MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders maintained two offices in the Minnesota Timberwolves practice facility he helped design, one short of the number of roles he held in the organization — coach, president of basketball operations and minority owner. Instead of the first-floor head coach’s office, Saunders preferred second-floor president’s office, with a glass wall overlooking the practice court.
From there Saunders oversaw every aspect of the organization, from coaching to player personnel to marketing. His fingerprints were everywhere. Every player on the current roster was drafted, acquired or signed to an extension by Saunders since he returned to the Timberwolves in May 2013. Last season, Saunders persuaded shooting guard Kevin Martin to remain with Minnesota and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett to return.
That’s why Saunders’ death on Sunday, following complications from treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hit the organization so hard. General manager Milt Newton interrupted practice Sunday morning to break the news. The rest of practice was cancelled.
They gathered again Monday, practiced for about two hours, and tried to focus on Wednesday night’s season opener against the Lakers in Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy. Newton said the team spoke to the NBA about postponing the game, but he expects it to be played.
“You can see we’re hurting,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick in Saunders’ final draft. “We lost our point guard. We lost the person who runs this whole machine. I know when we found out, it was a hard moment for all of us, a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
“And I think the ones that had the most emotion of all of them was the veterans. They had the longest time with Flip. I was blessed to have the short time I had with him, to meet him and be in his presence, talk to him, touch him, laugh with him. But it doesn’t resemble the amount of significance he had with the veterans.”
Garnett, coached by Saunders for 10 seasons during their first turns in Minnesota, declined to speak with reporters Monday, the day after posting a poignant tribute to Saunders on Facebook. Veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who spent three seasons with Saunders in Detroit before signing here as a free agent this summer, said he felt a little better after a difficult night.
“I prayed each and every single night that a miraculous recovery was going to come out of this process,” Prince said. “The last time that I did talk to him, he was in great spirits. After he had his rounds of radiation, he said, ‘I’m going to get all my energy back and everything. I’m going to come around.’ We were just waiting for that day when he walked in. That was going to lift everybody’s spirits up.”
Instead, a Timberwolves team assembled by Saunders, mixing veterans (Garnett, Prince, Martin) and promising kids (Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, dunk contest champion Zach LaVine and Towns), will pursue Minnesota’s first playoff berth since 2004 without him.
“You know how KG is about the whole situation, how fiery he is,” Martin said. “His thing is, ‘Let’s get back to work and go be competitive in Flip’s honor.’ ”
Grieving meant sharing stories. LaVine kept a scrap of paper with his name on it that Saunders gave him, Saunders telling LaVine he carried it in his pocket on draft day in 2014. Prince remembered Saunders showing up unannounced at his basketball clinic at Wayne State University in Detroit — Saunders learned about it from a billboard — and entertaining kids with magic tricks and basketball talk for 45 minutes. (Saunders was an amateur magician.)
Interim Coach Sam Mitchell, another former Minnesota player coached by Saunders, still has the coloring book of magic tricks Saunders gave to his children.
And rookie point guard Tyus Jones, from suburban Minneapolis, glowingly recalled Saunders crashing his draft night party a block from the Target Center.
“I was talking with my mom about that yesterday,” he said. “It seemed like yesterday we were at the 508 (Bar) and he came down to congratulate me and celebrated with me. It really just shows how quickly things can change, and it’s really tough.”