It’s a flawless late-October day in the Twin Cities. This morning, my wife and my daughter and I went to a park in Northeast to get some pictures taken because we’re expecting our second child any time now. I was glad for the good, crisp weather after two days of rains and clouds because it meant better photos. It’s been the kind of day you appreciate but maybe don’t notice until you’re reminded that some people aren’t going to see the end of it, or ever see one again.
I didn’t know Flip Saunders, who passed away today after a battle with cancer, personally. During the Wolves’ string of playoff appearances in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, culminating in their trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, he was their steward on the floor. When he returned to the Wolves after spending time as the head coach of both the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards, it was in the front office, but it wasn’t long before he was back on the bench. Aside from the postgame press conferences and pregame media availabilities, I chatted with him a few times and interviewed him once and it was clear — even if his decision to return to coaching was driven by necessity — that Flip loved basketball.
Surprisingly, that’s not a thing you can take as given in the NBA. Owners can be billionaires who enjoy a team as a status symbol; executives can be the owner’s college buddies; coaches can be ex-players who needed some way to make money; players can be talented athletes for whom basketball is simply the most obvious path to financial security. But Flip lived and breathed it, and clearly never wanted to leave it behind.
Let’s be clear: Flip knew more about basketball than you or me or just about any fan or member of the media. As a coach and a general manager, he often became a stand-in for my and many people’s concerns about the direction of the franchise, both on and off the court. He took our questions and our criticisms and often dismissed, as was his right. But he was rarely if ever touchy or dismissive. Instead, he always seemed willing to talk and listen and teach when he could.
I know that teaching the game was one of his great passions, and you could see it in the impact he had on Kevin Garnett as a player. That’s one of the biggest things I’m going to miss about his passing — the chance to see where this young team would have gone under him. He was responsible for so much of what this potentially exciting team looks like right now that it’s hard to know he won’t be here to see what it becomes. As a consummate workaholic, I’m sure he hated the idea of leaving the work of building this team unfinished.
But there’s always something unfinished, more perfect fall days out there we haven’t gotten to see yet. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I didn’t know Flip in any way other than professionally, but I’ve known loss, and I know I think of those losses on the days that most remind me of when they happened. I hope everyone who was close to Flip can still or at least eventually again appreciate a flawless late-October day in the Twin Cities.