In a recent and surprisingly revealing GQ profile, new Late Show host Stephen Colbert dropped a piece of wisdom that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” Colbert was talking about the death of his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was 10, but it’s a sentiment that must resonate for anyone who’s been in the world long enough to have experienced loss, even on a much smaller scale. It’s one of those sentences that looks outwardly contradictory, but only because we don’t often think about what it means to love and wish.
Facing a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations is stepping aside and handing the reins to assistant coach Sam Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton. According to CEO Rob Moor, there is no timetable for Saunders’ return, but says it will be measured in “months, not weeks.”
We here at A Wolf Among Wolves wish Flip Saunders a thorough and speedy recovery. Our thoughts are with him and his family at this difficult time.
But we are also a blog about the Minnesota Timberwolves, which means we need to think about how this is going to affect the team itself as they begin the season. How the team will be affected on the management side will be difficult to assess. What exactly happens behind the frosted glass of the front office is rarely apparent and when it results in a trade or a signing, we can only guess at the myriad things that went into it. I suspect that given Saunders’ split time between coaching and management that Newton has always done more than he’s been given credit for, though.
How it affects the team on the court will become apparent as the season spools up, although that, too, will be difficult to precisely assess. At the press conference announcing this move, Mitchell emphasized that he played for Saunders, then brought a lot of what he learned to his first coaching gig in Toronto, plus has worked as Saunders’ assistant for a year and knows what Saunders’ vision for the team is. He stressed that he saw his role as “caretaker” — although for the team to take strides toward developing a cohesive identity around its young core and veteran leaders, he will likely have to do more than simply take care of it.
At this moment, we don’t know much, basically. But we know that — as the Simpsons remind us — the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity. We spend a lot of time analyzing and guessing and hoping about what a team can do right and then spend at least as much time wringing our hands over what they did wrong. An illness like this, however, is a great immovable object that has nothing to do with cap space or tanking or player development, except that it can profoundly affect a team in ways we’re poorly equipped to understand.
This is where the wishing comes in. It’s weirdly retroactive. You probably don’t go around abstractly wishing for unexpected and bad things not to happen, yet when they do, you’re suddenly aware of how slight and fragile a world in order can be. Wishing before or after the fact can’t actually do anything for you, but recognizing that it can’t do anything can help you buckle down and deal with it.
And that’s where the love comes in. Liking or not liking is easy — we do it all day every day on Facebook and Twitter. But love is not so simple, and its cultivation often has as much to do with adversity as appeal. Intractable crises and events demand change and adjustment. They can force growth and teach us to love what we become because of them. That’s really what I think Colbert was talking about. When the fabric and trajectory of your life is changed so dramatically, you eventually become unable to separate the event itself from your life. It becomes part of your life, and you can’t imagine yourself without it.
This could well be one of those moments for the Timberwolves as a team. Whatever course this season takes, navigating Saunders’ absence is going to be a part of how the young players develop, a part of how the team comes together. Maybe I’m overstating it, but years from now, this all could be an integral part of understanding where the Wolves have gone.
For now, though, the Wolves have a battle to fight, and so does Saunders. Get well soon, Flip. And oh yeah: