MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders, the longtime NBA coach who won more than 650 games in nearly two decades and was trying to rebuild the Minnesota Timberwolves as team president, coach and part owner, died Sunday, the team said. He was 60.
Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in June, and doctors called it “treatable and curable” when the Timberwolves made the diagnosis public in August. But he took a leave of absence from the team in September after complications arose during his recovery.
Saunders went 654-592 in 17 NBA seasons with the Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.
Sam Mitchell has been named interim head coach of the Timberwolves, and general manager Milt Newton is heading the team’s personnel department.
Philip Daniel Saunders was born on Feb. 23, 1955, in Cleveland and was a prep basketball star at Cuyahoga Heights High School. His mother, Kay, nicknamed him Flip after hearing the name at a beauty salon. He played in college at Minnesota, teaming with Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson as a senior to lead the Golden Gophers to a 24-3 record.
Not long after graduating, Saunders decided to get into coaching and set about a long and winding path to the NBA. He started at Golden Valley Lutheran College just outside of Minneapolis and served as an assistant at Minnesota and Tulsa before spending seven seasons in the Continental Basketball Association.
He landed in the NBA in 1995, when he wrote a letter to new Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor asking for a job. His college buddy, McHale, took over the basketball operations with the Timberwolves, and Saunders became the team’s general manager. When Bill Blair was fired 20 games into the season, Saunders was suddenly the head coach of a struggling franchise that had never made the playoffs. But he teamed with a young Kevin Garnett to turn the Timberwolves into a perennial playoff team.
Saunders led the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances, the last a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004. He was fired the next season when the team disintegrated thanks in large part to contractual battles with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. The Wolves have not been back to the playoffs since.
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