When the Timberwolves honor the late Flip Saunders on Thursday night, raising his banner into the Target Center rafters, it will be a celebration of one of the greatest basketball ambassadors the state of Minnesota has ever had and one of the closest friends I ever had in sports.
I got to know Saunders the day he stepped on the University of Minnesota campus in 1973. He came to the Gophers and coach Bill Musselman told me he had added a great point guard. That proved true, as Saunders started all four seasons.
During the 1976-77 season, Saunders’ senior campaign, he led one of the best teams the campus has ever seen. That Jim Dutcher-coached team featured Saunders at the point, future No. 1 overall pick Mychal Thompson at center, future No. 3 overall pick Kevin McHale at forward, future No. 10 overall pick Ray Williams at guard and Osborne Lockhart — who would go on to play over 10 years with the Harlem Globetrotters — as a third guard.
But the NCAA already declared that team ineligible for postseason play because of violations under Musselman, and then the Gophers had their record reversed from 24-3 to 0-27 because the NCAA ruled Thompson ineligible for selling his season tickets. That team could have won it all.
In fact, the Gophers, who went 15-3 to finish second in the Big Ten, finished No. 9 in the AP poll, defeating eventual NCAA champions Marquette, coached by the great Al McGuire, 66-59 on the road in Milwaukee early in the season.
Saunders averaged 6.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists that season and facilitated for all those great stars.
Dutcher, who coached Saunders for two seasons, told me about his play back in 2015. “He was the one guy we felt we could not play without,” Dutcher said. “He ran the team. In high school, Flip averaged 32 points per game. But when he was running the point for us, he just got everyone else involved. He didn’t shoot that much. He just ran the team. But he led us in assists, he led us in free-throw percentage. So even though we had three No. 1 draft choices, Flip was our most valuable player.”
Teams with Garnett
Saunders spent seven years coaching in the Continental Basketball Association before McHale, who had taken over as vice president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, hired Saunders to be general manager in May 1995.
Their first big decision was selecting Kevin Garnett with the No. 5 overall pick in June 1995. Garnett, McHale and Saunders would be closely linked for the rest of their careers.
Another big turning point came in December of that year when McHale made the decision to fire coach Bill Blair and replace him with Saunders.
I talked to Saunders before his first game as an NBA coach, which just so happened to be in his hometown of Cleveland.
“My brother and his wife and kids are coming home form Dallas, my father and mother will be there and a bunch of other relatives,” he told me. But he still had reservations about the coaching lifestyle. “We’re moving into our new house on Friday and I won’t be around. This is tough on my wife, Debbie, and my four young kids, I did enough traveling all my years in the CBA.”
Saunders coached the Wolves for the next 10 seasons, reaching the playoffs in eight consecutive campaigns, with 2004 being the greatest season in franchise history, as the team made the Western Conference finals and Garnett was named MVP.
A shocking firing
After that 2004 campaign it seemed like Saunders would be the coach forever. But the Wolves were having trouble in the 2004-05 season and McHale fired Saunders with the team at 25-26.
I was with driving back from watching Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech team play at Iowa State on Feb. 12, 2005, when I heard the news on the radio. It was one of the most shocking moments in my career.
Saunders told me of the firing, “I talked to Kevin [McHale] for four minutes.”
A lot of people blamed Garnett for Saunders firing, but only days before Garnett said: “I don’t think it’s fair just to put 100 percent of the blame on Flip, that’s not it. A year ago he was the All-Star coach. And now people are talking about firing him?
“Come on, man. Come on. Come on, man. I mean, you can’t. It’s like your wife, man. You can’t love her when she’s got makeup on, she takes the makeup off you hate her.”
Garnett and Saunders showed no animosity remained during the 2014-15 campaign. That’s when Saunders came back as Wolves president of basketball operations and coach, and he made a midseason deal to bring Garnett back.
Remodel the franchise
While Saunders is not here to see the best Wolves season since his 2003-04 campaign, his fingerprints are all over this club.
It was Saunders who showed the patience to wait out the Cavaliers and get 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins for soon-to-be free agent Kevin Love.
It was Saunders who made the call to pick Karl-Anthony Towns over Jahlil Okafor after the Wolves got the No. 1 overall pick in 2015.
And it was Saunders who made the move to trade up and draft Apple Valley product Tyus Jones that same year.
In my final interview with him in July 2015, he talked about the team he was trying to create.
“We’re excited the way things turned out,” he said. “We identified Towns, of course, was going to be our No. 1 pick and so we didn’t have to worry about anybody stealing him, and then we did identify Tyus as being someone that we thought would fill the roles of what we’re looking to do and had the character and leadership qualities. He’s a winner, as much as anything else, and that would really fit into what we’re trying to do.
“So even though we’re young, we have some players that are beyond their years in their ability to go out and perform.”
Yes it took a few years, and a big trade by Tom Thibodeau to bring in Jimmy Butler, but the foundation for the Wolves’ success in 2017-18 was laid by Saunders.
When he died on Oct. 25, 2015, his family lost a great man, and a lot of people lost a great friend, including my son, Chad, who broadcast his games in the CBA and was very close to him when he broadcast Wolves games.
We lost a basketball genius. The video for the memorial service following his death speaks to that, as top NBA people reminisced about him.
Still, as great as he was for basketball, he was an even better person. No one deserves this honor more than him. And it feels unfair he is not here to see the franchise turnaround that he started.