Despite being born in Ohio, Flip Saunders was a Minnesotan through and through. He played at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1970’s, with future NBA players Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson as teammates. Saunders broke into coaching soon after graduating college, and he embarked on a winding path from Golden Valley (MN) Lutheran, to assistant jobs at his alma mater as well as Tulsa, to the CBA and eventually to the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma this summer, with the idea his cancer was treatable and curable. He originally was expected to keep his current duties with the Timberwolves, but the news got more dire in recent months and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor announced last Friday that Saunders would not return to coaching this season.
On Sunday Saunders lost his battle with cancer, and passed away at age-60.
Saunders reunited with college teammate McHale as general manager of the Timberwolves in 1995, and he took over as head coach in the middle of the 1995-96 season. The Timberwolves made the only eight playoff appearances in franchise history with Saunders as head coach, and the team’s rise coincided with Kevin Garnett’s rise to stardom.
Saunders was fired after 51 games of the 2004-2005 season, and he went on to lead the Detroit Pistons to the Eastern Conference Finals in all three of his seasons as head coach. His tenure with the Washington Wizards did not go nearly as well, with a 51-130 record over two-plus seasons, due in part to a combustible mix of players that was beyond his control.
Saunders returned to the Timberwolves in May of 2013, as President of Basketball Operations, and he added head coaching duties before the 2014-15 season. Soon after the team landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, which wound up being Karl-Anthony Towns, Saunders got his cancer diagnosis and the news only got worse from there before he passed away on Sunday.
For more on Saunders’ life and career, I encourage you to read this piece. I would also like to share what I posted on my personal Facebook page on Sunday night:
“We Minnesota sports fans often fall for the concept of someone who is “one of us”. Flip Saunders personified that idea, as a Golden Gopher, a Timberwolves’ general manager, coach, team president and part owner through his time with the franchise…and he chose to keep living here when he coached the Pistons and Wizards. R.I.P. (1955-2015)”