As unlikely as it might have seemed once upon a time, Sam Cassell returns Monday to where a new life as an NBA assistant coach all started: Target Center.
He never coached there, only played there in that previous life as a gifted but mercurial point guard who you might have thought would become anything but a leader of men. Yet here he is, in his seventh season as an assistant coach with Washington and now the Los Angeles Clippers because of his two seasons spent in Minnesota with the Timberwolves and a coach named Flip Saunders.
“Without him, I don’t know …” Cassell said, his voice trailing off.
In his first season with the Wolves, Cassell teamed with superstar Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell on a 58-victory team that reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
His second season here was wrought with strife, created in good part by his and Sprewell’s bubbling discontent after neither could negotiate the rich contract extension each sought. The Wolves fired Saunders 51 games into that season — his 10th on the job — after the team couldn’t do any better than a 25-26 record. The coach took the fall for being unable to unite his players and soothe a disgruntled one in Cassell.
Saunders eventually went on to coach Detroit for three seasons. Cassell played three more seasons for the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston before he retired.
Never known as a man to hold a grudge, Saunders added Cassell to his coaching staff along with current Wolves assistant Ryan Saunders four years later when the Wizards hired a new coach in the spring of 2009.
“Of all the guys in coaching, he gave me my start,” Cassell said earlier this season. “I had the passion and the dream to be a coach. He gave me the opportunity.”
Saunders died at age 60 in October, nearly five months after he had been diagnosed with cancer. Cassell said he will always remember Saunders as “a fair man. He wasn’t a yeller or a screamer, but he had a way of getting his point across.”
Such a point was delivered early in that first season with the Wolves, who started what became a merry season much less so: Saunders gathered his three stars a month into the season, after his team started the year with such great expectations and only a 9-8 record.
“It was kind of shaky at first because we didn’t want to step on each other’s toes,” Cassell said. “One day Flip sat us down and said, ‘Listen, I’m sick of y’all not saying nothing to each other.’ He told all of us we had the right to say something to the others. He was telling us to hold each other accountable, that it was the only way this thing would work.”
Cassell said the three players responded by laughing out loud. “We laughed because it was the truth,” he said. “From that point, we went on a roll the rest of the year. We went on a great roll.”
For the record, they went 49-16 the rest of the regular season, beat Denver in five playoff games and Sacramento in seven. With Cassell hurting, they lost to the Lakers in six games. Saunders always contended Cassell injured his hip doing an infamous celebratory dance in the Kings series and wondered what if Cassell had been healthy against the Lakers.
Cassell wonders, too.
“I don’t know,” said Cassell, who played little or not at all in the series’ final three games. “Unfortunately, we got hurt. I think we could have done something special.”
Kobe’s last visit
A teenager named Kobe Bryant played his first game at Target Center 19 years ago this month. On Wednesday, he’ll make his final visit after he announced last week that this season will be his last.
“I honestly feel good about it, I really do,” he said. “I really feel at peace with it and excited with what’s to come.”
His farewell tour has started unevenly, to say the least: He flung up shots at every opportunity in a Tuesday loss in his hometown to a Philadelphia team that ended an 0-18 season start that night and then scored 31 points in beating Washington the next night.
The Timberwolves will auction off players’ game-worn jerseys after Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, with proceeds benefiting the Flip Saunders Legacy Fund. Winning bidders will get their jersey autographed at the Dec. 18 game against Sacramento.
Flip’s praise special
Predraft workouts often become nothing more than a blur, but Orlando’s Victor Oladipo won’t forget when Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders came to him before the 2013 draft.
Saunders coveted the Indiana guard but couldn’t trade up to get him. He did, though, fly to Washington, D.C., to watch Oladipo work out privately and took him to dinner.
“He just told me there was something special about me, that I should never lose that,” Oladipo said. “He told me I have what it takes to be great. It’s definitely something I remember him saying that I’ll never forget.”
THE WOLVES' WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. L.A. Clippers (FSN). Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. L.A. Lakers (FSN). Friday: 8 p.m. at Denver (FSN Plus).
Player to watch: Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Step right up and see the five-time NBA champion play at Target Center for the final time, that is if he upholds last week’s announcement that this will be his final season.
“It was like, gee whiz, you’re guarding your idol, that’s kind of weird.” — Wolves guard Zach LaVine on playing against Bryant — LaVine’s favorite player when he was a kid — for the first time in his rookie season a year ago.