I don’t recall the first phone call I ever received from Flip Saunders, but the last one this past summer will stick with me forever.
The kid from Cleveland seemed to become a Minnesotan as soon as he played his first game for the University of Minnesota in 1973. He coached a minor-league team in the early 1990s and chased the National Basketball Association dream by helping the Milwaukee Bucks with summertime draft preparations.
That’s when the calls from him started to arrive, unsolicited — always at home, often approaching midnight.
I was covering the expansion Timberwolves. He wanted draft information and shared some in return.
More than 20 years passed. He moved on, coaching the Wolves and nurturing a youngster named Kevin Garnett to stardom. Then it was on to NBA teams in Detroit and Washington. I covered other things before returning to the Wolves beat. He came back to run the franchise that had fired him in 2005 as coach.
Text messaging replaced late-night phone calls, except if he was angry. When his name appeared on an incoming call, I braced for a lively, often one-way, conversation.
One morning in July, my cellphone buzzed as soon as I landed in Las Vegas to cover summer-league play. Predictably, he was agitated about something, until he wasn’t anymore and hung up. Five hours later, Flip phoned back — I presumed to expound on the morning’s conversation.
Instead, he had a tip: Garnett was about to re-sign with the team in Vegas within minutes.
His last call came a month after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’ll remember it because, in the last 30 years, no other source had ever said it, if only in jest.
“I still love ya.”