Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations, announced Tuesday that he has been undergoing treatment the past eight weeks for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Saunders said he is receiving chemotherapy treatment for what his doctors consider to be a “very treatable and curable form of cancer.” Team owner Glen Taylor said he doesn’t anticipate any changes in the team’s coaching and basketball operations, and team officials said Saunders has attended to all of his duties during the past eight weeks.
“I don’t think it will impact him at all,” Taylor said. “We can work around his schedule.”
Saunders has been receiving treatment from a medical team at the Mayo Clinic since being diagnosed with the disease eight weeks ago.
“I am taking it step by step and day by day to understand how to best manage this process,” Saunders said. “I am attacking this with the same passion I do everything in my life, knowing this is a serious issue. I also know that God has prepared me for this battle.”
Late in the day, Saunders tweeted about the public’s reaction: “The outpouring of support today has been overwhelming, has truly reminded me that the goodness of people should never be questioned.”
Dr. Veronika Bachanova, a University of Minnesota hematologist and oncologist, said Tuesday that “chemotherapy is extremely effective for the disease. This is indeed a highly treatable and, in most cases, a fully curable malignancy with a chemotherapy.”
Bachanova said the Timberwolves coach would likely need six months of outpatient chemotherapy, and that Saunders’ goal of being cancer-free was “absolutely very achievable.” She said that his age — he turned 60 in February — should not be a factor. Even if doctors did not find the cancer relatively early, added Bachanova, Hodgkin’s lymphoma was “not an aggressive” form and was “more slower growing.”
She added that Saunders should be able to continue his coaching duties, “with some adjustments,” but needed to realize that becoming cancer-free should be the top priority — and not the demands of coaching an NBA team. He should be “focused on getting well and getting better,” Bachanova said.
Taylor said he continues to talk with Saunders almost daily, just as he always did before the diagnosis. “I’ve been aware of it since he has been aware of it,” Taylor said. “He’s upbeat and confident, as he should be.”
Reached in Mexico where he is attending a wedding, Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin said that he spoke with Saunders the other day about the diagnosis, before Tuesday’s announcement.
“He sounded real upbeat about the whole situation,” Martin said. “I think any time that happens to somebody, it’s an unfortunate situation. Something like this goes beyond basketball, that’s real life. We all take care of each other. We’re a family and this is a time to come together like a family.”
Even during his chemotherapy, Saunders has been preparing for his second season back as Wolves coach, regularly checking in with players on their summer training progress.
“It hasn’t been affecting him at all this month,” Martin said. “He has been sending us texts, what he wants from us. He’s upbeat about the coming season.”
Twins’ Ryan battled cancer
Saunders is the second top sports executive in the Twin Cities to be diagnosed with cancer in the past 18 months. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in February 2014 and underwent surgery to remove lymph nodes in his neck followed by six weeks of radiation. Ryan missed the first several weeks of the 2014 season but has been on the job full-time since.
Although Ryan said he does not know Saunders well, “all of a sudden you get acquainted just going through something like this.” Ryan said he is heartened by the news released Tuesday.
“It sounds like he’s very strong, he has great people taking care of him and that it was caught early enough where it’s treatable and curable,” Ryan said. “It sounds like it’s under control and he has good piece of mind, and that’s the important thing.”
Among those who have had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and returned to athletic endeavors are hockey great Mario Lemieux and major league All-Star Anthony Rizzo.
Former Denver coach George Karl continued to coach the Nuggets while fighting throat cancer five years ago.
Martin said he’s never been on a team that has faced such a thing but likened Saunders’ cancer to those months when then-Wolves coach Rick Adelman and his wife, Mary Kay, sought answers about her seizures.
“We experienced that, we felt his pain,” Martin said. “It brings a team closer together.”
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Dennis Brackin contributed to this report.