By: Drew Mahowald
When I was just six-years-old, I was able to attend my first Timberwolves game. I remember a lot of it vividly. The score of the game was 120-102 in favor of the Wolves, and Wally Szczerbiak lit up the Lakers for 30-some points. But neither the score nor Szczerbiak's big game is the first thing I remember from that game.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit courtside during warm-ups for that game with my parents and my little brother. As I'm sitting there, in awe of everything -- the massive arena, all the seats, the scoreboard, these giant human beings shooting baskets -- Flip Saunders walks over and hands me a basketball.
Now, I was six years old. So, no, I didn't recognize him as the Timberwolves head coach. EA Sports' NBA Live 2001 didn't feature Saunders on the game, so that's my excuse.
Anyway, I knew this man must've been an important figure because he was just on the court talking to the Wolves players and other coaches. So I thought this was pretty cool, as any other six-year-old kid would.
Then, Flip told me to stick up my finger like I was "number one". He proceeded to spin the ball on his finger and then transfer it to my finger with ease. I don't remember how long that ball was on my finger, but it felt like a really long time.
Unfortunately, at the time, I didn't recognize how cool that moment was. And, frankly, I never really did recognize that until I heard the news that Flip had passed away. As I look back on it now, it's one of the coolest sports moments in my life. The head coach of an NBA team took the time to mess around with a six-year-old kid before he had to go coach a game. And that coach was Flip Saunders.
The story I've shared seems to agree with every single social media post or online article I've seen regarding Flip Saunders as a person. The abundance of NBA personnel, whether a current or former player, coach, or other executive, that voiced their sadness for this loss just goes to show the kind of positive impact Flip made on such a wide range of people.
The most gut-wrenching social media post I saw today was from Kevin Garnett's Facebook page. It was Garnett, sitting in a parking spot marked with "Flip Saunders" on the wall, head bowed down. Garnett's post reads, "Forever in my heart...". Ugh.
On the court, there was no doubting Flip's knowledge of the game of basketball. Even as a player at the University of Minnesota, he displayed a high basketball I.Q. as the team's point guard. Mychal Thompson, Flip's college teammate, raved about Flip's basketball mind this afternoon during ESPN's tribute program.
Clearly, Flip carried that knowledge over to his coaching career and eventually his executive career. As a coach, Flip posted a career record of 654-594 while his team qualified for postseason play 11 times. He was also one of just ten men to coach in both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.
However, what Flip Saunders has accomplished for the game of basketball in the state of Minnesota will never be able to be measured. In a state dominated by hockey, basketball has stayed plenty relevant through the years, and most of that is due to the work of Flip Saunders.
Flip's most recent project dealt with rebuilding a Timberwolves franchise that, frankly, went downhill quickly when he left in 2005. In his second tenure with the Wolves, Saunders built a rock-solid foundation for a team that possess limitless potential. So far, Flip's earning an A+ on the project. I mean, for a team that finished last season with a 16-66 record, there were a lot of people that cared about the Timberwolves. There's no telling what this team is capable of in the future. But, one thing is for sure: when this Timberwolves team starts to have sustained success in a few years, Flip Saunders' fingerprints will be all over it.
My thoughts and prayers are out to Flip's family and friends during this awful time. Cancer sucks, there's no doubt about that.
I never knew Flip Saunders personally, but I really wish I did. From what I've heard about him not just today, but for years before this, is that Flip genuinely cared about people and made it a priority to make people feel good. People like this don't come around often.
Needless to say, the basketball world and the state of Minnesota lost a great one. RIP Flip.