Long before he rose to become one of the most powerful figures in the NBA, Phil “Flip” Saunders was known to be one of its most passionate. When it was announced that he would be seeking treatment for the early, treatable stages of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma with which he had been diagnosed, he had the NBA family’s best wishes, praying for his speedy recovery. Sadly, barely two months later, on the morning of October 25, it was reported that Saunders had lost the battle, as news reported his untimely death at the age of 60. Racking up over 650 wins in a 17-year NBA coaching career, Saunders is best known for coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff appearances – the only times the franchise ever made it that far.
“It was an honor to be able to coach with Flip for over 10 years and a privilege to call him a friend for life,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who assisted during Saunders’ time with the Timberwolves and the Washington Wizards. “Although I join the entire basketball world in deep sadness over his passing, we should all celebrate a great man who was able to do so much for the game he loved, the people and players he worked with and the communities where he lived.”
NBA stars, especially those whom Saunders had the opportunity to mentor, lost no time in paying their respects via social media.
I've been thinking for 30 minutes of what to say but words can't describe how special and important Coach Saunders was to me. I want to thank you coach for giving me the opportunity to play in the NBA and achieve my dream. I know the man above has a special place for you in his kingdom and this world, this league, this family will never be the same. I love you coach and I'm going to miss you so so much.
As impressive Saunder’s accomplishments were on paper, his biggest ones were radiated through the lives that he touched – the people whom his love for the game overflowed to. He fostered great relationships throughout his whole career where he became more than just a mentor, but a person everyone could look up to.
“And that’s the thing, you’re riding home on a plane win or lose — Flip was always upbeat,” said Chicago Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg. “He would talk to you, come back and see how you’re feeling, especially during struggles. He was a fatherly figure, such a caring individual.”
“The message more than anything else,” Saunders was quoted as saying before his death, “is just because you have an illness and you’re fighting it, that doesn’t have to take away the passion of your life and what you do. Whether that’s your personal life or in your job or whatever. You can continue to work and fight and do the things you love to do.”
Flip Saunders will always be remembered for his unwavering commitment to keep the game fun and exciting. Through sickness and in health, Flip Saunders dedicated his life to the game he loved dearly. Although his story has ended, his brand of basketball lives on.