The great gift of Flip Saunders: He tried to make you believe

Michael Lee

The last time I communicated with Flip Saunders was back in August, when the Minnesota Timberwolves announced he had Hodgkin lymphoma, deeming it "a very treatable and curable form of cancer." After the initial shock of the news, I sent Saunders a text message encouraging him to stay strong. A few hours later, Saunders thanked me for reaching out and assured me he was doing everything in his power to beat the illness.

I never thought to check back on him, never doubted that after a few chemo treatments he'd be back on the bench or upstairs calling the shots again, because I trusted he would pull through. Saunders had a way about him that made you believe what he said, no matter how hyperbolic, no matter how transparent the need to have the message accepted. He worked hard to communicate and persuade, which probably explains how he was able to get Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor to hire him based on one letter, and to sustain a long and relatively successful career as a coach and executive in the NBA despite never making it past a brief tryout with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers as a player.

Flip Saunders died at age 60. (AP)
Flip Saunders died at age 60. (AP)

When Saunders told me he would be fine two months ago, I believed him, because it took me back to a conversation we shared shortly before he started his first season with the Washington Wizards six years ago. Saunders revealed the mantra he relied upon his entire life – the one that helped him start on the varsity team at Cuyahoga Heights High School despite being a 5-foot-2 freshman and emerge as the pint-sized leader of a University of Minnesota basketball team that featured future NBA champions Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson: "Don't listen to what people say because they don't understand the will that you have."

I read reports and heard from Saunders' former colleagues that his condition was getting worse but I remembered that text, I remembered that quote, and kept waiting for the upward turn that never came. Even after he was hospitalized, even after Taylor announced that Saunders wasn't going to return as coach this season.

Philip Daniel Saunders died Sunday, only four months after receiving his cancer diagnosis and the impact was felt league-wide, from those who knew him only in passing to those who knew him all too well. Kevin Garnett, who joined Saunders and McHale in saving professional basketball in Minnesota in the late 1990s and early 2000s, shared a touching photograph on his Facebook account in which he sat, arms folded, staring at Saunders' parking space with a message that read, "Forever in my heart …"

Saunders would generate the occasional eye roll in Washington, whenever he would share one of his countless Garnett stories – a file so long it could've filled a manuscript thicker than one of his infamous offensive playbooks – but the connection the two had was genuine. He recognized Garnett was a generational talent and gave the skinny, "6-13" kid a chance to shine before most were ready to accept players entering the NBA out of high school. He also recognized Garnett was on the verge of languishing in Brooklyn before he engineered a reunion that would serve the dual purpose of educating the Timberwolves' stable of undeveloped talent and reconnecting with the fan base that could truly appreciate his quirks, passion and confounding antics.

Saunders reached the conference finals four times, but never won an NBA championship, and didn't win many games in Washington or in his final stint with the rebuilding Timberwolves. But as great as he was with diagramming sets and out-of-timeout plays, Saunders' true gift may have been his ability as a salesman.

After the Wizards traded the fifth pick of the 2009 draft to Minnesota (which turned out to be Ricky Rubio and could've been Stephen Curry) for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, Saunders asked me what I thought of the deal. I turned my lips, tilted my head and shrugged, letting him know I wasn't a fan. For the next 10 minutes, Saunders tried to convince me why the deal made sense, especially since the Wizards had entered a win-now mode with a core that featured veteran all-stars Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Every time I had a dissent, Saunders had a counter argument. By the time I left his company, Saunders almost had me convinced. Almost. Looking back, my initial reaction proved correct but Saunders never stopped making the sales pitch until it was obvious the move wasn't working out.

Saunders brought a hypnotist to his first training camp in Washington, handed out iPods with his playbook, printed up motivational T-shirts and caps. He always had a marketing strategy in mind, handing out gold coins with "Game Changer" on it to the players who had the biggest influence on wins and developing a hustle board to encourage his players to take charges and cause deflections. Not all of it worked, given the limitations of his roster, but he never stopped trying.

Flip Saunders coached John Wall during Wall's rookie season. (Getty Images)
Flip Saunders coached John Wall during Wall's rookie season. (Getty Images)

His time in Washington will go down as the most difficult of his coaching career. Not only did he have to contend with having Arenas and Javaris Crittenton bringing guns into the locker room – an incident that forced Saunders to jokingly change the term "morning shootaround" to "morning walkthrough" – or an unexpected and miserable rebuilding effort that forced him to rely on the unintentional comedy troupe of JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young, but he also had to endure the loss of his mother, Kay, who lived to see her 90th birthday.

Saunders got his discipline from his father, Walter, a former Marine, but his mother was responsible for that fiery competitiveness. She also gave him the nickname, "Flip," after hearing a customer use the name at her beauty salon in suburban Cleveland. Coaching provided Saunders with a needed distraction and a way to channel his pain while he grieved his mother's loss in March 2011, even as the Wizards continued to lose. During the subsequent lockout, Saunders used the time away from basketball to help his father adjust to life without his wife of 65 years, making frequent trips to his home and bringing flowers to her gravesite.

The Saunders era in Washington was defined by a classic quote – "Don't think it can't get any worse, because it can" – and some depressing tales of him only having time to eat Subway sandwiches near his Washington condo while dealing with the failures. Mercifully, it came to end just 17 games into the 2011-12 season, when the franchise – unwilling to give up on its collection of unproven players – deemed it necessary to have a different voice in the locker room.

Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld tapped Randy Wittman, a gruff disciplinarian who was far more willing to challenge and confront his players (Saunders' inability to do the same – especially in Detroit – was a criticism that irked him).

Washington was the only franchise Saunders failed to lead into the postseason and was an anomaly in another sense because it also became the only organization that didn't plummet into irrelevance after his departure. Minnesota and Detroit are still foundering since firing Saunders - the Timberwolves have the league's longest postseason drought since dismissing him the first time in 2005 and the Pistons have gone longer than any Eastern Conference team without making the playoffs. Always ready with a swift quip, Saunders had one of his best retorts after a heckler in Detroit told him he was glad Saunders was gone. "How'd that turn out?" Saunders shouted back, as the heckler sustained a third-degree burn.

Two years after inserting Wittman, the Wizards made the playoffs, but Saunders took some pride in the success since he had originally hired Wittman and most of the coaching staff, and the team was still utilizing many of his schemes. Though he wasn't around for the turnaround, Saunders did prove to be prophetic in his initial, over-the-top praise of John Wall after the Wizards drafted him first overall in 2010.

"Point guards are not made, they are delivered from heaven," Saunders said, "and I believe he was delivered from heaven."

At the time, it sounded like another sales pitch. Sadly, only five years later, Saunders will have a chance to verify his statement.