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For Flip Saunders, NBA really was about fun and games

The most successful coach in Wolves' history was mercurial but had no problem laughing at himself and never held a grudge

POSTED: Oct 26, 2015 10:47 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Flip Saunders had a stable of pet phrases, perfect for invoking at just the right time in a basketball game, equally useful when speechifying or bantering with reporters. One he laid on me some 20 years ago, soon after he had been hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves and became my responsibility as beat writer for the Minneapolis newspaper, was: "The truth can't be controversial."

It was a handy arrow to have in his quiver, one he could drop on a player who might otherwise have quibbled with some coaching or criticism that was rooted in video, in stats or in results. It was also precisely the wrong thing to hand over to a writer.

Any time Saunders didn't like a particular point made in a story about his team or its performance, his own words might get tossed back with a smile -- "Hey, Flip, the truth can't be controversial." Inevitably that would prompt a smile back, and soon enough a shrug of his shoulders. Life went on. Basketball went on.

Life isn't going on anymore for Saunders, who passed away Sunday at age 60 after a four-month battle with Hodgkins lymphoma. But basketball is and so is Saunders' spirit, which always seemed rooted in the idea that this NBA and sports business was more about fun and games than about life and death.

The best thing about being a beat writer covering Saunders and his teams was his inability to hold a grudge. I worked his whole 10-year first run in Minnesota, taking over the season before he arrived and sticking around two years after he got axed in February 2005, and invariably he could not stay mad over some temporary, perceived dig. There was a sense, in good times and most tellingly in bad, that we all were pretty damn lucky to be making our livings at something into which many people poured their passions and their hard-earned cash.

His nickname (hung on him in childhood by his mother, Kay), his zeal and mastery as an amateur magician, a Vegas-style habit of shooting his cuffs on the sidelines, his love of NBA gossip -- that was all part of Flip's approach to his profession, the league and the game. So was the way he could go ballistic one moment at some referee's call or comment and laugh at himself for the hubbub a few minutes later. Coincidentally, one of his more infamous run-ins came in response to ref Greg Willard in a March 2002 game; Willard passed away two years ago at age 54 from pancreatic cancer.

Saunders had other pet phrases, things he'd coined or gleaned from the many coaches' books he devoured during his trek through basketball's trenches -- seven years in the CBA in Rapid City, S.D., in La Crosse, Wis., in Sioux Falls, S.D., after college work at Golden Valley Lutheran College, Minnesota and Tulsa. "You are the position you can guard," he'd say. And: "You give a player only as much responsibility as he can handle." And: "Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness." Sometimes he'd footnote, sometimes he wouldn't.

Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.

– One of Flip Saunders' many pet phrases

Flip also could prompt one back, typically when he'd claim that the only reason Marquette (my alma mater and first beat) won the NCAA men's championship in 1977 (his senior year) was that Minnesota, despite its 24-3 record, was on probation and ineligible for the tournament. "But like Woody Allen said," I'd remind him, "80 percent of success is showing up." He'd wave his hand and we'd banter another day.

The fact is, Saunders disliked confrontations. It was the single biggest criticism of him as a coach and, when his teams in Minnesota and Detroit went through some tough times, it was cited as key to his undoing. When your best player, Kevin Garnett, is a blast furnace of motivation and improvement, there's little about which a coach needs to confront him or the teammates intimidated into following. When some salty veterans such as Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell or Rasheed Wallace plant their heels, though, being player-friendly can get you pink-slipped.

Saunders was easily the most successful coach in Timberwolves history, particularly during his first stint. The Wolves went 411-326 and made the franchise's only eight postseason appearances, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004. All other seasons (including 2014-15 with Saunders navigating downward for lottery chances), they've gone 407-940 with zero playoff berths.

The good times were the product of Saunders' coaching, Kevin McHale's acumen and Hall of Fame experience as VP of basketball operations, and the two college teammates' and friends' commitment to Garnett and, for as long as it lasted, to Stephon Marbury. That blew up in less than three seasons and, despite the subsequent playoff runs, Minnesota never got quite good enough.

