REMEMBERING FLIP SAUNDERS (1955-2015)
DALLAS — Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle wasted little time paying homage to Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders following his team’s two-hour practice Monday morning.
“Flip was one of those guys who was a great and intense competitor, always did it the right way,” Carlisle said while addressing reporters. “And as competitive as he was and as great a coach he was, he had no enemies in this league.”
Saunders, who returned to Minnesota for a second stint last summer and compiled more than 1,000 victories during a professional coaching career that spanned more than three decades, died Sunday of cancer at the age of 60.
Saunders’ death comes just three days before the Timberwolves’ season-opener at the Los Angeles Lakers and two days after the team announced he would not return this season as he continued to battle his dreaded disease.
Saunders announced in August that he was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma during which doctors described it as “very treatable and curable.” Saunders, in fact, said at the time he had planned to remain the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations.
However, after enduring a setback last month that led to him being hospitalized, the team turned the coaching duties over to interim Sam Mitchell while Milt Newton assumed the general manager responsibilities.
In assessing Saunders’ coaching career that also included stints with the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, Carlisle ironically liken Saunders’ style of coaching to the late Chuck Daly, the former Pistons coach who led the franchise to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.
“He reminded me a lot of Chuck Daly,” Carlisle said. “He was innovative. He was creative. He was a great coach that coached a lot of different kinds of teams, and he was an impact guy as a GM as well.”
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Saunders was also part-owner of the Timberwolves, although he is widely known for his 35-year coaching tenure.
Saunders assumed his first NBA job when he joined the Timberwolves in May 1995 as general manager, working alongside former college teammate Kevin McHale. Seven months later, he was named the team’s head coach, replacing Bill Blair after Minnesota had gotten off to a dismal 6-14 start.
Two seasons later (1996-97), with the emergence of a young Kevin Garnett, Saunders guided Minnesota to its first-ever playoff berth in his first full season as an NBA head coach. The following year, he led the Timberwolves to their first-ever winning campaign, then helped steer the team to a franchise-record 50 victories in 1999–2000, a feat they repeated two seasons later.
Consequently, Saunders was fired midway through the 2004-05 season during which the Timberwolves had failed to advance to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
However, following coaching stints in Detroit (2005-2008) and Washington (2009-2012), Saunders rejoined the T-Wolves organization last summer before his health began to decline.
Saunders, whose professional coaching career began in 1988-89 with the CBA’s Rapid City Thrillers, led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals during the 2003-04 season.
When asked how Saunders’ legacy will be remembered, Carlisle paused briefly then said, “He’s one of the most respected coaches in NBA history. There’s no doubt about that. He experienced great success. And he helped build that Minnesota franchise, really, from the depths of the lottery to a team that was in the Western Conference Finals.”
With the NBA regular season set to begin on Tuesday, Carlisle described Saunders’ passing as a “dark day” for the NBA.
“But we’ll all look back at all of the great things he did and all of the wonderful things he stood for and we’ll learn from his example,” Carlisle said.
The Mavs will wear lapel pins throughout the season in Saunders’ memory, Carlisle said.
Dallas’ season-opener is Wednesday night at 9 CST at Phoenix, the first of a three-game road trip.
Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.