Everybody has his turn. It’s gonna come sooner than later, so you might as well prepare and believe in God.
— Wolves Forward Gorgui Dieng, reflecting on Saunders’ passing on Thursday
Flip Saunders passed away on Oct. 25 of last season, a somber reminder of the fragility of life. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on Aug. 11 and planned to return as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president, but after being hospitalized for more than a month, team owner Glen Taylor announced he would miss the season. Before many of his players — let alone the coach staff, fans and media — came to grips with what was happening, he died at the age of 60.
“When Flip passed away, it took me like two months to get back to normal,” he said after Thursday’s practice at the Mayo Clinic Square in downtown Minneapolis. “I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I came to the game and I didn’t feel like playing. It was just a tough time for me. I feel like he gave me everything I got today: he drafted me, he brought me here, always fought for me to play.”
The No. 21 pick in the 2014 draft out of Louisville, Dieng had been a good defensive player but had a slender frame and was not NBA-ready in many aspects of his game during his rookie season. After three seasons at Louisville, he played in 60 games and made 15 starts during his first season.
“He just gave me a call (on draft night),” says Dieng. “He said, ‘We are really excited to have you here, and you’re gonna be good for us.’ He said a lot of good things, I was very excited, and I thought he was crazy — when I came here, I couldn’t play.”
Saunders would pull Dieng aside after practices, which at the time were held at the Life Time Fitness in Minneapolis, and have him do extra work with weights and medicine balls in order to for him to bulk up enough to guard NBA big men.
“I didn’t play my rookie year, and he was just getting me ready. After his practice I’d get super tired, and he’d say, ‘Hey, go meet me downstairs,’” says Dieng. “I met him…and he’d get a medicine ball, [weights], all this stuff. I was super tired, but he was always pushing me super hard.”
Dieng says Saunders told him that if he was not playing, he had to remain in shape. Saunders always compared a player entering a professional basketball game after not playing in a while, whether it was returning from injury or entering from the end of the bench, to a hamster jumping on a running wheel — the game moves fast, even for the best athletes in the world.
“Hey, you gotta go, you gotta go. If you’re not playing, you’ve gotta be in shape,” Saunders would tell him during their workout sessions, according to Dieng. “I’m fighting for you now, so when it’s time for you to play, I want you to prove them wrong.”
Even though he didn’t work out for the team, Dieng knew that the Wolves were interested in him. He saw their scouts at his games in Louisville, as well as on the road, and Saunders had a vision for Dieng individually, as well as the team as a whole.
“I knew they were targeting me,” says Dieng. “When you’re playing, you always see the scouts, where they are sitting, and [you know]. They know a lot about us before they draft us, but we know a lot about the pro team before you get here too.”
Now Dieng is an integral part of current coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau’s defense. Along with second-year player Karl-Anthony Towns and offseason acquisition Cole Aldrich, a Bloomington-Jefferson grad, he is manning a backcourt that is expected to protect the rim and lock down some of the best forwards in the game.
“I mean, we just get better every day,” says Dieng of his relationship with Towns. “We have a good coach who is very defensive-minded, so learning it is up to us, [knowing] what we need to do defensively. Because you know that if you’re not doing it on the next play, you won’t be on the court.”
“I’d prefer to have our guards keep the ball in front, I’d like to start there, but it’s always nice to have the shot-blocking and the rebounding,” says Thibodeau. “We always say the ball, the paint, react and cover the line, finish the defense, if we do those things, good things will happen for us but it requires everyone to understand what their responsibilities are and then to go out there and execute them, if one guy is not doing it, it’s going to make the whole group look bad.”
Thibodeau’s system is different from Saunders’, but Dieng says that he carries lessons he learned from Flip every day. Even as he’s emerged as a reliable, productive NBA player in his fourth season, he remembers those weight-lifting sessions at Life Time and his rough transition to the league. He is thankful for the team that Saunders constructed, and hopes to live out his vision, a year after he passed away.
“This team is Flip’s team. He brought all these pieces together. He knew the future was bright. He has his own plan, but you’re always gonna stay hungry and play for him hard especially,” he says. “I can’t tell you — without him, I would not be this far in this league. He always put a lot of pressure on me, but a good pressure. It helped me to get ready.”