garnett for more than 10 seasons, nurturing him into an NBA superstar and future league MVP.
On Sunday, Garnett posted a photo on his Facebook page seated with his back to the camera staring at Saunders’ empty parking space at the team’s practice facility with the words “Forever in my heart. ...”
Earlier this month, Taylor discussed Saunders’ condition with his team’s players, coaches and staff at a team dinner that he hosts every year at his Mankato home. Many of those who attended had been hand-picked for the franchise by Saunders.
“I talked about family and how important he is to ours,” Taylor said Friday. “Here we are, 55 people all together and all brought together by Flip.”
Saunders arrived in Minnesota in 1973 from his Cleveland-area home to play for the University of Minnesota basketball team. He met his future wife, Debbie, when she was a member of the school’s dance team — and kept his residence in the Twin Cities area even though he coached across the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and for two other NBA teams.
“He turned out to be a Minnesota guy,” said former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher, who coached Saunders in his final two collegiate seasons and employed him as an assistant for five more. “I don’t care if he coached in Washington or Detroit, Minnesota was still home. It’s just a tragedy for Minnesota basketball in general because when he became a Golden Gopher he became a Minnesota guy.”
All about his will
Saunders, named Philip Daniel at birth after his two grandfathers, weighed 4 pounds and 14 ounces, a slight size that forever shaped the life of a boy everyone came to know by his nickname.
Once wrongly told on Cleveland’s west-side playgrounds that a 5-2 freshman was too tiny to play for his high school’s varsity team, he grew — and the term is used loosely in a basketball context — to become an Ohio prep star, a Big Ten starter at point guard with the Gophers and a realist who soon thereafter knew his life’s work awaited in coaching.
When an uncle once told him he wished little Flip were 4 inches taller, little Flip answered that he wouldn’t have tried so hard if he had been 4 inches taller. Saunders was generously listed at 5 feet, 11 inches tall.
“Don’t listen to what people say,” Saunders told a reporter in 2009, “because they don’t understand the will that you have.”
He became a career coach instead, famed for his thick playbook and sometimes-obsessive attention to detail. He chased the dream from major-college basketball to the sport’s minor league all the way to the NBA. That’s where he coached the Wolves for nearly a decade the first time around, and then both managed and coached the team his second time there.
“His network was as big as anybody in basketball,” said Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for Saunders with the Wolves a decade ago. “He knew everybody. I mean, if you ever needed advice, you could call him at any time of day. You could call him at three in the morning and he’d be up watching games and he’d take your call. … I’m still in shock. It’s so sad. For everybody who knew Flip, it’s a bad day, because you can’t find one person to say bad things about him.”
A rapid downturn
Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer of the immune system — in June and soon began chemotherapy treatments. In August, the team announced his condition, saying he intended to work uninterrupted while being treated for a cancer his doctors considered very curable.
Saunders had said in a team statement: “I am attacking this with the same passion I do everything in my life, knowing this is a serious issue. I also know that God has prepared me to fight this battle.”
In early September, the Wolves announced that Saunders had been hospitalized because of complications resulting from his completed chemotherapy. The team said it was promoting associate head coach Sam Mitchell to interim head coach and expanding General Manager Milt Newton’s duties until Saunders returned from a leave of absence. The team had measured the leave in terms of months, rather than weeks.
The Timberwolves will begin the regular season Wednesday at Los Angeles.
A close friend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, went with his team on an Italian trip in late August and upon his return never talked to Saunders by phone again.
“If there is one thing that brings a smile to my face on this very sad day, it’s hearing his players talk about him,” Izzo said in a statement. “The respect and love in their voices and in their words are the ultimate tribute to a coach.”
After time away, including an on-air stint at ESPN between coaching gigs, he returned to Minnesota full-time to run the Wolves basketball operations in May 2013. That was more than eight years after Taylor and friend and former college teammate Kevin McHale fired him as coach the first time around, midway through a disappointing season.
Saunders is by a lopsided margin the winningest coach in franchise history — with a 427-392 record in nearly 11 full seasons — and is the only man to coach the team into the playoffs, something he did with Garnett’s help on the court for eight consecutive seasons, from 1997 to 2004.
‘Our most valuable player’’
His father, Walter, a former Marine, was a disciplinarian who taught him the value of hard work, perseverance and just where to draw the line. He did so, Saunders often remembered, without ever raising his voice.
His mother Kay, a former hairdresser, gave him many things, including the nickname “Flip” that he carried with him almost all of his life.
The kid considered too little started as a freshman for his high school team, and in his senior season scored 32 points a game and was named Ohio’s Class A Player of the Year.
He arrived at Minnesota to play for a demanding, defensive-minded young coach and fellow Ohioan named Bill Musselman.
Saunders became a passing, playmaking guard on talented Gophers teams, including the one coached by Dutcher that went 24-3 his senior year with Mychal Thompson, Ray Williams and a freshman named McHale — top six NBA draft picks all — on it.
“We had three high first-round choices, but Flip was our most valuable player,” Dutcher said. “He was the point guard. He was the guy we could not play without. It’s a sad day.”
When Saunders went to NBA rookie camp with his hometown Cleveland team that next summer, Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch told him he would be his agent if Saunders were 6-5, but kindly suggested that the 5-11 point guard pursue coaching instead.
‘A coach’s coach
Saunders followed the recommendation, from his first job at Golden Valley Lutheran College — where, at age 21, he was younger than some of his players — to assistant jobs under Dutcher at his alma mater and then in Tulsa.
From Musselman, he learned his attention to detail and the intensity required to win. From Dutcher, he learned to let go, discovering he could prepare players at practice and then allow them the freedom needed when it was time to perform.
After coaching 11 collegiate seasons, he made a leap of faith with a young, growing family and took a chance on professional basketball, joining Musselman’s son, Eric, in the CBA.
He coached seven years in far-flung outposts such as Rapid City, S.D., La Crosse, Wis., and Sioux Falls, S.D.; won two championships, and twice was named Coach of the Year — all while adapting in a league where players came and went like the prairie wind.
In the CBA, his playbook grew to legendary thickness and he toted along a little sign with each move.
“Adapt or die,” he said it read. “Just like the dinosaurs.”
In time, he became friend and sounding board for coaches everywhere, from the NBA to colleges to the game’s minor leagues.
“Flip was more than a friend, he was a confidant and a mentor,” Rivers, an assistant with Izzo to Saunders for the 2001 Goodwill Games in Australia, said in a statement Sunday. “The basketball world lost a coach’s coach today and I lost a great friend.”