We did not know it at the time, but he was already undergoing treatment four months ago for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Nobody would have had reason to believe he was sick that night when he barreled into the 508 Bar and Restaurant with other Wolves brass to greet the young point guard he had just drafted, Tyus Jones.
Saunders was his usual vibrant self that night, energized by an evening that included not just the No. 1 overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, but also the landing of a hometown hero Saunders had been watching for many years. As he grabbed Tyus and told him, in colorful language, that he had better work extra hard because of all the work Saunders did to trade to get him, Flip looked and sounded very much like the man in the middle of a long-term plan that he very much believed he would see through to its conclusion.
Saunders still sounded that way on Aug. 3, the last time I talked to him. He was deep into cancer treatment by then, though we were still a week away from the announcement. On that day, I wrote a lengthy blog post about how Saunders was back on Twitter for the first time in 16 months, and that the occasion he chose was to defend his approach to three-point shooting.
Later that afternoon, I got a call at work. Confession: for the first 30 seconds, I had no idea who was on the other line. The conversation was one-sided and it was about the blog post, but it sounded like a reader who wasn’t exactly angry but was speaking with such a familiarity that I was caught off-guard. Finally I pieced it together in my thick skull: oh, this is Flip. Of course, it all makes sense now.
I don’t profess to know him anywhere near as well many others who have covered him or worked with him, but that phone call — 20 minutes of basketball philosophy, setting the record straight and, in his more colorful language again, giving me a hard time — made me fully appreciate just how much Saunders cared about his team and the sport of basketball.
I worked some of his comments into a follow-up piece, believing that while this was not the first time I had talked to Saunders about basketball, we had established something that day that would ensure it certainly would not be the last.
All of this, then, is a long windup to what many others are feeling: shock that Saunders, such a figure in this community, not only died but went so quickly. First it was treatable and optimistic. Then he was hospitalized. Then there were whispers that he had taken a bad turn. And then Sunday came.
You need no more reminders of the cruelty of life than to think about the family and friends he leaves behind and the basketball team he built, just days away from the start of an important season, that he will not get to see through to its conclusion.Nobody could have seen this coming, least of all the man who had to endure it.
One of the greatest poems I have ever read, and certainly the greatest tribute I know, is W.H. Auden’s poem “In memory of W.B. Yeats.” A few passages of it feel particularly apt right now, particularly when one can imagine substituting what Saunders meant to basketball in this state for what Yeats’ writing meant to Ireland.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
It’s heartbreaking and inspiring all at once to think of a legacy so powerful that it lives on after death. Saunders will have that here. He has earned it through years of tireless work, and that doesn’t change even now that he’s at rest.