Flip Saunders died some time Sunday morning, and friends and colleagues are still finding their way to come to terms with the news that the 60-year-old coach had succumbed to Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Perhaps no one in the NBA family is grieving the loss of the Minnesota Timberwolves coach like Kevin Garnett, the emotional, hyper-talented forward who grew into one of the game’s greats under Flip’s coaching.
Garnett marked Saunders’ passing with a simple, poignant post on Facebook, depicting his folded-up frame, still observant, facing the parking spot reserved for the coach that changed his career and his life.
"Forever in my heart," he wrote.
There’s a reason for Garnett’s recognition of loss. In a way, he and Flip Saunders grew up together. Saunders got the Timberwolves job, his first head coaching gig in the league, in 1995, midway through KG’s first year in the league. Garnett started his first stint here as a skinny, freakishly athletic teenager who dunked everything, inhaled rebounds, and blocked shots like he was insulted someone ever dared to take them in the first place.
But it was through Saunders’ tutelage, and his vision to build the squad around a singular power forward, that Garnett became a transcendent figure in a league built on fast little guards who handled the ball and giant, slow-moving centers who couldn't. Garnett’s quick feet, impossible wingspan and wise eyes made it seem like he was playing with extra limbs out there. Flip countered KG’s explosive, screaming temperament with an all-world calm. Garnett was like a drummer, soloing, improvising, bopping his head, and feeling everything. Saunders was the metronome keeping time.
So unassuming was Saunders that his adopted moniker simply became his official name. Until his obituary hit the wire, even this writer didn't know his given name. He was Phillip Daniel Saunders.
Garnett’s return to the T-Wolves came only because Saunders, too, had circled back to the franchise they helped build. KG had thrived and won in Boston, and then aged rapidly in New York. He was brought back, through Flip’s reaching out, to help keep order among a hugely talented pack of young Timberwolves.
KG hit the nail on the head in recent comments. “I see a lot of myself in some of these guys,” he said.
Let’s hope he’s right. Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have all the physical gifts any coach or teammate could ask for. But they might need someone to hold their hand as they mature from strong bodies to strong minds.
The reunion of Saunders and Garnett meant they planned to do that, together. Now KG will have to do some of that work on his own.
It was announced earlier this month that Sam Mitchell, Saunders' lead assistant, would take over the team indefinitely during Saunders' illness. And Garnett likes Mitchell, sure. Respects him. Who doesn’t?
But the photo Garnett posted yesterday hints that in some ways, Flip Saunders has always been his coach. And always will be.
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