MINNEAPOLIS — With several former players, including Chauncey Billups and Latrell Sprewell, watching on, the Minnesota Timberwolves unveiled a “Flip” banner at the top of the Target Center as the organization paid tribute to Flip Saunders on Thursday.
Saunders, who was a basketball fixture in the state of Minnesota having starred collegiately at the University of Minnesota before later becoming head coach and eventually president of basketball operations of the Timberwolves, died at the age of 60 in October 2015 due to Hodgkin lymphoma.
TNT’s Kevin Harlan, a longtime play-by-play voice for the Timberwolves, emceed the pregame tribute with former players flying in to join Saunders’ wife, Debbie, and their four children. The team also raised awareness and funds for the Flip Saunders Legacy Fund.
“When I came to Minnesota, my career was hanging in the balance at the time, I was kind of at a fork in the road,” said Billups, who played two seasons in Minnesota from 2000-2002 after signing as a free agent. “It wasn’t because of my talent. I thought I needed someone to believe in me, and Flip did that. I didn’t come here as a starter, I was coming off the bench at the time. He believed in me and when I left here and went to Detroit, I begged Joe Dumars to bring him to Detroit because I loved him so much.
“It was more his interest in me that he took off the floor that helped us foster a relationship for a long time,” Billups continued. “Anybody that knows Flip knows that he loved magic and I loved magic as well. … Flip was a very important person to me and in my life, all the way until it was over. Even now, I appreciate [the Saunders’ family] sharing your father with us. And as you can see he was very well loved and you know what he meant to this city and organization. I want to say thank you for having us.”
Saunders compiled a 654-592 record over 17 seasons as an NBA head coach. He went 427-392 in 11 seasons over two stints with Minnesota, guiding the franchise to its most successful seasons. From 1995-’05, Saunders coached the Timberwolves to eight consecutive postseason berths, including a 2004 Western Conference finals appearance.
“My rookie year, we played them in the Western Conference finals and they were really good,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. “I remember thinking we gave everything we could to win that Game 6 in L.A. so we wouldn’t have to come back here and try to beat them on their home court. Kevin Garnett at the time was just a game-changer. They used him all over the floor and they really did a nice job of taking advantage of where your weaknesses were, so the few minutes I was on the floor I was usually picked on by Flip teams, But [I’ll remember him as] just a fun coach that supposedly had a playbook that had 3,000 pages in it. And the players that played for him all loved playing for him and really enjoyed being with him, I’ve been told.”
Saunders also coached the Detroit Pistons from 2005-’08, leading the Pistons to three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. He also coached the Washington Wizards from 2009-11. After the 2011-12 season in Washington, Saunders joined ESPN as a basketball analyst for two seasons before returning to Minnesota in May 2013 as the team’s president of basketball operations. Prior to the 2014-15 season, he added on the duties of head coach.
“I will never forget the first day I got traded to Minnesota. He met me right here in the middle of this court, right here, and he had this big giant playbook,” said Sam Cassell, who played two seasons in Minnesota, from 2003-05. “I was like that’s how you greet me the first day? He had a big playbook for me because he knew I didn’t really like execution. I just liked to play. I was a freelance kind of ball player.
“He said, ‘Sam, if you ever want to make the All-Star Game, you got to put execution at the top of your list,'” said Cassell, whose lone All-Star appearance came as a Timberwolve in 2003-’04. “That year was a remarkable year for us. … The thing I will never forget about Flip is how demanding he was about playing the game of basketball the right way.”
Debbie Saunders, surrounded by her children, was overwhelmed and said she was “at a loss for words.”
“The last two years, the family has had to be brave,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. Some days are better than others. One thing was very clear to all of us: We could not have done this without your love, support and kindness. The Target Center has always felt like home to us and still does. Flip loved it. Flip was passionate about Minnesota and basketball, but he was also a good man, good father and a good husband.
“I know Flip would want me to tell all of you that he is very touched by this moment. … Keep up the Minnesota humble and kind.”
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said the “Flip” banner is about the team’s past and its future.
“That’s why it is so important as we put this banner up tonight that we keep that memory of not only what Flip has done in the past but that he is part of the future,” Taylor said in a video. “And I want to recognize that friendship and leadership to the organization.”