Timberwolves’ Flip Saunders loses battle with cancer

Flip Saunders: 1955-2015. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma in June, died Sunday at the age of 60.

Saunders went 654-592 in 17 NBA seasons with the Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.

“It is with extreme sadness that the Minnesota Timberwolves today learned that Phil ‘Flip’ Saunders, who served as the team’s President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, in addition to being a minority owner of the team, passed away today at age 60,” the Timberwolves said in a statement.

Saunders sat out the preseason after being diagnosed with cancer, but he was expected back at some point this season. However, he had been hospitalized since September after experiencing complications following the completion of chemotherapy.

The Timberwolves had announced Friday that Saunders would miss the entire 2015-16 season. Sam Mitchell has been coaching the team throughout the preseason in Saunders’ absence and general manager Milt Newton is handling the front-office responsibilities.

Saunders first became an NBA coach in 1996 with the Timberwolves and eventually led the team to eight straight playoff appearances.

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 coach.

After a three-year stint with the Wizards, Saunders returned to the Timberwolves in 2013 — after eight years away — as team president and part owner. In 2014, he took over again as coach.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement, “The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders. With more than 40 years around the game, 20 of them in the NBA, Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league. Flip was a beloved figure around the NBA, nowhere more so than in Minnesota, demonstrating a genuine and consistent passion for his players, his team and the game. On behalf of the NBA, we offer our most sincere condolences to Flip’s wife, Debbie, their four children and the entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization.”

Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld released a statement on behalf of the organization:

“Flip’s passion, love and knowledge of the game shined throughout his life as a player, coach and executive spanning all levels of basketball.  He will be remembered as one of the game’s great contributors, but we will miss him as a friend and a colleague. Our thoughts are with his wife, Debbie, and his children, Ryan, Mindy, Rachel and Kimberly, as well as the countless players he guided and lives he touched over the course of his esteemed career.”

Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said, “It was an honor to be able to coach with Flip for over 10 years and a privilege to call him a friend for life. Although I join the entire basketball world in deep sadness over his passing, we should all celebrate a great man who was able to do so much for the game he loved, the people and players he worked with and the communities where he lived. He was a tremendous coach, but an even better husband and father and my thoughts and prayers are with his entire family during this difficult time.”

Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for Saunders with the Timberwolves from 2003-05, said he was in “a little bit of shock.”

“Flip played a huge part in my life. Everything from bringing me in and giving me a chance to taking a lot of the philosophy that he had,” Hoiberg said Sunday. “He was a great mentor, a great leader … a special, special person.

“And that’s the thing, you’re riding home on a plane win or lose — Flip was always upbeat. (He’d) talk to you, come back and see how you’re feeling, especially during struggles. He was a fatherly figure, such a caring individual. It’s just awful how this whole thing went down with the complications from his cancer. It’s just a sad, sad day. He’ll be greatly missed.”

A standout offensive coach, Saunders specialized in coaching point guards. But his greatest impact may have been on a big man who came straight from high school in 1995 — Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett. Under Saunders’ tutelage, Garnett developed into one of the best players in the NBA and eventually an MVP.

Garnett posted posted a photo of himself sitting in front of Saunders’ parking space in the team’s parking lot, staring at his coach’s name on the wall. Garnett’s message with the photo said: “Forever in my heart….”

John Wall, who played for Saunders with the Wizards, issued his condolences on Instagram: “The sting of losing another loved one to cancer doesn’t get any easier. My thoughts & prayers are with the Saunders &Twolves family.”

The Pistons issued a statement, which read: “It is with tremendous sorrow that the Detroit Pistons organization acknowledges the passing of Flip Saunders.  He will be remembered by Pistons fans as one of the franchise’s most successful head coaches – leading the club to three consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a franchise-record 64 wins in 2005-06.  Flip was a great ambassador for the Metro Detroit community and had a positive influence on those who had the opportunity to spend time with him.  We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Debbie, his children Ryan, Mindy, Rachel, Kimberly and all his friends throughout the extended Detroit Pistons and NBA family.”

Other tributes came in via Twitter to honor the popular coach.

Kevin Love, former Timberwolves player now with the Cleveland Cavaliers: “Flip you were one of a kind. Great basketball mind and even better human being. You had a great impact on my life personally and professionally. RIP my friend. Prayers are with the Saunders family during this time.”

LeBron James: “My condolences to the Saunders and @Timberwolves family!  Lost a great person in our fraternity way to early. So sad #RIPFlip.”

Shaquille O’Neal: “My thoughts and prayers go out to Coach Flip Saunders family and friends. Rest In Heaven Coach, you will be missed!”

Los Angeles Clippers: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Flip Saunders as well as the @Timberwolves organization. #NBAFamily.”

 

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