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A Life on the Flip Side

June 05, 2006
June 05, 2006

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June 5, 2006

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A Life on the Flip Side

You never forgetyour first felony. Mine was mail tampering. As a hoops-crazed 13-year-old, Irifled through a new neighbor's mailbox to confirm that the occupant of thesplit-level on 98 1/2 Street in Bloomington, Minn., really was former Gophersbasketball star Flip Saunders.

This is an article from the June 5, 2006 issue

Then my brazenbest friend, Mike McCollow, dribbled for hours in front of Flip's house, hopingthe homeowner would come outside, if only to make the noise stop.

When that failed,we shot basketballs against the streetlight pole on Flip's corner, even thoughit had no hoop. The endless parade of air balls that followed was more thanFlip could abide and--after several torturous evenings--he finally came outwith his hands up. We had smoked him out of his hole.

By then, Flip wasa 24-year-old coaching prodigy at Golden Valley Lutheran College, where histeams would go four full seasons without losing a home game. Yet he did anextraordinary thing: He invited us to shoot hoops in his backyard.

It was a concretehalf-court overlooked by the luxury suite of a small deck. We called him Flip,and he called us Mike and Rush--or more accurately, Mike&Rush, a singleentity joined by an ampersand, always two feet behind him, like backup singers.We were Flip's Pips.

On Flip's court,we organized an annual, all-day, two-on-two tournament in which a couple oflucky teenagers (Mike&Rush) got to play with and against NBA players (likeHouston Rocket Jim Petersen) at a time when teens and NBA players were not oneand the same.

An aspiringwriter with a weakness for wordplay, I suggested we call our shindig theSaunders Hoop Invitational Tournament, whose acronym Flip gleefully scrawled ona piece of white trainer's tape and adhered to the trophy, which he made from aCool Whip tub and Nerf ball wrapped in aluminum foil.

And thus was bornthe SH*T, at which, on June 23, 1984, play was suspended every time RyneSandberg, our athletic ideal, hit for the Cubs. On the Game of the Week,against the Cardinals' Bruce Sutter, Ryno hit two game-tying homers thatday.

When we gotolder, Flip and Mike ran small basketball camps all over Minnesota, with atalent show on the last day, when Flip might close the show by dancing toBillie Jean, with steps choreographed by his wife, Debbie, an alumnus of thedance line at the University of Minnesota.

Flip was chasingballers, not dollars. When he became the coach of the CBA's Lacrosse Catbirdsand Mike was assisting him, I visited them in that Wisconsin city, happily thehome of the G. Heileman brewery, maker of affordable tipples like Old Style andSpecial Export.

After theCatbirds won the '92 CBA title, his players cranked Boyz II Men's Motownphillyon the bus and Flip danced the Robot in the aisle. "I can't imagine ahappier human being," Mike says.

In 1995 Flip washired to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves by his former Gophers teammate KevinMcHale, to whom he once introduced me after a Wolves summer league game."Have you met Rush?" Flip said. "I got him his job at SPORTSILLUSTRATED."

It's true, in away. In high school I wrote a letter to SI about the SH*T, and basketballwriter Alex Wolff wrote me back, starting a correspondence that led to myjob.

I was at theWestern Conference finals in 2004, and Flip called to me from the Target Centercourt before warmups one game: "Hey, Rush, you think the winner of thisthing gets a Cool Whip tub covered in tinfoil?"

This season, whenFlip became coach of the Detroit Pistons, I felt--not for the firsttime--something like paternal pride, but in reverse. Call it protégé pride.

Mike, still mybest friend, has now coached in Division I, Europe and the NBA. And he owns asuccessful sporting goods concern in Minneapolis.

Flip and Debbienow have four kids, the oldest a sophomore guard at Minnesota. His name isRyan, a nod to the immortal Ryne Sandberg.

And me? You'llforgive me if I openly rooted last week for the Pistons--playing Miami in theEastern Conference finals--to win one for the Flipper. Not that it reallymatters. In the scheme of things, he's already won.

This spring, asFlip was leading the Pistons to their best-ever record, he sent me acongratulatory note--for winning a writing award. "You've come a long wayfrom the SH*T," he wrote.

And while hefervently wants the Tiffany trophy that goes to the NBA champs, Flip knows whatMike and I do: A Cool Whip tub wrapped in tinfoil can change lives too.

• If you have acomment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

When Flip Saunders became coach of the DetroitPistons, I felt--not for the first time--something like paternal pride, but inreverse. Call it protégé pride.
PHOTOSIMON BRUTY