Like the late commentator Stuart Scott, who empowered the world through his knowledge of basketball, another NBA legend will be missed following the passing of Minnesota Timberwolves’ Head Coach Flip Saunders.
A warm-hearted individual who revived a struggling Minnesota Timberwolves’ franchise in 1995, Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer, on August 11th 2015. While this disease did not take long to sideline the 60-year old Saunders, supporting him in his fight was the Minnesota organization and fan base, two faithful communities that had been by his side for over 20 years.
Beginning with his collegiate years at the University of Minnesota, Saunders quickly found a home in the Gopher state, starting 101 of 103 games at point guard from 1973-1977. The former Big-Ten athlete then took a four-year leave at Golden Valley Lutheran College in Minnesota before returning home to his alma mater in 1981.
However, rather than a uniform, it was the traditional coaching attire he suited up in. It was during these five years as an assistant under Jim Dutchner that Saunders realized his passion to coach in the North Star state.
An opportunity presented itself in 1995 as the 40-year old earned the reigns to the professional NBA franchise of the state, the Minnesota Timberwolves. A raw inexperienced team that was deemed as the laughing stock of the league, Saunders was persistent in turning things around and developing this young squad with then first-year rookie Kevin Garnett, who was the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft.
Saunders committed himself to the growth of his team and with time rebuked the Timberwolves’ prominent tradition of losing. He guided Minnesota to its first-ever playoff berth in 1996 and led the city to eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1996-2004.
While a ticket to the 2003 Western Conference Finals ranks as the most notable achievement of his 38-year coaching career, the legend of “Flip” continues to permeate and thrive off the court through the state of Minnesota.
Much like the prized days of 03-04 with then MVP candidate Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak, the trio of Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and 2015 first overall draft pick Karl Anthony Towns have once again inspired hope for the eager Timberwolves’ community.
Wiggins, a 6’8” slasher from Ontario, Canada has demonstrated why he should be considered one of the best at the three-position in the league. Also a first-overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the former Kansas Jayhawk averaged 16.9 points per game in his rookie campaign, making Cavalier fans question whether his offseason trade from Cleveland for stretch big man Kevin Love was the right choice.
Now with valuable experience and the opportunity to be one of the young faces to represent the Timberwolves’ franchise, the 20-year has met expectations so far this season, increasing his scoring average to 20.6 ppg. He has scored 25-plus points in four games this season.
Wiggins has taken up a central role on offense early this season recording two back-to-back games with 30 points, including a career-high 33 points on October 9th in the Timberwolves win against Atlanta. It is clear the second year player is hungry and striving to lead his team to a goal that hasn’t been achieved in Minnesota since Saunders was head coach in 2003, a bid in the NBA Playoffs.
With the ongoing hamstring injury of Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, former UCLA Bruin, Zach Lavine, has stepped in place and embraced a dynamic role at point guard in his second year. He made critics aware of his athletic ability during last year’s All-Star break, winning the Slam Dunk Contest and has proven himself to be a spark within the Timberwolves’ lineup.
The 6’5” guard dropped 25 points in a 17 minute outing off the bench against the Memphis Grizzlies on October 15th. Prior to this game, the 20-year old guard had come off a season-high 26 points on 11-22 shooting versus the Indiana Pacers. Despite a restricted four starts out of the team’s 11 total games, Lavine has taken advantage of his minutes, ranking among the top three in scoring on the team with an average of 13.9 and 3.9 assists per game.
As longtime Timberwolve Kevin Garnett embarks on his 14th season in a Minnesota uniform, another newcomer looks to fill in for the older “Big Ticket”: rookie center Karl Anthony Towns. Excelling in John Calipari’s platoon system at Kentucky and this season’s prediction for Rookie of the Year, Saunders saw the benefits of Towns learning from future Hall of Famer Garnett.
The rookie is making a case for himself, ranking among the top five on the Minnesota roster in points, rebounds and blocks. It helps that the 20-year veteran Garnett is by Towns’ side, helping guide him in his transition to the NBA. This was a pivotal strategy Saunders took into account before his sickness.
Since Saunders drafted Towns, Minnesota fans have been ecstatic. The seven footer is among the top two rookies of the league, right behind Philadelphia 76ers’ center Jahil Okafor, averaging a double-double with 15.4 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game. The New Jersey native has finished with double digits in points and rebounds in seven of eleven games.
In addition, Towns has proven to be a reliable source behind the charity stripe, making 32 of his total 35 free throw attempts this season. This gives the rookie one of the highest free throw percentages among any in the league at 91 percent. A big man that can hit free throws and averages a 48.9 shooting percentage from the field, Towns’ flexibility on the court will be a central component in the Timberwolves’ hopeful playoff run.
A resume of 427 wins, four Conference Finals appearances, and more than 20 years all dedicated to the growth of Minnesota has resulted in a renovated Timberwolves’ franchise from the fans, players and coaches due to the passionate coaching of Flip Saunders.
It’s his inspiration to be better, to fight for what you love until life stops you from doing so that will lie in the hearts of many forever.
With a backcourt of Wiggins and Lavine improving following their first year, a rising rookie who has not reached his peak in Karl Towns and 13-year coach and former Minnesota Timberwolve himself Sam Mitchell taking over as head coach, one can say that Saunders is leaving the organization in good hands.
While this may signal the end to such a well-respected coach and person, Saunders has undoubtedly raised the bar for his beloved team since his first season in 1995. As the era of “Flip” comes to a close, his presence will remain with the Timberwolves this year as they dedicate the season to him. The “Flip” patches stitched on the team’s jerseys will be a friendly reminder of Saunders’ unconditional love for the game of basketball and his Midwest state.