Flip Saunders coached the Timberwolves to eight consecutive postseason appearances. There finally was a reward in the last of those, the playoff run of 2004 that remains the lone such item in the franchise's 33-year-history.
The No. 1-seeded Timberwolves lost the services of ultra-important Sam Cassell for all but five minutes of the final three games, and were taken down in six games by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
The series ended on May 31, Memorial Day. A few days later Flip's son, Ryan, graduated from Wayzata High School, with the intention of being a walk-on guard for Dan Monson's Gophers basketball team.
As anticipated, Ryan was a deep reserve for the Gophers. What wasn't anticipated was a steep drop-off for the 2004-05 Wolves, which led to Flip's firing on Feb. 12. The Wolves were 25-26 with 31 games remaining in Saunders' 10th season.
"My dad was out of coaching for the first time since 1977," Ryan said. "We would go on some long runs. We did a lot of biking. He would call me up at the U and we would meet halfway for lunch.
"Losing my dad six years ago, I cherish those extra few months of full family time. Those memories remind me that sitting out from coaching for a year isn't a bad thing."
Flip was back in training camp as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons 6 ½ months after being fired by the Timberwolves. Ryan was on the staff during his dad's second Wolves tenure when Flip died on Oct. 25, 2015, at 60.
Ryan was a 32-year-old assistant when he became the Wolves' replacement for the fired Tom Thibodeau on Jan. 6, 2019, and lasted through Feb. 21, 2021, when he was fired by basketball boss Gersson Rosas.
There were assistant coaching opportunities in the NBA for this past season. He decided not to jump, instead using the long months of a basketball season on ultra-family time with wife Hayley, 2-year-old son Lucas and 1-year-old Sophia, born only a couple of days after Dad was fired by Rosas.
Brad Ruiter, another fired former Wolves employee as vice president for communication, landed at his alma mater, the University of Northwestern in Roseville. As the chair of the kinesiology department, Ruiter also was overseeing a sports marketing program.
A lunch of friends with Saunders led to a conversation about a "sports leadership" class, and Ryan has been teaching that twice a week in spring semester at UNW.
There were 30 attendees Tuesday, including a couple of drop-ins. Kyle Kaemingk, a 6-6 junior and Eagles basketball standout, made it in a walking boot on his left leg — a broken ankle, suffered in UNW's one-point loss to Pomona-Pitzer in a first-round game in the Division III national tournament on March 4.
Even though Saunders' sports leadership class earns only two credits, Kaemingk said: "This is the best I've had at Northwestern. P.J. Fleck was here in person last week. We have Tony Dungy scheduled on Zoom next week. We've had Eric Thomas, the motivator, and I've been a follower of his.
"For a young man, Mr. Saunders' contacts are amazing. And Tony Dungy … if that works out, that would be insane."
Memorable moment for Kaemingk? "I was able to ask Coach Fleck, 'How do you make very tough decisions?' He said he assesses a decision by, 'Who's mad and how mad are they going to be?' and 'Who's glad and how glad are they going to be?'
"I want to get into the sports business out of college, and that made a lot of sense to me."
Saunders uses examples from his recent times with the Wolves, but doesn't use specific names. He told one story about challenging a first-quarter call that would fail simply to get a standout player to stop asking for those.
I raised a hand and asked: "And did KAT [Karl-Anthony Towns] appreciate the support?"
A wide smile but no confirmation from Saunders.
Saunders voraciously watches and tapes NBA playoff games. The next morning, he goes through the videos and gathers inbounds plays that intrigue him.
"I'll be back on an NBA staff next season," Saunders said. "And I'm going to be ready."
As for these Wolves and this playoff return, he said: "We spent a lot of time on development, and when I see Jordan McLaughlin, Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell when he's in there, and others … I'm proud of that work."
Asked what he has missed about coaching, Saunders laughed and said: "I had lunch with [Miami coach] Erik Spoelstra and he asked that. I said, 'Believe it or not, it's camaraderie and the misery.' And Erik agreed.
"The camaraderie of the NBA, but also the pain in the stomach — knowing that win or lose, there's always that next challenge."
Not the very next one, though. Next week, Saunders will be running a camp for 60 teenage prospects for the NBA's "Basketball Without Borders" program.
"It's in Rome," Saunders said. "Hayley's going with me."
Lots of camaraderie; no misery.