MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders had been hospitalized for more than a month, with complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma leaving him unable to communicate with the Minnesota Timberwolves team he rebuilt from the ground up.
Each day that went by without a positive report on their leader raised the concern and the dread. And still, each day, many in the organization expected Saunders to burst through the doors on the shiny new $25 million practice facility he helped design, blow the whistle around his neck and start coaching the roster he assembled with the staff he hired.
“I’m going to keep thinking about that moment,” point guard Ricky Rubio said Monday, one day after Saunders died at the age of 60 due to complications from the cancer. “I think some of us can’t believe that he passed away. Still waiting for him any moment to come and lead us where he wanted us to be.”
A grieving Timberwolves team reconvened at practice, the loss of the organizational architect still weighing heavy on their hearts. Quite simply, Saunders was everything to these Timberwolves — the president of basketball operations, a minority owner and head coach, another son to owner Glen Taylor and another father to many of the players.
“His imprint is on this building,” interim coach Sam Mitchell said, looking at the state-of-the-art practice facility that opened this summer. “It’s on the Target Center. Every one of us, from players to coaches to a lot of guys in basketball ops, they were hand-picked by Flip. He wanted us here. He wanted what he called his Timberwolves family around him, people that he had confidence in, that he trusted. So that’s tough, because we all came back because of him.”
The Cleveland-born Saunders was as Minnesota as they come, having starred at the University of Minnesota before starting his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran Junior College. Taylor brought him in as general manager in 1995, and he would spend 10 years coaching the Wolves before being fired in 2005.
He returned as team president in 2013, inheriting a roster in shambles and a team that had not made the playoffs since his final full season in 2004. In short order, he either drafted, traded for or signed to an extension every player on the current roster, remade the front office and strength and conditioning staffs and brought in a coaching staff deeply familiar with his philosophies.
“Flip was the person that brought this family together,” Taylor said. “He recruited the players, the staff and was a friend of mine. It’s easy for me to say that we were family and he was a very, very important part of the leadership of that family.”
The energetic Saunders also was heavily involved in the business side of the operation and is perhaps single-handedly responsible for franchise icon Kevin Garnett agreeing to return to the organization in a trade that happened last February that revived fan interest in a dormant franchise.
“I don’t think Kevin would have come back in any other circumstances without Flip being the person to ask him or to talk to him about it,” Taylor said.
The Timberwolves are scheduled to open the season on Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Lakers. General manager Milt Newton, who followed Saunders from Washington to Minnesota and has assumed primary responsibility for personnel decisions, said the team was having discussions with the league about whether to play the game, but he believed it would go on as scheduled.
“We told the players that you cannot circumvent the grieving process,” Newton said. “Each player has their own particular way of grieving and dealing with that. But at the same time, if you know Flip and about Flip, the best way for us to honor him is to compete, play hard and leave it on the floor.”
The first practice was hard, but necessary. Initially, the team planned to leave on Monday to head to Los Angeles but now will practice again on Tuesday before departing. They need to be around each other, and they need to be home.
“What we have over here is a family,” Rubio said, “and we lost our dad yesterday.”
So now the picking up of the pieces begins. Taylor said he has told Newton and Mitchell to do the jobs as they see fit, not as how Saunders would want them to do it.
But make no mistake, in many ways this remains Flip’s team. He brought them all here with a plan, a vision for getting the organization back to relevance in the mighty Western Conference. And with No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, with Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine, with Garnett and Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller, the Wolves believe they’re so much closer to turning that corner than they ever have been in the last decade.
“You just got to thank the world for him,” LaVine said. “I’m going to go out there and do everything I can to show him and show the world and this organization his vision for this team, it’s not going to die. We’re going to go out there and put on for him.”