A Tribute to Flip Saunders
*Photo via Star Tribune
I wanted to take some time and let the Flip Saunders news stew for a bit. During the immediate aftermath of his passing, the news cycle was flooded with stories and tributes to the fallen Timberwolves coach.
When the news broke of Flip’s passing, the attention of sports fans in Minnesota shifted away from the second half of a Vikings-Lions regular season game and to a man that had been “one of us” for nearly 40 years who left us far too soon. Tributes began to pour in through social media including one particularly touching photo of Kevin Garnett sitting in Flip’s parking spot.
Initially, I was taken aback by all of the overwhelming support and respect shown to Saunders. Not to say that he wasn’t by all accounts a good person or a respected coach, but the realization that Flip had touched so many lives through the game of basketball caught me off guard. It was bigger than I had ever could of imagined. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outpouring of love for Flip Saunders, his reach went beyond simply the NBA.
*Photo via USA Today
A brief look at Flip’s career: He spent the first nine years of his coaching career in the state of Minnesota with a four year stint as the head coach of Golden Valley Lutheran College before returning to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota as an assistant in 1981.
Eventually Saunders would find himself working as an assistant coach for two years at the University of Tulsa before a successful run as a head coach/general manager in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) where Flip coached the La Crosse Catbirds to two CBA titles. The success in the CBA led to Flip’s former college teammate Kevin McHale hiring Saunders on as the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the conclusion of the 1994-95 season and a few weeks later, the Wolves drafted Kevin Garnett. The first month and a half of the 1995-96 season were rough for the Wolves who moved Saunders to head coach in December after firing Bill Blair.
Saunders spent nearly a decade as the head coach of the Timberwolves and today remains their most successful coach in franchise history. The period of unemployment wouldn’t last long before the Detroit Pistons hired Flip as their head coach. His run in Detroit was successful as he coached the Pistons to three consecutive Eastern Conference Final appearances but a failure to get over the hump and into the NBA Finals led to his departure.
After a short stay in Washington, rumors began to build that he wanted to return to the state of Minnesota in some professional context. In 2013, The University of Minnesota fired coach Tubby Smith and Flip was the frontrunner for the head coaching position. Saunders even privately told friends he was going to take the Gopher job shortly after interviewing but eventually balked at the offer when then Athletic Director, Norwood Teague, wanted Saunders to hire specific assistant coaches. Instead he returned to the Timberwolves as President of Basketball Operations, before naming himself head coach two months later. His final season as an NBA coach saw Saunders lead the Wolves to a 16-66 record but, thanks to a little lottery luck, has the future of the Wolves looking as bright as ever thanks drafting Karl Anthony Towns and hometown hero Tyus Jones.
*Photo via the Boston Herald
So what makes the death of Flip Saunders such a gut punch to the NBA? Aside from being a successful coach that has worked with some of the biggest stars in the NBA over the last two decades, Flip was considered, by all accounts, a good person. His relationship with the media was cooperative to say the least. Regardless of if he was employed by the Timberwolves or not, Saunders made a habit out of calling Twin Cities radio stations out of the blue to talk basketball or to call a host out on air on whatever topic was being discussed.
On Monday night, the Timberwolves hosted the Portland Trailblazers in their home opener. Before the game, there was a 30 minute presentation highlighted by a musical performance by local musician Tim Mahoney performed with Sounds of Blackness in a moving rendition of “Hallelujah” and a prerecorded video message from people spanning the NBA.
Tributes are not at all uncommon in sports after a notable person has passed away. But a 30 minute tribute? Complete with an entire arena singing along in the person’s honor? Along with a video homage spanning across the entire league? I’m sorry, but these are not regular occurrences.
It’s possible that nobody really realized how much Flip Saunders meant to the NBA, to basketball until he passed away. Maybe that’s why it feels like we’ve been hit with a ton of bricks. What the world lost (aside from a husband and father to four) was someone who was entirely genuine and authentic.
Flip, this entire season is for you. I hope you enjoy every minute of it.
Ski U Mah!