Saunders' Coaching Roots Run Through Sioux Falls

Saunders' Coaching Roots Run Through Sioux Falls

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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All coaches get their start somewhere, and those roots tend to stay with them no matter how far they go or what heights they achieve. Flip Saunders understands that.

Back in 1995, Saunders was an up-and-coming NBA coach that just signed on for his first big-league gig with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Since then, he’s won 638 NBA games, made 11 postseason appearances and transitioned his success on the sidelines into his newest position in as the Wolves’ President of Basketball Operations.

But the lessons he learned in the years leading up to his jump into the NBA helped form his coaching style and philosophy. Over seven years in the Continental Basketball Association with the Rapid City Thrillers, La Crosse Catbirds and Sioux Falls Skyforce, he won 253 games and still stands as the second most winningest coach in the now defunct league’s history. Perhaps the most important trait he brought with him to the NBA is adaptability. You never know what situations will arise on the sidelines, and you need to be prepared for all scenarios if you’re hoping to be successful.

“Because you’re losing players to the NBA, you have to be able to adapt to situations,” Saunders said. “That’s why I think you look at guys who have coached in that league, whether it’s myself, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Terry Stotts, Eric Musselman—those guys have gone through that so they are able to adapt to situations. They don’t get ruffled when things go bad, and they don’t get too excited when things are going good. You try to stay level headed, and you try stay one step ahead of anything.”

Saunders will return to Sioux Falls this week as the Timberwolves face the Milwaukee Bucks in an exhibition game Thursday night at the new Sanford Pentagon. It will be the first professional basketball game at the newly-opened facility, with tipoff set for 7 p.m. on Fox Sports North Plus.

The Pentagon is the new home for the Skyforce, now a member of the NBA Development League, but back in 1994-95 when Saunders coached the club they played about three miles south at the Sioux Falls Arena. When Saunders arrived after a stint in La Crosse, the Skyforce had never put together a winning season or made the playoffs since the team’s inception in 1989.

Saunders and his group of players changed that. During the 1994-95 run, the Skyforce put together a 34-22 record, reached the playoffs and attracted a season attendance that still ranks second in franchise history. Sioux Falls lost its Best-of-3 first round playoff series, but that season was the first of six straight years in which the Skyforce played above .500 basketball. The following year, after Saunders left for the Timberwolves, coach Mo McHone led Sioux Falls to the CBA title.

Meanwhile, Saunders made the jump to Minnesota and made the same type of transition within the Wolves’ franchise. He, along with a 19-year-old rookie named Kevin Garnett, helped re-shape the Timberwolves’ culture—the Wolves haven’t had a winning season before or after Saunders’ stint with the club—and brought with him a go-getter philosophy that helped push the team into eight straight playoff appearances.

“He always had a massive, massive passion for the game,” said Wolves President Chris Wright, who was with the franchise when they hired Saunders as coach in 1995. “He brings a level of energy to what he’s doing every single day. He gets it done.”

A lot of that goes back to those days in the CBA, where coaches don’t often have the luxury of knowing their star players will be around for a full season. Call ups happen, and it takes the proper game planning to create the right schemes for varying personnel—whenever that situation might arise.

Saunders made big steps in his coaching career during those years in the CBA, and he left a lasting impression on the Sioux Falls record books. But the city and the fans also left a lasting impression on him, and he still has friends who reside in the area. He plans to catch up with some of those old friends when he travels there today. His first plan for his Sioux Falls trip is to tour the Sanford Pentagon facility before the team arrives in town from Toronto later tonight.

It’s a city he’s visited many times, he said, since he last coached there in 1995. And it’s one stop in his coaching career that prepared him for his long-tenured stint in the NBA. This week is a chance to return home to those roots.

“Whenever we as a league can go back to the NBADL or CBA, those are always positives,” Saunders said. “That’s part of what this league has always been about, is moving players up. That’s where we try to develop players, so it’s always good to give back to those areas. It’s a work time when you go back there, you’re going to work, but it’s always good to go back because you know a lot of people.”

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