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For Flip: FSN To Re-Air First Wolves Game After Flip Saunders' Passing
In October, it will be five years since Phil “Flip” Saunders died from complications with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It’s easy to get caught up in the daily demands of the NBA, and when we do, we often forget to reflect on just what Flip meant to his Minnesota Timberwolves franchise.
We will receive a reminder of Flip’s impact on Minnesota basketball on Sunday, April 5, when Fox Sports North re-airs the Wolves’ Oct. 28, 2015, game against the Los Angeles Lakers at 6 p.m. CT. The 112-111 Wolves win was their 2015 season opener and the team’s first game after Flip’s death.
Whether you were directly affiliated with the team at the time or not, the week of Flip’s death was hard on everyone. That, of course, is a testament to Flip’s legacy.
You can’t measure or compare grief, but the pain felt by Flip’s players and colleagues was tangible during what should have been a joyous lead-up to their upcoming season.
The start of the 2015-16 season was supposed to be centered on No. 1 draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns' NBA debut, Kevin Garnett’s last stand of his 21-year career and Ricky Rubio’s return from his left ankle surgery.
Instead, the season opener came just three days after Flip’s passing.
How was the franchise supposed to focus on anything other than the death of the man who had been its glue for so many years?
“When something like that happens to someone so special to all of us, there’s no blueprint to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Towns said the morning of his NBA debut. “It’s just something you have to deal with individually. But as a team, we’re doing a great job of supporting each other tremendously and making sure we all have each other’s backs.
“The vision that we have for ourselves is what he had. He instilled in us that we can be a special team if we just come together and do something for one common goal.”
With Flip’s vision in mind, the Wolves played for each other. They played for Flip.
The season opener was in Los Angeles, but the Wolves and Lakers still had something special planned for the man who not only impacted his own team but who also shaped the lives of so many of his NBA peers.
The Wolves took the court at Staples Center wearing gray warmup shirts that read “WE” with “Flip” over the heart. Flip and former general manager Milt Newton had planned to use “We” as the season mantra to enforce the importance of playing for each other rather than trying to rack up individual stats and accomplishments.
“He had these signs made up last year that on one side it was ‘WE’ and if you turned it upside down it was ‘ME,’” interim head coach Sam Mitchell said at the Oct. 28 morning shootaround. “We talk to our players all the time. This is a ‘We’ game. You win together, and you fail as one. It’s not about you. I remind them every day that it’s about your teammates; it’s not about you. If you take care of each other, then the person you’re going to end up taking care of is you.”
The Lakers wore gray and gold T-shirts that read “FLIP” above an MPLS Lakers logo. Sadly, those warmups were brought up a little over two months ago when Ryan Saunders was asked to remark on the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven others involved in the tragic Jan. 26 helicopter crash.
“I remember just seeing (Bryant) at the free-throw line during the National Anthem wearing a ‘FLIP’ shirt and him paying tribute,” Ryan said the day after Bryant’s passing.
The teams honored Flip’s life with a moment of silence then were tasked with finding the strength to mask their emotions and just play basketball.
When Fox Sports North analyst Marney Gellner asked Rubio whether or not he wanted Flip’s passing to be something that was on his mind during the game at the morning’s shootaround, Rubio said, “I hope it’s something that doesn’t affect.
“Of course we’re going to miss him, and I think he’s going to give us the strength to keep pushing through tough moments.”
But it’s safe to say Flip probably had some influence on the way Rubio played that night.
Rubio played lights out that night, providing his team with quick offense right from the get-go and stepping up as the leader the young team needed during one of the saddest days in Timberwolves history.
Rubio finished with a game-high 28 points and 14 assists — which were career-highs at the time — and just one turnover.
“It’s been a tough week,” Rubio said after the game. “It’s hard to explain. Everybody goes through a lot of pain, but we came here to fight like he would have said to us, ‘Compete. Go out there and try to win a game.’”
Kevin Martin added 23 points off the bench and was 11-for-12 from the free-throw line, which was crucial in the Wolves’ comeback from a 16-point deficit late in the third quarter.
“Nobody except for Ricky really played well tonight, but we just grinded,” Martin said in an interview with Alan Horton after his team’s win. “This was an emotional win for us, and you know who we did it for. We did it for Flip and the Saunders family.”
Other leaders were quieter throughout the night. Kevin Garnett knew Flip for 19 years, which was half of his lifetime at the time of his coach’s death. He played only 13 minutes and recorded four points and seven rebounds (quite the KG stat line) in his first game as a Timberwolf without Flip.
Garnett didn’t say much (if anything) to the media that week. He was out of the locker room before reporters had a chance to ask players questions after their 112-111 comeback win over the Lakers and can’t be found in any of the player testimonial videos the Wolves made to commemorate their late coach.
Garnett, who never seemed at a loss for words, couldn’t articulate what the death of the man whom he’ll be next to on the Timberwolves’ Mount Rushmore meant to him. Instead, he simply shared a photo of him sitting next to Flip’s parking spot. Nearly five years later and that photo has the power to break your heart all over again.
Again, as Towns said, there was no blueprint for grieving back then — there still isn’t almost five years later and never will be.
Those five years seem to pass by like nothing when you’re outside of the Saunders family and get caught up in wins, losses, stats, trades, you name it. But the five years also seem to feel like no time at all when you consider how ingrained Flip’s legacy is in the team that his son is now leading.
We see Flip in the way Ryan treats every Timberwolves and Lynx and Target Center staff member with equal amounts of respect and dignity.
We see Flip in Ryan’s passion for the game and his in-game ticks that require a double-take because of how much they mirror those of his father.
We see Flip in the way Gersson Rosas, Ryan and Towns have stressed the importance of family and “WE” throughout the 2019-20 season.
As Rubio said, “Even though he’s gone, he will stay with us forever.”