His imprint is on this building
MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders had been hospitalized for more than a month, with complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma leaving him unable to communicate with the Minnesota Timberwolves team he rebuilt from the ground up.
Each day that went by without a positive report on their leader raised the concern and the dread. And still, each day, many in the organization expected Saunders to burst through the doors on the shiny new $25 million practice facility he helped design, blow the whistle around his neck and start coaching the roster he assembled with the staff he hired.
"I'm going to keep thinking about that moment," point guard Ricky Rubio said Monday, one day after Saunders died at the age of 60 due to complications from the cancer. "I think some of us can't believe that he passed away. Still waiting for him any moment to come and lead us where he wanted us to be."
A grieving Timberwolves team reconvened at practice, the loss of the organizational architect still weighing heavy on their hearts. Quite simply, Saunders was everything to these Timberwolves — the president of basketball operations, a minority owner and head coach, another son to owner Glen Taylor and another father to many of the players.
"His imprint is on this building," interim coach Sam Mitchell said, looking at the state-of-the-art practice facility that opened this summer. "It's on the Target Center. Every one of us, from players to coaches to a lot of guys in basketball ops, they were hand-picked by Flip. He wanted us here. He wanted what he called his Timberwolves family around him, people that he had confidence in, that he trusted. So that's tough because we all came back because of him."
The Timberwolves are scheduled to open the season on Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Monday's first practice was hard, but necessary.
"What we have over here is a family," Rubio said, "and we lost our dad yesterday."
The Cleveland-born Saunders was as Minnesota as they come, having starred at the University of Minnesota before starting his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran Junior College. Taylor brought him in as general manager in 1995 and he would spend 10 years coaching the Wolves before being fired in 2005.
He returned as team president in 2013, inheriting a roster in shambles and a team that had not made the playoffs since his final full season in 2004. In short order, he either drafted, traded for or signed to an extension every player on the current roster, remade the front office and strength and conditioning staffs and brought in a coaching staff deeply familiar with his philosophies.
"Flip was the person that brought this family together," Taylor said. "He recruited the players, the staff and was a friend of mine. It's easy for me to say that we were family and he was a very, very important part of the leadership of that family."
The energetic Saunders also was heavily involved in the business side of the operation and is perhaps single-handedly responsible for franchise icon Kevin Garnett agreeing to return to the organization in a trade that happened last February that revived fan interest in a dormant franchise.
"I don't think Kevin would have come back in any other circumstances without Flip being the person to ask him or to talk to him about it," Taylor said.