Saunders lived a life of basketball. A high school All-American and standout at the University of Minnesota, the Ohio native took his first coaching job at Golden Valley (Minnesota) Lutheran College at age 22. In the nearly four decades since, he coached everywhere from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Washington D.C., and he guided the Pistons to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals trips in the mid-2000s.
After making the jump from the old Continental Basketball Association to the NBA in 1995, Saunders compiled a record of 654–592 (.525) over 17 seasons, placing him 20th all-time in wins and 19th in games.
"With more than 40 years around the game, 20 of them in the NBA, Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "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."
Saunders will be remembered first and foremost for his long relationship with the Timberwolves, who entered the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1989. Tabbed by his former University of Minnesota teammate Kevin McHale as the team’s GM, and later coach, in ’95, Saunders guided the Timberwolves to the playoffs in each of the next eight seasons, including a trip to the 2004 Western Conference finals. Minnesota’s first winning season came under Saunders in ’97–98, when he won 45 games. Prior to Saunders’s arrival, no coach had managed to win even 30.
Key to Saunders’s success was his ability to guide future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett in his preps-to-pros journey. In ’95, McHale and Saunders selected Garnett, then a teenager, with the No. 5 pick in the draft.
“We ain’t telling anybody we’re taking that kid,” Saunders told McHale after an impressive pre-draft workout, according to SI’s Kelly Whiteside. “We just better hope that he’s there at No. 5.”
Later, McHale replied: “If this doesn’t work, we’re going to be fired.”
Needless to say, the pitchforks had to wait. Garnett went on to make 10 All-Star Games in the next 12 seasons and win the 2004 MVP award. Saunders remains the only coach in franchise history to guide the team to the playoffs and the only coach to win 50 games, something he did four times during the Garnett era. The Timberwolves reached their franchise high point when they within two wins of making the 2004 Finals before falling to the Lakers.
Fired in ’05 after a sluggish start, Saunders was quickly scooped up by the Pistons, who were two seasons removed from a championship under Larry Brown. Saunders won a career-high 64 games in ’05–06 behind a strong nucleus that included Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, proving that he wouldn’t be swallowed up by Brown’s reputation.
“I’m not intimidated by what anyone has done in the past," Saunders said in 2005. "Not one player has said to me, ‘This is the way we used to do it.’ They’ve had a lot of success, but they’re letting me coach the team.”
Although Billups hailed Saunders as an “offensive genius,” the group couldn’t quite get back to the summit, falling in the East finals to the Heat in ’06, the Cavaliers in ’07 and the Celtics in ’08. That last defeat came at the hands of Garnett, whose 2007 trade to Boston sent the Celtics on a championship course, and it led to Saunders’s firing.
Following a three-year stint with the Wizards, in which he coached '10 No. 1 pick John Wall, Saunders’s NBA career came full circle when he returned to the Timberwolves in ’13. There, he sought to restore order to the front office before later taking over as coach upon Rick Adelman's retirement. Saunders’s first season back on the bench was a rough one, as a rebuilding and injury-ravaged team won just 16 games in '15.
However, Saunders oversaw Andrew Wiggins’s Rookie of the Year campaign and he acquired Garnett in a midseason trade. Then, in June, Saunders drafted Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick. That decision set up a neat mentorship between Garnett, his original prodigy, and Towns, his latest one. With the 20-year-old Wiggins, whom he acquired in a trade for Kevin Love, and the 19-year-old Towns, Saunders leaves the Timberwolves with the most tantalizing young duo in the NBA.
In his final Twitter message, posted on August 16, Saunders explained why he had brought back veterans Garnett, Prince and Andre Miller to a team with such a youthful core. “[It’s] not only experience, but [Garnett and Prince were] All-League Defense,” he wrote. “[A] defensive culture for Pups to see.”
Garnett posted a Facebook photograph Sunday that showed him sitting in Saunders’s parking space looking at a placard bearing Saunders’s name. “Forever in my heart,” the caption read.
The Timberwolves announced in September that Saunders would be taking a leave of absence due to his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Sam Mitchell was named as his interim coaching replacement and Milt Newton will lead the front office.
"Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in a statement on Sunday. "He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered. Today is not a day to reflect on Flip’s accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large.
Saunders is survived by his wife and four children. His son, Ryan, is a Timberwolves assistant coach.