On Thursday night, a Minnesota basketball legend will be honored.
Flip Saunders was the Minnesota Mr. Basketball winner in 1973, a four-year starting point guard with the University of Minnesota and coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for 11 seasons between two stints.
He coached two All-Star teams, made it to the Conference Finals three times with two different teams and won 50-plus games seven times. He’s the winningest coach in Timberwolves history, was the head coach during the prime years of Kevin Garnett and was in charge of acquiring both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
His impact on the Wolves will be hard to top for any coach, and his impact on the game made his death that much tougher for the league to deal with.
On Oct. 25, 2015, he passed away during his second run with the Wolves after a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What followed was an immediate tidal wave of support and warm words from across the NBA.
Even in a short span, Saunders made an impact on his own team as well.
Thursday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers has been deemed ‘Flip Saunders night.’
The 8 p.m. start time will be prefaced with a 7:15 ceremony honoring the late coach, which will include an unveiling of a banner that will permanently hang in the Target Center rafters. Fans in attendance will receive a commemorative coin.
Even now, under a Tom Thibodeau regime and a massive overhaul of the roster, the respect the current roster has for the old regime is very clear, and very authentic.
“He’s synonymous with Minnesota basketball,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a great honor, wish he were still here with us. I think we all feel the same way about him.”
But some direct pieces of Saunders’ legacy remain on the Wolves roster, and their appreciation might be the most notable.
Andrew Wiggins, generally a soft-spoken individual with the press, was noticeably talkative when talking about the guy that coached him his rookie year.
“I got traded here for an All-Star averaging 26 and 12, and I hadn’t played a game in the league yet,” Wiggins said. “He took a big chance on me, and he believed in me.”
Karl-Anthony Towns never got the chance to play for Saunders, but was drafted by him, marking one of the final moves he made as a basketball executive.
Like Wiggins, Towns is still appreciative of Saunders’ confidence in him from draft day on.
“For him to do what he’s done for this organization is second to none,” Towns said. “It’s a shame he’s not going to be here to see it personally.”
Even a guy like Jimmy Butler, who never played for Saunders, had nothing but kind words for the longtime Timberwolves figure.
“I didn’t get a chance to play for him. I’ve talked to him here and there. Incredible human being,” Butler said Wednesday. “His love for the game and the city is real.”
Saunders’ whole family have active roles in the organization. His daughter Rachel is in charge of team services, his son Ryan remains an assistant coach under Thibodeau and his wife Debbie is still a very consistent presence on game day.
The news of Saunders’ death was a tragedy across the entire league, but the mark he made on the Timberwolves is permanent.
Saunders was the coach of the Timberwolves when I started to care about basketball.
My first game was in March of 1997, Flip’s first full year as Timberwolves head coach. They played the Vancouver Grizzlies and won the game by a substantial margin.
My memories from that game are very frame-by-frame, but also similar to any kid that grows up idolizing a sports team. Kevin Garnett was my childhood sports hero, but Flip was his coach. That meant something.
I first remember being pointed out Garnett, the Wolves’ 20-year-old All-Star prodigy. The second player was Grizzlies star Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
The third was Flip Saunders.
The more I went to games, the more I noticed the little things Saunders brought to the Timberwolves. He never sat down; I’m not sure he even had a seat ready for him.
During the 1998 lockout season, according to my dad, I approached Saunders for an autograph but got nervous. My dad had to do the legwork. But I got my signature.
Flip was always talking to his players, whether they were in the game or on the bench. He always high-fived the outgoing player when he’d bring in a sub.
He was also quick to give his thoughts to game officials. His 11 seasons as Timberwolves head coach are the most by far in franchise history, but he’s also the franchise all-time leader in technical fouls.
But, at least in the eyes of my childhood, his tendency to get on the refs was almost always in defense of one of his players. This stood out to me.
Because no matter what he’d do after he was let go from Minnesota in 2005 – as an ESPN analyst, a consultant or a front office executive – my time watching Saunders up close made it clear that he was a coach first.
I got to see him up close for a year when I covered the Saunders-led Wolves in their 16-win 2014-15 season for A Wolf Among Wolves. My writing career is still very young, but very few coaches to this point have been as willing to answer a question in-depth the way Saunders did.
He was a fun coach to cover, even when the team itself wasn’t.
He was the first coach I remember knowing about as a kid. He coached the player that would bring the Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff runs in the 90s and 2000s. This run got me into the NBA. Those teams, led by Saunders, is a major part of why I write about basketball at all.
In that way, he made an impact on my life without really knowing me at all.
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