Flip Saunders, who tallied more than 1,000 victories over a 35-year coaching career that included successful stops with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, died Sunday of cancer at the age of 60.
He also coached the Washington Wizards during a career that spanned 17 seasons as an NBA head coach and included 654 victories.
Saunders announced in August that he was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors considered it “very treatable and curable,” and Saunders at the time said he planned to remain the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations. However, after being hospitalized following a setback in September, it was announced Friday that Saunders would miss the entire 2015-16 season.
He first became an NBA coach in 1996 with the Timberwolves and eventually led the team to eight straight playoff appearances. Always a gifted offense mind, Saunders became a standout offensive coach who specialized in coaching point guards. But perhaps the player he had the greatest impact on was a big man, a wiry kid who came straight from high school in 1995 named Kevin Garnett. Under Saunders’ tutelage, Garnett developed into one of the best players in the NBA and eventually an MVP.
After being fired by Minnesota in 2005, Saunders was hired by the Pistons the following season and took Detroit to the conference finals for all three seasons he was on the sidelines.
Saunders, after a three-year stint with the Wizards, returned to the Wolves in 2013 after eight years away as team president and part owner. In 2014 he took over again as coach. He was in the process of a major rebuilding effort following the trade of Kevin Love that included the acquisition of Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, engineering the return of Garnett to mentor young players, the construction of a new downtown practice facility and a renovation of the Target Center.
His NBA teams won 50 or more games on seven occasions, including a Pistons franchise-record 64 victories in 2005-06. Two times he coached in the All-Star Game and he led Team USA to the gold medal in the Goodwill Games in 2001. He also spent time as an analyst at ESPN.
The Cleveland native was named the Player of the Year in Ohio as a senior in high school, when he averaged 32 points a game. In college he played on juggernaut teams at the University of Minnesota, where he played alongside future NBA players Mychal Thompson, Ray Williams and Kevin McHale.
He began his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1977 and eventually rose up the ranks in the CBA, leading the LaCrosse Catbirds to two league championships.
Saunders is survived by a wife and four children, including son Ryan, who is a Wolves assistant coach.
ESPN Staff Writer Brian Windhorst contributed to this report.