The basketball world far and wide has expressed condolences on the passing of Phil “Flip” Saunders (1955-2015), who on October 25 lost his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was diagnosed with the ailment in June.
Since the news broke Sunday, players, coaches and media all have made reference to Saunders’ easy-to-approach nature. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and after graduating from high school attended the University of Minnesota, where he also played basketball.
“He was the same guy as when I [first] met him,” said former U of M teammate Mychal Thompson of Saunders in an ESPN interview.
Saunders was both “a people’s person” and “a kind spirit,” added Chauncey Billups, who played point guard for Saunders both in Minnesota and Detroit. Billups, now an analyst at ESPN, said in a network interview that it was Saunders who helped raise his game and taught him how to effectively run an offense.
Saunders became the Wolves’ president of basketball operations in May 2013, returning to the organization that gave him his first NBA job back in the early 1990s, initially as general manager, then head coach. Saunders was again hired as head coach in June 2014 and held both jobs until this summer, when he took a medical leave.
A prepared statement released by the Wolves Sunday called Saunders’ first stint with the club “the best years in the franchise’s history.” He is the club’s all-time winningest coach, with eight straight playoff appearances and a division title in 2003-04, when Minnesota posted the best record in the Western Conference and finished as conference finals runners-up to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Saunders also coached at Detroit and Washington, where he earned a reputation as an offensive strategist and a “player’s coach.” Said Thompson, “He didn’t talk down to players.”
I last spoke to Saunders last spring, briefly exchanging condolences: He had lost his father about the same time I lost a family member. Years earlier, we sat together and discussed his coaching sojourns for a cover story in the team’s game-day program, and we regularly talked during my beat coverage of the team over the years. Saunders always was pleasant to speak with, even when I asked him asked tough questions.
“He was one of the nicest people you like to meet,” said Thompson of Saunders, who was one of 10 coaches to lead teams to both Eastern Conference and Western Conference finals (Detroit and Minnesota respectively). He coached more than 1,110 NBA games, won over 52 percent of them, and coached in 11 postseasons in his two decades of coaching, including the NBA, the CBA and college.
Another Minnesota alum, Clyde Turner, told the MSR about the time Saunders, shortly after his hiring at Minnesota back in 1995, “drove about one hour” to Annandale, Minnesota and spoke to nearly 100 Black youth at his annual summer basketball camp. The Wolves executive-coach spoke on the importance of setting goals, being determined, and giving their full effort both in the classroom and in sports. Turner said Sanders also gave a dribbling and passing demonstration “similar to the Globetrotters.”
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor lamented Saunders’ passing as an “extraordinary loss as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large.”
Saunders is survived by his wife Debbie and their four children: Ryan, a Wolves assistant coach, Mindy, and twins Rachel and Kimberly.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.