Flip Saunders, whose career as NBA head coach spanned almost two decades with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, and Washington Wizards, died Sunday at 60. His record as an NBA head coach across 17 seasons stood at 654-592, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Saunders, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, had recently given up his position as the team’s head coach for health reasons.
Saunders had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June, according to the Associated Press. Doctors were optimistic about the treatment, and Saunders said he would remain head coach. But he was hospitalized in September, and on Friday it was announced that he would miss the entire 2015-2016 season, reports ESPN. “I just think his illness, I mean, it’s serious,” Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said last week. “At this point, if he came back I still think he’d have a hard time to recover all his energy and all that because he has been in the hospital for a long time.”
Following the announcement that Saunders was going to take a leave of absence, the team barely spoke publicly about his condition. Jerry Zgoda, the longtime Timberwolves beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, made clear in a live chat earlier this month just how dire the situation had become:
There’s no question things have changed dramatically since the team announced his diagnosis in August, back when it quoted his doctors saying the cancer was very treatable and curable. Since then there have been changes to the way his body handled the chemotherapy (and maybe how much cancer they’ve found) that have made it life threatening. Everyone involved has gone radio silent because of the family’s request for privacy and federal patient-privacy laws, etc., but between the complete silence, the lack of people visiting as far as I can tell apart from his immediate family and very inner circle while he remains hospitalized here in Minneapolis and the things I’m hearing second-hand, well, none of it is good.
Saunders started out as coach of Golden Valley Lutheran College’s basketball team in 1977 and didn’t join the NBA until almost two decades later. In 1996, he became coach of the Timberwolves, which he led to eight straight playoff appearances. When he was fired in 2005, he joined the Pistons and took the team to the conference finals three times, and then joined the Wizards for another three years before returning to Minnesota in 2013.
“Saunders was an outstanding coach,” writes Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo Sports. “His innovative offense encouraged ball movement, endless pin-down screens, and open mid-range looks at the hoop. His work with zone defense was ahead of its time, predating the NBA’s move to abandon illegal defense rules prior to the 2001-02 season.”