Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders died Sunday, months after learning he had Hodgkin lymphoma. He was 60.
The Timberwolves announced the news but did not pass along any details. Saunders was diagnosed with cancer in June. Per the Associated Press, doctors initially categorized the disease as "very treatable and curable," and he even stayed with the team for the first two months of his diagnosis to help with the draft and free agency. He later stepped away for treatment in September, and Sam Mitchell took over as the team's head coach.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor released a statement through the team:
It is with tremendous difficulty and deep sadness that the Timberwolves acknowledge the passing of our President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, Flip Saunders. Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization. He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered. 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.
After the news broke, the NBA community took to social media to offer its support and condolences:
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also issued his condolences after Saunders' passing:
Saunders, who spent a decade from 1995-96 to 2004-05 on the Timberwolves' sideline, returned to the organization in 2013. He entered a second stint as head coach last summer, leading Minnesota to a 16-66 record while engineering a rebuild around a stable of young stars. The coaching lifer demanded Andrew Wiggins and parts from Cleveland in exchange for disgruntled star Kevin Love, added promising guard Zach LaVine and took Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick in June.
Looking to instill a veteran's mentality, Saunders also added pro's pros in Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince since February.
"They have been everything we hoped they would be," general manager Milt Newton, who is handling day-to-day basketball operations, told Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press. "They have set the tone in practice and kept these young guys focused and really showed them what it takes to be a professional in this league."
The Timberwolves are considered one of the NBA's most up-and-coming organizations thanks in large part to moves Saunders made in his second tenure. Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press (h/t NBA.com) shared the scene of when the Timberwolves learned the news:
The Timberwolves had started to practice on Sunday when Newton got word from Taylor of Saunders' death. Practice was halted and a devastated Garnett left the floor, walked to the parking garage at the practice facility and sat down in the spot marked for Saunders.
Garnett later shared an image of that moment on his Facebook page:
In parts of 17 seasons as an NBA head coach, Saunders went 654-594. The Timberwolves made their only conference finals appearance under Saunders in 2004, and he led the Detroit Pistons to three straight conference finals from 2006 to 2008. He also spent parts of three seasons with the Washington Wizards in addition to time as a college assistant (Minnesota and Toledo) and in the CBA.
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