Flip Saunders, the man who racked up 1,000 wins over a 35-year coaching career that included successful stints with Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, died Sunday of cancer at age 60.
Saunders, after a three-year stint with the Washington Wizards between 2009 and 2012, returned to his beloved Timberwolves in May 2013 as president, coach and minority owner. As an NBA head coach, Saunders maintained a win-loss record of 654-592.
In August, Saunders shocked the world with the announcement that he was being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. At the time, doctors considered the illness “very treatable and curable.” However, a month later, Saunders suffered a setback, and it was announced on Friday that he would miss the entirety of the 2015-16 season.
“The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “…Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league. Flip was a beloved figure around the NBA, nowhere more so than in Minnesota, demonstrating a genuine and consistent passion for his players, his team and the game. On behalf of the NBA, we offer our most sincere condolences to Flip’s wife, Debbie, their four children and the entire Minnesota Timberwolves organization.”
After many years coaching colleges and CBA teams, Saunders got his first break in the NBA in 1995 when he replaced Bill Blair as Timberwolves head coach. He would go on to draft future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and lead Minnesota to eight consecutive playoff appearances. Garnett, who won the 2004 MVP award under Saunders’ tutelage, paid a powerful tribute by taking to his former coach’s parking spot Sunday and posting a picture on Facebook with the message, “Forever in my heart…”
Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who played for Saunders between 2003 to 2005, said: “Flip played a huge part in my life. Everything from bringing me in and giving me a chance to taking a lot of the philosophy that he had. He was a great mentor, a great leader … a special, special person.”
Tributes have been pouring in for Saunders. NBA all-star John Wall, who played for Saunders with the Wizards, wrote on Instagram: “The sting of losing another loved one to cancer doesn’t get any easier. My thoughts & prayers are with the Saunders & Twolves family.”
Saunders is survived by his wife and four children, including son Ryan, who is an assistant coach with the Timberwolves.
Minnesota, who have an exciting young roster that includes the last two No 1 overall draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, open their season on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Sam Mitchell has been named interim head coach.
My thoughts and prayers go out to Coach Flip Saunders family and friends. Rest In Heaven Coach, you will be missed! pic.twitter.com/LaBUbzLqPV
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) October 25, 2015
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 25, 2015