I was on my way out the door today when I heard the iTunes on my computer still playing. The plan was to head out to get coffee and bang out a post that previewed the Timberwolves season. I didn’t have a perfectly clear idea of what I was going to write. I was sure it would have to do with the team’s exciting young players, the patience that will be required as the franchise prioritizes development over winning in the short term, and probably some thoughts about the tactics we saw on display in the preseason, under the leadership of interim coach, Sam Mitchell.
When I leaned over to stop the music, I had my TweetDeck app open, and there was news on Twitter.
Big, huge, terrible, tragic news.
Flip Saunders died.
On one hand, this did not come out of left field. It was not necessarily a surprise, given that Flip’s cancer diagnosis was announced many months ago, and his attempt to continue working failed when he was hospitalized with complications. Nothing that has been reported in the past few weeks has sounded good, and I think most people trying to follow the situation have understood that this outcome was possible, if not likely.
Still, the news itself is enormously sad and significant on many levels. The aspect about a person being taken too soon by cancer is self evident. But Flip is one of the most influential people in Timberwolves history, too. In his first go-around here, he was (with Kevin McHale) responsible for drafting Kevin Garnett, and coaching him through his entire professional development, and the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The Wolves went to the playoffs eight straight times with Saunders coaching. They had never been to the playoffs before he was hired, nor have they been back to the playoffs since they fired him in 2005.
Up through his recent cancer diagnosis and leave of absence, Flip was in a position of power that is possibly unmatched in modern professional basketball, or even sports. Flip was a minority owner of the team, he was the president of basketball operations in charge of managing the roster and drafting players, and he was the head coach. He had his hands everywhere, on this team.
Flip the President traded away the team’s disgruntled best player, Kevin Love, and somehow acquired a legitimate cornerstone talent, Andrew Wiggins. This came after Flip’s first draft, when his controversial decision to select Shabazz Muhammad would later prove to be wise one.
Flip the Coach made the development of Wiggins such a priority that it would better be characterized as an obsession. Nothing mattered more to Flip, last year, than making damn sure that his prized rookie cashed in on his enormous potential. By the end of the season, after continuous direction from Saunders, Wiggins was asserting himself the way that he needed to. He easily won Rookie of the Year honors, and many expect him to break out into All-Star form very soon.
Flip the President was working in close coordination with Flip the Coach. Together, they beautifully orchestrated the
tanking development strategy that positioned the Wolves to select Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 Draft. Flip held Ricky Rubio out of 60 games for an ankle sprain (!), knowing full well that he would face questions almost everyday about what exactly was wrong that he couldn’t play his veterans. He faced that music with a shockingly upbeat spirit, and enjoyed the last laugh on lottery night, and again on draft night, when it all paid off.
Flip the Owner and businessman was also making his presence felt. He was obviously a key factor in bringing Kevin Garnett back to Minnesota; in the short term as a player, and in the longer term, as a future owner of this team. KG is perhaps the only person whose impact on Timberwolves history exceeds Flip’s, and the two of them were going to do everything they could to ensure its future was brighter than its recent past. The first concrete evidence of Flip’s business influence was the construction of a state-of-the-art practice facility in Downtown Minneapolis, across the street from Target Center. While I cannot say for sure, I doubt that this Mayo Clinic partnership happens, to this extent, without Flip’s participation. This practice facility is the best in the NBA and Flip was a leader in getting it built.
Those are just the things that Flip has done since returning to the Timberwolves in 2012. In a very short time, he took an anxious franchise moment — Kevin Love’s contract timer ticking, Rick Adelman no longer fully invested in coaching responsibilities, the roster at large in great need of a young-talent infusion — and spun it into genuine excitement and optimism that the Timberwolves will become a championship contender again.
Flip’s passing is a pretty incredible thing for the Wolves organization to go through, and we will all be trying to sort out What Comes Next over the next few weeks, months, and even years. But for today, it’s best to just remember Flip Saunders and send well wishes to his family and (many) other loved ones.
Rest in peace, Flip.