The Timberwolves reconvened Monday for their annual media day ahead of Tuesday’s start of training camp, their first with interim head coach Sam Mitchell.
Kevin Garnett spoke publicly for the first time since March, citing reasons why he decided to extend a 20-year NBA career by signing a two-year, $16.5 million contract in July.
Injured center Nikola Pekovic confirmed he won’t be ready to participate in training camp, saying he expects he’ll run again by the regular-season opener and is hopeful he’ll play games by December. An April surgery patient just like Pekovic, starting point guard Ricky Rubio wasn’t ready to declare himself 100 percent healthy for training camp, not after being cleared a month ago to play full court on a repaired ankle.
And just about everybody recounted an emotional summer when they learned first that coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders had been stricken with cancer and then discovered he is away from the team for the foreseeable coming months after he was hospitalized because of complications following treatment for Hodgkins’ lymphoma.
“It’s just been tough on everybody,” Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin said. “I think when you see a great man go through something like that, along with a great family, you feel for him. Hopefully our guys know you can’t take anything for granted because you never know what’s going to happen. I can see us rallying around Sam and each other in Flip’s honor. I know one thing for sure: Flip, he’s going to be watching.”
Garnett decided in July to sign on for his 21st season, nearly a month after Saunders had been diagnosed but two months before he was hospitalized after he had completed chemotherapy.
Garnett played five games for the Wolves last season after Saunders brought him back with a February trade to the franchise that drafted him in 1995. At the time, Saunders considered the caution with which Garnett treated his hurting knee a sign that he wanted to extend his long career, not an indication it was over.
“I think Flip put something in my drink before I signed,” said Garnett, who will turn 40 next May. “I always say I like to listen to my body. I’ve been taking care of myself through the summer and I enjoy basketball, so it wasn’t really like it was a huge decision. At the stage where I’m at in my career, it was very simple: If I can, I will. Flip had some concerns from desire and if I want to be here, but I told him yeah.
“It was simple and plain: Obviously, all this happened before his trials and tribulations. But it was very easy for me.”
Garnett reiterated his desire to own the team after he is done playing — “No details at this point,” he said. “That’s the plan” — but gave no indication when that might be.
“I don’t know,” Garnett said. “I told you I like to listen to my body. I’m in a good place. I’m taking care of myself like I always do. My body will tell me when it’s time not to do this anymore.”
Garnett is 39, but he’s not the Wolves’ oldest player. Signed in August, veteran point guard Andre Miller is, by exactly two months. The Wolves also signed 35-year-old forward Tayshaun Prince, who played for Saunders in Detroit nearly a decade ago.
Suddenly, that leaves Martin, 32, a relative Timberpup.
“I want to give Flip and Milt a special thanks for making me feel young again,” Martin said, referring to General Manager Milt Newton as well.
Newton and Mitchell will carry on, running the organization while Saunders remains on leave from the team.
“We’re all concerned, but we all have a job to do also,” said Mitchell, who last was an NBA head coach full time with Toronto in 2008. “When you come into the gym, focus on the job. That’s what Flip would want us to be: professional and do our jobs.”
Newton said he and Timberwolves employees have followed team owner Glen Taylor’s strict instructions to leave Saunders alone so he can focus on his recovery.
Garnett, among others, has followed Taylor’s instructions and Saunders’ family wishes to give him time and space to get better.
When asked these last weeks and months concerning Saunders’ health, Garnett said: “They haven’t been good, but I’m being optimistic and I’m being positive, like everyone should be. Hopefully you guys have got Flip in your prayers. The family is not really communicating a lot, but that’s their wishes and I’m here to support all their wishes. Anything I can do to help, like I told them, I’m willing and open to.”