By Shawn Fury
Flip Saunders's death Sunday at the age of 60 after a four-month battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma brought forth an outpouring of support from people around the NBA. LeBron James tweeted his condolences, Flip's old point guard Stephon Marbury penned a lengthy tribute, and executives like Houston's Daryl Morey mourned Saunders, who was in his second tour of duty as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But to understand why his death hit Minnesotans in particular so hard, look at the history of the Timberwolves before and after his first stint with the team. Between the franchise's debut in the 1989-90 season and 1994-95, the Timberwolves never made the playoffs and never won more than 29 games. Then Flip arrived for the final 62 games of 1995-96 and lasted until the halfway point of 2004-05.
Since his dismissal, the team has never made the playoffs and hasn't had a single winning season. But with Flip on the sideline for those 10 years, the Wolves were a contender, making the playoffs in all eight full seasons he coached. Saunders and the Wolves received criticism those years for advancing past the opening round only once, but he was the first coach to bring hope to the organization. He has been the only coach to ever really bring life to a franchise tormented by expansion woes, forgettable leaders, bad luck and poor draft choices. His death creates a void in the franchise's present and brings questions about its future. But mostly it breaks hearts, because Minnesota wasn't just where he found his greatest NBA success -- it was home. He was, as longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse noted in his column on Saunders, the state's "point guard."
Saunders grew up in Ohio, but he came to the University of Minnesota to play basketball under the fiery Bill Musselman, who would later coach the Timberwolves during their first two years of existence. Musselman preached discipline on the court, but before games he unleashed a pregame show that was unmatched in basketball, as the Gophers went through an elaborate series of warmups that would have made the Globetrotters take notice, with point guard Saunders leading the circus.
In 1977, Saunders and future NBA players Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Ray Williams led the Gophers, who were ineligible for postseason play, to a 24-3 record, which included a victory over eventual national champion Marquette. That season ended Saunders's playing days. But just a few months later he embarked on the coaching career that would bring him from the lowest level of college basketball to the backwoods of professional ball and, finally, to the NBA.
At 22, Saunders took over as head coach of the Golden Valley Lutheran junior college team in Minnesota. He compiled a 92-13 record, including an astounding 56-0 mark at home. From there, Saunders worked as an assistant coach back at the University of Minnesota and eventually became a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association, running the show in places like Rapid City, Sioux Falls, S.D and La Crosse, Wis. He won multiple championships at the CBA level, and finally, in 1995, became general manager of the Timberwolves, brought in by owner Glen Taylor and Flip's former college teammate, McHale.
From there the Wolves made their most important -- and finest -- personnel decision ever and drafted high schooler Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft. The Wolves then endured disappointing first-round playoff exits, which seemed glorious in comparison to the season-long fiascoes that have tainted every other year of the franchise's existence.
Those seasons are still remembered fondly in Minnesota. Garnett transformed into a superstar, and even after Marbury talked his way out of Minnesota and his budding partnership with K.G., Saunders made the Wolves a consistent, entertaining winner. Jerry Zgoda in the Star Tribune wrote about Flip and the "legendary thickness" of his playbook. The Wolves moved the ball and operated on the perimeter with a jump-shot-heavy system, and when the team finally surrounded Garnett with solid veterans Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in 2004, Minnesota advanced in the playoffs, winning two series before falling to the Lakers in a six-game Western Conference Finals series.
Less than a year later, the Wolves fired Saunders after a 25-26 start. Flip then enjoyed success in Detroit -- leading the Pistons to three straight Eastern Conference Finals -- but experienced three years of disappointment in Washington. In 2013, Saunders returned to Minnesota, this time as director of basketball operations. As an executive, part-owner and eventually coach of the Timberwolves, Flip was one of the most powerful people in any NBA franchise. Maybe those were too many job titles for a guy who hadn't ever made it to the Finals as a coach and was fired three times. But he was more than just a link to the only good days in Timberwolves history. He seemed to be the man who could get the Timberwolves back to respectability, with the potential for, finally, much more.
As an executive he dealt the disgruntled Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, brought in talented young players like Shabazz Muhammad and experienced the thrill of winning the unpredictable draft lottery, which gave the Wolves the opportunity to pick Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick in 2015. He surrounded those guys with veterans like Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince and -- most notably -- Garnett. "Da Kid" who led the Wolves to their greatest triumphs is now the old man of the NBA, and perhaps no player took Flip's death as hard as Garnett, who photographed himself sitting in front of his coach's parking spot.
After putting all of those young and old pieces together from the front office, Flip was supposed to have the chance to coach them before his illness deteriorated. He had again put his mark on a franchise he first joined 20 years earlier.
Nobody expects the Timberwolves to make the playoffs this year. While they should win more than the 16 games they won in 2014-15, this season will most likely be a struggle. Still, thanks to Flip's work, better days are ahead for the Timberwolves, for the first time in a long time. But on one of the darkest days for Minnesota sports, with the death of one of the great basketball lifers, it's hard to appreciate a bright future. And impossible to believe Flip won't be around to see it.
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Shawn Fury is a writer in New York City and the author of Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science and Evolution of the Jump Shot -- And How It Transformed Basketball Forever, available in February 2016 from Flatiron Books.