While star players may make most of the headlines, no organization can succeed without a good head coach and a savvy executive. During his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Flip Saunders filled both of those roles, in addition to serving as the team’s president. That reality, however, made his tragic death all the more painful.
As most basketball fans probably remember, Saunders died in October 2015, shortly after announcing that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Understandably, his passing shook the entire Timberwolves organization to its collective core.
Flip Saunders’ road to the NBA
For most NBA fans, it’s impossible to imagine Flip Saunders as anything other than a Minnesota Timberwolf. His career, however, began long before the franchise ever came into existence.
Saunders actually showed decent skill as a player, making a name for himself on the Ohio high school basketball scene before playing his college ball at the University of Minnesota. The guard spent four seasons with the Golden Gophers, averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 assists per outing.
After graduation, Saunders’ playing career came to an end; he didn’t leave basketball behind, though. The former guard took up coaching, starting out at Golden Valley Lutheran College. After that, he returned to the University of Minnesota as an assistant coach before holding the same post at Tulsa.
In 1988, the coach landed his first professional job, taking charge of the Rapid City Thrillers in the CBA; he also spent time with the La Crosse Catbirds and Sioux Falls Skyforce. While those teams may not be household names, Saunders began to make a name for himself, finding success as both a head coach and an executive.
Taking charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves
In 1995, Kevin McHale took charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves as the franchise’s Vice President of Basketball Operations. Soon after, he hired Flip Saunders as the organization’s head coach.
While the franchise was far from a powerhouse, things were about to change. When the 1995 NBA draft came around, Minnesota picked Kevin Garnett first overall; Saunders helped the high schooler turn into a legitimate star. The Timberwolves promptly made the playoffs for the first time in their history, beginning a streak of eight consecutive postseason berths.
Saunders lost his job, however, in 2005; he spent time with the Pistons, Wizards, Celtics before returning to the Timberwolves in 2013 as the President of Basketball Operations. He also reassumed head coaching duties in 2014, hoping to restore the floundering franchise to its former glory.
Flip Saunders’ tragic death shook the Timberwolves organization
As documented by an AP report in the New York Times, Flip Saunders announced that he had cancer in August 2015. While he told the world that his illness was “very treatable and curable,” things would end in tragedy.
A few weeks after that announcement, USA Today reported that Saunders was “hospitalized for testing and treatment following a setback.” On October 25, the coach died.
From a basketball perspective, it was easy to see what Saunders meant to the Timberwolves. His coaching success helped the young franchise get off the ground; as the President of Basketball Operations, he was trying to actively shape the future of the organization. Beyond that, though, he was a central figure to the entire ball club.
“A grieving Timberwolves team reconvened at practice, the loss of the organizational architect still weighing heavy on their hearts,” an Associated Press report picked up by ESPN explained. “Quite simply, Saunders was everything to these Timberwolves— the president of basketball operations, a minority owner and head coach, another son to owner Glen Taylor and another father to many of the players.”
While Flip Saunders’ tragic death rocked the Minnesota Timberwolves, the club hasn’t forgotten their late leader. In 2018, the team hung a banner honoring Flip Saunders from the rafters of the Target Center; their current coach is also Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son.