Flip Saunders, who tallied more than 1,000 victories over a 35-year coaching career that included successful stops with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, died Sunday of cancer at age 60.
He also coached the Washington Wizards during a career that spanned 17 seasons as an NBA head coach and included 654 victories.
Saunders announced in August that he was being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Doctors considered it “very treatable and curable,” and Saunders at the time said he planned to remain the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations. However, he was hospitalized following a setback in September, and it was announced Friday that Saunders would miss the entire 2015-16 season.
Saunders first became an NBA coach in 1996 with the Timberwolves and eventually led the team to eight straight playoff appearances. A standout offensive coach, Saunders specialized in coaching point guards. But perhaps the player he had the greatest impact on was a big man, a wiry kid who came straight from high school in 1995 named Kevin Garnett. Under Saunders’ tutelage, Garnett developed into one of the best players in the NBA and eventually an MVP.
After being fired by Minnesota in 2005, Saunders was hired by the Pistons the next season and took Detroit to the conference finals for all three seasons he was on the sideline.
Saunders, after a three-year stint with the Wizards, returned to the Wolves in 2013 as team president and part-owner. In 2014 he took over again as coach. He was in the process of a major rebuilding effort following the trade of Kevin Love that included the acquisition of rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins, the engineering of Garnett’s return to mentor young players, the construction of a new downtown practice facility and a renovation of the Target Center.
We are extremely saddened to learn today Phil “Flip” Saunders has passed away at age 60.
— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) October 25, 2015
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 25, 2015
Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for Saunders with the Timberwolves from 2003-05, said he was in “a little bit of shock” after learning of his death.
“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.”
His NBA teams won 50 or more games on seven occasions, including a Pistons franchise-record 64 victories in 2005-06. Twice he coached in the All-Star Game, and he led Team USA to the gold medal in the Goodwill Games in 2001. He also spent time as an analyst at ESPN.
John Wall, who played for Saunders with the Wizards, also 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 Cleveland native was named the player of the year in Ohio as a senior in high school, when he averaged 32 points a game. In college he played on juggernaut teams at the University of Minnesota, where he played alongside future NBA players Mychal Thompson, Ray Williams and Kevin McHale.
He began his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1977 and eventually rose up the ranks in the Continental Basketball Association, leading the La Crosse Catbirds to two league championships.
Saunders is survived by a wife and four children, including son Ryan, who is a Wolves assistant coach.
“He’s a great basketball man,” Hoiberg said. “… He’ll be missed. There’s not one person I think that you could talk to to say one bad thing about Flip Saunders.”
Sam Mitchell had been named interim head coach of the Timberwolves, and GM Milt Newton is heading the team’s personnel department.