Saunders made big impact with little gestures
MINNEAPOLIS -- For those he knew well, and many he didn't, Flip Saunders had a knack coming up with a little gift, a trinket, something simple he would pass along during a quiet moment to make a person feel special.
As Minnesota's president of basketball operations, Saunders woke up the morning of the 2014 draft and had a premonition that he would select UCLA guard Zach LaVine with the 13th overall pick. He wrote LaVine's name down on a piece of paper that morning. When Saunders' vision came true, he pulled it out of his pocket and gave it to LaVine as his show of faith in their new union.
"I have it in my room still," LaVine said.
More than a decade ago, when Saunders was crisscrossing Minnesota with Sam Mitchell as part of the Timberwolves' annual offseason promotional caravan, he gave Mitchell, a player on the team back then, a coloring book for his young children that showed them how to do elementary magic tricks and gave them something to do on the long rides.
"Until this day," said Mitchell, who took over as coach of the Timberwolves when Saunders fell ill, "I still have that book."
Before he took over as head coach in his second stint with the Timberwolves, Saunders the executive hosted some fans in his suite for a game, including attorney Steven Terry, a fixture courtside at Target Center. After a night of talking basketball, Saunders gave him a Timberwolves coin and told him that he would buy Terry a drink every time they ran into each other and he presented the coin.
"I wasn't close to him in reality," Terry said. "It just felt like it. That's a good person."
And the coin?
"I keep it next to my desk at home," Terry said.
Saunders, who died on Sunday at age 60 after complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma, will be laid to rest at a private ceremony in the Twin Cities this weekend. The Timberwolves will say goodbye to their president, their coach, their minority owner, whose boundless optimism and prescient maneuvering was reviving interest in a dormant franchise.
The Twin Cities will say goodbye to one of their fiercest advocates, a Cleveland native who called this place home even when he didn't have to.
The basketball world will say goodbye to a true ambassador, one who would buoy the spirits of recently fired coaches by inviting them to visit and collaborate, show up unannounced at a player's camp and entertain the kids with magic tricks and spring for Girl Scout cookies for a few star-struck fans as they exited the arena after a game.
And his family will say goodbye to the patriarch who gathered everyone together at their cabin every Fourth of July for a spirited game of whiffle ball, followed his three daughters around the country for dance competitions and proudly watched his son work his way up the NBA coaching ranks.
Saunders gave long-suffering Timberwolves faithful a far bigger gift: hope.
He turned disgruntled star Kevin Love into rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins. He worked tirelessly with the business side to promote a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004. He convinced Kevin Garnett to come back home. And he did it all with ebullience.
"Whether it's the players we have or the new $26 million facility and really the energy we're having in town, there's no team that's won 16 games that has as much energy as we do," Saunders said this summer.
He really believed that basketball could be great again in Minnesota, and that he was the one who could make it so. And not just in the NBA.
Before he returned to the Timberwolves in 2013, he thought he was going to be the next coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. As he geared up for the possibility, he scouted the recruiting class, in particular a strong crop of Minnesota-born prep stars that included Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and J.P. Macura.
The Gophers job went to Richard Pitino, Jones went to Duke, Travis to Stanford and Macura to Xavier. In the ensuing years, Saunders would tell confidantes that he not only would have landed those three prized recruits, but also had a chance at superstar Jahlil Okafor, another Duke commit who wanted to play with Jones.
C'mon, Flip. Really?
Well . . .
"There definitely was a chance just because of what he means and what he is in Minnesota, especially in the basketball world," Jones said this week. "So if he would've gotten the Gophers job, obviously not saying I would've went there, it definitely would've made it more appealing because I already had a relationship with Flip and I knew what he offered as far as a coach."
Saunders ended up landing Jones after all. He traded for the Final Four MVP on draft night, elating a fan base that desperately wanted Flip to bring the high school legend back home.
You could say it was one of Flip's last gifts.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be sent to the Flip Saunders Legacy Fund, which is "solely devoted to aiding and supporting deserving individuals or groups and to continuing the positive impact of the life of Coach Flip Saunders." P.O. Box 46410, Plymouth, Minn. 55446.