LOS ANGELES — Forty-five minutes before the Timberwolves opened their season they sat in the visiting locker room at Staples Center on Wednesday and listened to a guest speaker talk about grief. Commissioner Adam Silver changed his travel schedule so he could see the Wolves, still reeling from the death of head coach Flip Saunders, then worried that he was catching them too close to tip-off. Athletes often use sport to escape turmoil. The last thing anyone wanted was to spoil their sanctuary. But the Wolves are an extraordinarily young team, with four regulars under 23, and they needed the commissioner in that room as soon as possible. Coaches and club officials saw no reason to wait. “Grab a seat,” head coach Sam Mitchell told his players, and Silver took the floor.
According to several Timberwolves, Silver reflected on his own relationship with Saunders, which spanned 20 years. He emphasized the strength of the NBA community, which stands behind the Timberwolves, and is ready with support. But he really connected with the young Wolves when he acknowledged how difficult it can be to talk about death, how difficult it once was for him. He encouraged players and staffers to share their feelings, memories, questions, rather than insulate themselves in basketball. “Talking instead of hiding,” said 20-year-old point guard Zach LaVine. “You can put your emotions away, especially during the season, but they eventually come out.”
LaVine shot alone at UCLA on Tuesday night, standard hoop therapy, and returned to campus for the team’s shootaround Wednesday morning. “We’re really dealing with this on our own,” he said. “We haven’t had any time to talk.” Then LaVine launched into a heartfelt remembrance of a dinner with Saunders after the 2014 draft. It was LaVine’s first night in Minneapolis and they split the 28-ounce Silver Butter Knife Steak at Murray’s. LaVine wanted the meat well done. Saunders wanted it medium rare. “Let’s go in the middle,” Saunders said, “and get it medium well.” That’s how LaVine has ordered every steak since.
During the meal, Saunders performed one of his famous magic tricks on LaVine, pulling a coin from behind his ear. LaVine was dazzled. “I’m about to go home and put that coin somewhere safe,” he said. “Everybody here is because of Flip. He saw a vision in each and every person. What happened is tragic but you have to keep going for him.”
On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves rallied from 16 points down in the second half to beat the Lakers, 112–111. Saunders would have appreciated the final play, when 19-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns switched onto the Lakers’ Lou Williams, and 39-year-old power forward Kevin Garnett slid over to help. Two generations contested Williams’s floater, which kicked off the rim to Ricky Rubio, who spiked the ball against the floor and pointed to the ceiling.
Saunders, the Timberwolves president of basketball operations in addition to head coach, built this roster in an unorthodox way. The Wolves are a team of freshmen and seniors, with few players in their prime. Saunders wanted to blanket his bonus babies with elder statesmen, who could steer them through turbulent times, so he acquired a tutor for every position group: Garnett, 39-year-old point guard Andre Miller and 35-year-old wing Tayshaun Prince. Early in training camp, Prince studied the footwork of small forward Andrew Wiggins and noticed it was better in scrimmages than practices. “That’s how it should be all the time,” Prince told the budding star.
Prince acknowledges his role is changing, now that there is much more to discuss than footwork. Prince played for Saunders 10 years ago in Detroit. Garnett played for him 20 years ago in Minnesota. Both joined the Wolves largely because they loved the guy running the show. The young Timberwolves knew Saunders, of course, but not nearly as well. They are mourning the loss of a coach more than a man. On Wednesday afternoon, Towns said he sat down in his hotel room shower for 20 minutes, recalling every coach he’d ever had. He remembered a promise he made to Saunders after this year’s draft to win as many games for the Wolves as possible.
The opener unfolded as Saunders would have scripted it. Prince and Garnett were both in the starting lineup, to stabilize an intriguing but inexperienced core, before retreating to the bench. The Timberwolves made their run, on the strength of those springy legs, and Garnett took control of the huddle during a key timeout. Then he and Prince returned to buttress Towns and Wiggins for the last stop. “We’re elated,” Mitchell said afterward, a word rarely used in Game 1 of 82. “Coach would be proud of us.”