Saunders Coached First NBA Game 18 Years Ago Today, And He's Still Impacting The Wolves Organization

Saunders Coached First NBA Game 18 Years Ago Today, And He's Still Impacting The Wolves Organization

Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders coached his first NBA game with the Timberwolves 18 years ago today. He won more than 600 games on the sidelines before moving to the front office this year. (Photo credit: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)



Imagine Flip Saunders entering the business world—saying goodbye to the hardwood courts with which he’s become synonymous over the past 40 years. Imagine he followed his initial potential career path, graduating from the business school at the University of Minnesota and getting involved with Pillsbury or General Mills like he initially intended.

Or what if when Saunders, then a flourishing coach in the Continental Basketball Association, had ended up working for Wolves owner Glen Taylor in a different area? When Saunders wrote Taylor an inquiry letter about joining the Timberwolves organization in 1995 and met with the team’s new owner in Mankato shortly thereafter, the two seemed to connect right from the start. They shared the same goals and values, so much so that Taylor wanted to bring Saunders on board….in some way, shape or form.

“He goes, ‘If I can’t hire you with the Wolves, maybe I can bring you into my business in some other type of capacity,’” Saunders said. “I said I’m pretty much geared toward staying in basketball.”

The rest is history. After Taylor hired Kevin McHale as his Vice President of Basketball Operations, the two quickly brought Saunders in as general manager. And after a 6-14 start, Minnesota hired Saunders to replace Bill Blair as head coach. His first game on the sideline was 18 years ago today, on a snowy evening in Cleveland—Saunders’ hometown. Of the recorded 14,304 who attended that night, Saunders said only about 5-6,000 stayed the course of the game—including his close friends and family—as the Wolves lost 100-95.

It was the first game in a process that would eventually yield the Wolves’ most successful seasons and springboard Saunders’ career in the NBA. Today, Saunders is back with the Wolves—he was hired in May as President of Basketball Operations and also took a limited partnership in the team’s ownership group. He compiled 638 wins as a head coach during 16 years with the Wolves, Pistons and Wizards, and now he’s back with the organization that gave him his first shot in the NBA with hopes of trying to recreate the building process he began 18 years ago today.

With Saunders, the Wolves won 50 games four times, went to eight postseason appearances and reached the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04. That entire stretch of basketball will forever be linked to Saunders’ coaching and Kevin Garnett’s dominance. The two entered the league together in 1995-96 and were a rookie player and rookie coach at the same time.

Much of what both Saunders and Garnett became in this league directly links back to their early days at Target Center. Saunders got his shot at head coaching in large part because he believes the Wolves hoped to bring in a coach willing to give Garnett a more prominent role. And Saunders was willing to do that. Garnett proved from an early age he had the intensity and the drive to become an All-Star, an All-Pro and an MVP.

“He was one of those guys that would say give me more, give me more,” Saunders said. “So we would kind of bond from that, and we would also bond because we went through a growing process. We got our butts kicked a little bit. I always say it takes a year and a half to get things you’re trying to do established. That first year, we established a foundation for what would happen down the road.”

Flash forward to 2013, and Saunders has a similar goal in mind. The Wolves haven’t been to the postseason in 10 years, and Saunders is working closely with coach Rick Adelman to end that streak this season. Together, the two have more than 1,600 career NBA coaching wins, and that guidance from the front office is helpful. When Adelman returned to Minnesota this offseason, he said that’s something he was looking forward to about their relationship. Saunders, who said he is trying to mirror how he approaches his front office position based on how he as a coach would appreciate, is able to give input while putting his primary focus on the long-term issues—not the day-to-day.

“I think that was one of the great things I had for so many years with Geoff Petrie,” Adelman said. “He was never afraid to tell me what he thought, and I think it’s good to listen to somebody because when you’re on the coaching staff, you’re dealing with that every day and sometimes before you know it, two weeks have gone by and games come so quickly. Where as you get somebody who’s not in your meetings, just observing, gives you input, you think about it and it helps you.”

He’s making an immediate impact with the players, too. Saunders was active in the pre-draft workouts and made a point to get to know the players prior to them arriving back to camp. He wanted to ensure the guys knew who he was and what he stood for. It caught on early. Dante Cunningham said when he returned to Minnesota in September that he enjoyed how Saunders approached the game while also having a playful personality with the guys on the roster.

That’s Saunders’ personality.

“He’s great, because he knows what it takes, you know?” guard J.J. Barea said. “He knows how to hang around the locker room. He knows how to talk to us, how to talk to the coaches. He has a good relationship with everybody. It’s great to have him, and I know he’s always working for us to see what we need.”

Taylor, who remained close with Saunders over the years after he left the organization in 2005, said when he re-hired Saunders in May that those philosophies and beliefs as well as his character were a big reason why he wanted him to return.

“Flip has gone out and stayed in the NBA, coached for some other teams, seen some other organizations, seen some other systems, and I think that has added great value to his experience,” Taylor said. “With all that experience in the league, I just think that he can bring that part of his overall philosophy back to our organization and make it a better organization.”

When Saunders arrived in the Twin Cities as a freshman with the Gophers in 1973, there wasn’t an NBA franchise in town. He had no idea he’d make his name in this city as an NBA coach and, eventually, the President of Basketball Operations. But here in 2013, exactly 18 years after he began his NBA coaching career in this same building, he’s looking to rekindle some of the success he once helped build.

But Saunders lives in the present, not the past. That’s why he won’t mull over those successes—he’s trying to build the next chapter of this Wolves franchise. Meanwhile, the Wolves are just happy he didn’t take a different career path to Pillsbury or General Mills.

“I was pretty transparent from Day 1 that we have to roll up our sleeves and we have a lot of work to do,” Saunders said. “I still believe that. It’s a work in progress.

“By no means are we a finished product. We’re far from it. How are we going to develop and grow as a team?”


For more news and notes on the team follow the Minnesota Timberwolves and Mark Remme on Twitter.