Five days before his team opens its regular season, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said Friday that coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders won’t return this season because of complications resulting from his treatment for cancer.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June, Saunders has been hospitalized since early September.
When asked Friday if he expected Saunders to return to his jobs, Taylor paused and said: “Not this year. I just think his illness, I mean, it’s serious. At this point, if he came back I still think he’d have a hard time to recover all his energy and all that because he has been in the hospital for a long time.”
Shortly after Saunders was hospitalized, the team promoted associate head coach Sam Mitchell to interim head coach and expanded General Manager Milt Newton’s duties. The Wolves announced that Saunders was taking a leave from the team for a period estimated in uncertain terms, other than it would be months rather than weeks.
Doctors treating Saunders called his disease treatable and curable when the Wolves announced his diagnosis in mid-August. At the time, the team said Saunders intended to continue working while he received chemotherapy treatments, which he had completed by the time he was hospitalized in September.
Taylor called the developments “an unbelievable situation we hadn’t anticipated going into this season” and said he talked with the team’s players about Saunders’ condition and his influence on all of them as coach, chief basketball decision-maker and franchise part-owner during a team dinner at Taylor’s Mankato home earlier this month.
“I don’t care how old you get or how experienced you get, these friendships that are in your lives are so important,” said Taylor, who has employed Saunders two different times and known him since shortly after he bought the team in 1994. “They do affect your heart and your mind on a daily basis.”
Taylor said he and Saunders had talked enough throughout the summer that there has been a “blueprint” to follow that includes such things as buying out young forward Anthony Bennett’s contract before training camp began.
Taylor said Newton and Mitchell have the authority going forth to make trades and player personnel decisions in Saunders’ absence.
“We haven’t put anything on hold,” Taylor said. “Milt’s handling it just the way I’d expect him to. He tells me what he thinks, and we talk about things, just the same as I did with Flip. Milt’s just stepped in. Sam has to be his own coach. He won’t do things exactly as Flip does, and I wouldn’t expect him to.”
In September, Taylor told team employees to leave Saunders and his family alone so he could rest and heal. Asked how much he has visited or seen Saunders in these past weeks, Taylor said, “Well, I’m aware of daily what’s going on, that’s the best way to tell you.”