New Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell last led an NBA team as its full-time head coach nearly seven years ago, when he coached his final game with Toronto in December 2008.
"Wow, I didn't realize it had been that long," he said Friday. "Thank you."
He lasted 17 games into his fifth season there before the Raptors fired him, after he took his team to the NBA playoffs two of his first four seasons and was named the NBA's Coach of the Year in 2007.
He left Toronto with the reputation of a man who perhaps demanded too much and pushed too hard until his tough-love approach wore too thin. He's now 52 and declares himself better prepared, this time to replace cancer-stricken Flip Saunders as coach.
"Well, I'm getting a little older and I think I'm getting a little smarter," he said.
He takes over a team built around consecutive No. 1 overall draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns but balanced at the other end with 30-something veterans Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin.
"There are times you have to be tough," Mitchell said. "And there are times when you have to be loving and understanding and compassionate. The thing I've learned is, you've got to be fair. Players don't mind tough love if the last part of that word is 'love.' You can give them tough love, but you can't just be tough."
Mitchell played seven seasons with the Wolves for Saunders and coached for him one more. Now, as he did for two fleeting games last season, he will coach the players Saunders has assembled and teach Saunders' system and strategies.
"The good thing is that I've played in the system, I've used it in Toronto, so I'm very familiar with it," Mitchell said. "I ran a lot of the things I learned from Flip. Obviously, I have my own little ways of doing things, but that's to be expected and Flip would tell me that. When I took over for him the one game in Toronto [last season], he called me up before the game and said, 'Coach the team.'
"I played for Flip a long time, so I understand what he wants. Having coached with him last year, I really understand it. We have a pretty good idea of what we need to do."