A comment Flip made a while back in hindsight about that fizzled vision turned particularly poignant Sunday. "I hope years from now," he said, "KG, Steph and I aren't sitting around a table at All-Star Weekend saying, 'We really screwed up.' "

He couldn't push the Pistons over the top in three years, either, and the situation in Washington went sideways thanks mostly to Gilbert Arenas and his guns. And yet, while Saunders got fired three times at the NBA level -- the Wolves dismissal, coming from McHale, stung all the way to the end -- he got hired four times.

GameTime: Flip Saunders News

Flip Saunders announces that he is being treated for Hodgkins lymphoma, and his doctors consider it 'very treatable and curable.'

His second run with the Wolves, as president of basketball operations and soon as head coach too, was going to be different. The new chapter was being written in bolder strokes, brighter colors, thanks in no small part to his deft handling of unhappy star Kevin Love's situation. Finally, it was looking as if there would be payoff for all those waves of pain. The pieces were in place -- Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica -- with Garnett back as a mentor along with Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince.

Saunders was even going to get a chance to demonstrate that his extensive playbook -- long on mid-range jumpers, not so long on 3-balls -- could work or sufficiently be revised for the current, arc-crazed NBA. Even a temporary setback to battle cancer, which is what this was purported to be, wasn't going to derail this plan.

"We're not in a situation where we're looking to sign players," Flip told me in August, the same day he and the Wolves announced his illness. "What we do now, we've got our players, we've got our game plan pretty set for what we're going to go ahead for next year. We're going to keep on working along those lines."

Plans. Right.

Saunders said he'd been keeping a diary and had to laugh at the ups and downs that got mashed together on him in June as the NBA Draft approached. One morning, he and the organization were proudly staging an open house of their new training facility across from Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. That afternoon, he found out from his doctor, Sheldon Burns, and the specialists at the Mayo Clinic that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The next day, owing to the Wolves' spot at No. 1, Duke's Jahlil Okafor visited for a draft workout, followed in short order by top prospects D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay. The following Monday, Saunders was back in Rochester, Minn., for a biopsy and other tests.

"It's surreal," he said. "You're down there for that, then you come back up here and 'everything's fine.' And then the draft is two days later. So you have the draft highs -- Towns and we trade to get Jones -- and then the next day, we find out exactly what this [cancer] is."

Every night when you go to bed, you hope the next day is going to be a better one. Some days it is, some days it isn't.

– Flip Saunders on dealing with cancer

Saunders and the team held a news conference for their new players. He began to prep the young Wolves for summer league. But while they went off to Las Vegas, he went into chemotherapy treatment.

His ambition to continue working, not just at one job but at both, sounded iffy but not impossible in August, when he still was upbeat, still was chipper, still was Flip. "The message more than anything else," he said in that phone call, "is just because you have an illness and you're fighting it, that doesn't have to take away the passion of your life and what you do. Whether that's your personal life or in your job or whatever. You can continue to work and fight and do the things you love to do."

But the updates out of Minnesota grew grim. The team and Saunders' family and friends did a remarkable job of keeping his condition and treatment off the grid and, hopefully, some who might otherwise have tried to pry showed discretion as well.

By Friday, after NBA commissioner Adam Silver surprised his news conference audience by welcoming USA Today NBA writer Jeff Zillgitt back from his own bout with cancer, the conversation in a private moment turned to Flip. Silver could do little more than shake his head.

But barely two months earlier, Saunders had sounded like his usual self. "In my profession, being a coach, once you know what you have to deal with, for me it's 'All right, what's the game plan? What do we have to do to try to become cancer-free?'" he said. "Every night when you go to bed, you hope the next day is going to be a better one. Some days it is, some days it isn't."

Surprised by his candor as much as his optimism, I mentioned that to Flip. "Asch, you're family," he said.

Fact is, the whole NBA was Saunders' family and it was a two-way street. Keeping things light, remembering how much of this is parlor tricks, never losing sight of the fun beneath the hyper-competition, the strident opinions and the high-stakes money, that's on the rest of us going forward now.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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