CLEVELAND – Saturday evening, not long after arriving in advance of Sunday’s game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the entire Timberwolves team boarded a bus and went to nearby Cuyahoga Heights High School.
Flip Saunders has been honored many times since his death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. But this tribute, quite literally, may have come closest to home.
Saunders, former Wolves president of basketball operations and head coach, is from Cuyahoga Heights. He was an all-state player and Ohio’s Class A player of the year in 1973 before taking his talents to the University of Minnesota.
On Saturday, with the Wolves in town, his old school district dedicated the high school gym in Saunders’ name. His son, Wolves coach Ryan Saunders, was there, as was Flip’s wife, Debbie.
And, it turns out, so was the whole team.
“Cuyahoga Heights meant so much to my father,’’ Saunders said. “I didn’t know the players were coming.’’
It was a special surprise. Karl-Anthony Towns got wind of the event after the plane landed in Cleveland. By the time it was time to go to the school, the entire team was ready to go, too.
“I said, ‘I’d love it if we could come,’ ” Towns said. “He said yeah.”
A no-brainer really.
“It was important to Ryan and his family,’’ guard Andrew Wiggins said. “We ride for Ryan. Nothing we wouldn’t do for him. We fight for him. Whenever something is going on, with any teammates, we all have to be there to show support. That’s what a team does. That’s what a family does.’’
For Ryan, it was only fitting.
“He loved Cleveland,’’ he said of his father. “Minnesota kind of adopted him, after playing at the University of Minnesota for the Gophers, and being with the Timberwolves. But Cleveland was his first love.’’
The ceremony came before a varsity game. Then the players took the floor wearing uniforms with Flip’s name. But it didn’t end there. Towns and Gorgui Dieng each contributed $5,000 toward a scoreboard for the gym.
The kids, apparently, were stunned when all the Wolves players showed up.
“Flip was good to all of us,’’ Dieng said. “He’s the reason we’re here, especially me, KAT and Wigg. We shot a group text and said we’re going to see it and that we all should go.’’
They did. Ryan’s favorite part? When they talked about his dad’s stats. Seems his high school scoring average ranged from 32 to 44 points a game, depending on when Flip was talking to Ryan. “They officially said his scoring average was 32 points per game his senior year,’’ Ryan said. “But then I remember he used to tell me if they had a three-point line back then, he would have averaged 44.’’
Love doesn’t play
Former Wolves power forward Kevin Love did not play against his former team Sunday.
But, Cleveland coach John Beilein said, it had nothing to do with Love’s reported altercation with Cavs General Manager Koby Altman before a loss to Oklahoma City on Saturday, or his show of displeasure at not getting a pass from Collin Sexton on a mismatch late in the first half of the game.
“No,’’ Beilein said. “We’re giving Kevin a day off. He’s played very few back-to-backs.’’
The altercation with Altman, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, followed the team’s shootaround. Love was apparently unhappy with Altman’s decision to fine him $1,000 for an outburst following a lopsided loss to Toronto on New Year’s Eve. When Love came to the bench during the third quarter, he pounded a chair, shouted and asked to be taken out of the game.
After Saturday’s game, Love admitted he was frustrated but wasn’t angry with Sexton.
Love also missed the Cavaliers-Wolves game on Dec. 28 at Target Center, a game Cleveland won 94-88.