Friends, players, coaches and colleagues of Phil “Flip” Saunders shared touching memories of the late Timberwolves coach during a video tribute before the team’s home opener Monday, highlighting his creativity, kindness and humility.
The basketball community revered him for his passion for the game and generous nature with all who crossed his path.
Timberwolves players, who unveiled a special patch on their jerseys for Flip for their first home game of the season, said he treated them like family and they were committed to carrying out his vision for the team this season.
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio said Saunders “made everyone feel special.”
Saunders, 60, died Oct. 25 from complications of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was laid to rest during a private service on Saturday.
Broadcaster Kevin Harlan said he was “always smiling” and someone who treated everyone with respect.
“Here is a pro basketball coach and yet would treat the most highly prized player, whether it was K.G., or a guy that may deliver mail or clean the bathrooms after games — he’d treat everybody the same,” he said. “You are sometimes marked by the impression you leave, and he has left one.”
The team’s interim head coach Sam Mitchell thanked Saunders with this message: “You taught me a lot of things about basketball. But you taught me the most important thing is to be a decent human being and a caring human being.”
Milt Newton, general manager of the team, also had an emotional story to share about the late coach.
“I remember the first time you told me you loved me. That really hit me because usually at this level people try to keep those feelings to themselves,” he said. “I’m glad you were able to say that while you were here. But I just want to tell you — I love you, too. Rest in peace.”
The team also honored Saunders with a musical rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a moment of silence. A memorial wall has also been placed in Mayo Clinic Square to give fans a place to share tributes.
It was an emotional prelude to a game that proved disappointing for the team and fans. The Timberwolves lost its home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers 106-101.
The team’s record is now 2-1. Their next game is against the Miami Heat on Nov. 5.
After his passing Oct. 25, team owner Glen Taylor issued a statement, calling Saunders “a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization.”
Saunders was also the team’s president of basketball operations.
“He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered,” Taylor said in a statement. “Today is not a day to reflect on Flip’s accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large. We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss.”
Saunders had two decades of experience coaching at the professional level. He had a record of 654-592 with the Wolves, Wizards and Pistons. He was the Timberwolves coach from 1995 to 2005 and then returned again as head coach in 2014.
While Saunders was coach, the Timberwolves had eight playoff appearances. He also won NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month four times. His overall record with the team was 411-326, making him the team’s all-time winningest coach.
He is survived by his wife, Debbie, and their four children: Ryan, Mindy and twins, Rachel and Kimberly.
A public memorial celebration for Saunders will be scheduled sometime later this year. His family has requested anyone wishing to express their condolences and support for Flip and his family send contributions in Memory of Flip Saunders to: “The Flip Saunders Legacy Fund,” P.O. Box 46410, Plymouth, MN 55446.