Late in May 2015, I was walking through the skyway near Target Center, and Flip Saunders called my name.
At the time, he was the Timberwolves coach, president of basketball operations and a part owner of the team. The Wolves recently had won the NBA lottery, giving them the first pick in a loaded draft, prompting Saunders to cry as he thought of his late father and the Wolves’ previously horrid draft luck.
That day in the skyway, Saunders did not act the way most celebrities or sports bosses do. He didn’t look away or pretend he had to take an important phone call. He walked up to me and started talking about the draft.
He hadn’t yet traveled to Los Angeles to watch Karl-Anthony Towns work out, which would alter his opinion and the course of franchise history. At that moment, he was enamored of Duke star Jahlil Okafor. He raved about Okafor’s ability to draw double-teams, score in the post and make one-handed passes.
Given the dour, paranoid nature of most modern major sports executives, this was strange behavior. Saunders and I got along, but I had never been his ally. I didn’t cover him as a point guard at the University of Minnesota, I wasn’t around the Wolves during their one playoff run. I didn’t champion him as a savior for the Gophers basketball program, or welcome him as a returning hero when he took charge of the Wolves. Unlike a few other local writers, I didn’t call him at midnight to talk hoops.
I had done him no favors. In fact, I had been wrong about him. He would have been ideal for the Gophers, and he did good work for the Wolves.
Luckily for me, Saunders didn’t hold grudges. He wanted to talk hoops. He wanted Minnesotans to like his team, and believe in what he was building.
Weeks later, I again ran into him in the skyway. By this time he had watched more video and watched Towns work out, and knew he had found his franchise player. Even then, he couldn’t help but wonder if Kristaps Porzingis would become the next Dirk Nowitzki. He was willing to admit that any draft choice is an exercise in risk management, that it was his job to have doubts.
Flip didn’t need to share any of that with me, but he did, because he was a basketball fan who wanted to bring all of Minnesota’s basketball fans along on the bandwagon that he planned to build, tune, gas up and drive.
His passing and the firing of longtime Twins General Manager Terry Ryan have altered the aura of Minnesota sports. As franchises become bigger and more expensive businesses, and advanced analytics become de rigueur, the sports world has become a colder place. More logical, perhaps, but colder.
Saunders and Ryan, and other former Minnesota sports bosses such as Wild GM Doug Risebrough and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, cared about more than just winning. They acted as ambassadors for their teams and sports.
Today, covering most professional teams is like covering any other big business, and the art of storytelling and ambassadorship is waning.
Saunders died Oct. 25, 2015, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 60. Thursday night, the franchise will honor him at Target Center.
There will be speeches and tributes, but Flip’s true legacy will be personified by Towns.
Flip did his homework and chose a remarkably talented and socially-conscious athlete with that No. 1 pick. Towns has helped elevate the franchise’s performance and popularity.
Flip would have been proud of Towns, as a player and a young man. Towns will never receive a better compliment than that.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org