Out of the Blue

“Don’t listen to what people say because they don’t understand the will that you have.” – Flip Saunders


Kevin Garnett grieves the death of his coach Flip Saunders on Oct. 25, 2015. The caption on the photo posted to his social media accounts: “Forever in our hearts…”

Kevin Garnett grieves the death of his coach Flip Saunders on Oct. 25, 2015. The caption on the photo posted to his social media accounts: “Forever in our hearts…”

Joy. Pure, unabashed joy.

It’s what the Minnesota Timberwolves exuded when the buzzer sounded to end the final frenzied seconds of their 119-117 victory over the West’s No. 3 team, the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. They mobbed Ryan Saunders, their 32-year-old head coach in a celebration usually reserved for the playoffs, not an early-January road win at the exact midpoint of the NBA’s grinding 82-game season.

But this one was different, because, deep down, this one was for Ryan’s dad Flip, or as the often-crusty longtime Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse said in his farewell column after his unexpected, too-quick death on Oct. 25, 2015, “He was our point guard.”

I’ve spent most of what normal people refer to as “sleeping time” researching, reading stories and organizing my thoughts about this column. It’s now 5:30 a.m. This is my routine nearly every Wednesday evening into Thursday morning (and sometimes afternoon).

I tend to mull things over a lot when I write something that means a lot to me personally; it seems to happen a lot, like last week when I wrote about “It’s a Wonderful Life” and how one person’s absence can leave a jagged hole in the lives of those who remain behind.

 

 

The more I think about it, the more this is in many ways an extension of that column. It probably wouldn’t be—I had simply planned to write a variety piece: a little about Flip and Ryan and the Wolves, a little about another smart young coach named Kevin Stefanski getting the interim dropped from his title and his deserved shot as the Vikings offensive coordinator, a little about the passing of a man short in stature but huge in personality named Tom Rukavina, who fought with passion and a big voice for the Range (and was married to my friend and former HTF editor Jean Cole); I’m so sorry for her, for his family’s, the whole Range’s loss.

But just before she rolled over and went to sleep six hours ago, after we had talked about our hopes and dreams for a venture, an adventure we hope to undertake—she was short and sweet and simple and direct; I was more expansive (I think I’m quoting myself correctly: “Why limit one’s dreams? Anything is possible with God.”)—my wife patted the left side of my chest and whispered, “Just write what’s in here. It’ll be great.”

Great is too strong an adjective to apply to anything I write. I’ll be happy if it’s somewhat good. I’ll be happy if it reflects some of the infectious joy I felt Tuesday night, joy that was intertwined with wistfulness, nostalgia, and pride, the kind, as the Avett Brothers croon in “A Perfect Space” …like my mother has, and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.

I feel the stirrings of the eternal optimist I once was waking in me from a years-long slumber. Possibilities I’d long ago discounted as “highly unlikely” now populate my heart and head again.

This all ties in somehow. Or at least I’m going to try to make that happen. I believe everything, everyone each of us encounters in life is tied together, like the individual threads of a giant woven tapestry. Life is beautiful when you think of it that way. We meet everyone along our pathway for a reason—the key a lot of times is simply to remember that; the misfortune in the moment or circumstance often turns out to be precious in the long run. As I’ve noted before, I don’t believe in coincidence. The most innocuous meeting or what seems to be an inconsequential interaction can sow a seed that grows into something memorable many years down the road.

The year was 1995, a big year for me. It birthed my deep affection for Flip, KG, and the Timberwolves and quite literally birthed the current Timberwolves.

Let’s go back to the beginning, to “our point guard.” Flip Saunders wasn’t a Minnesotan— he was a Cleveland guy—but he was about as Minnesota Nice as they get and adopted this state as his own. He arrived on the scene at University of Minnesota when I was but a gleam, Mr. Basketball in the state of Ohio after averaging 32 points per game as a senior. He was undersized, but he was the perfect fit at point guard on maybe the most-talented Golden Gophers team ever, guiding a postseason ineligible team that included Mychal Thompson, Kevin McHale, Ray Williams, and Osborne Lockhart to a 24-3 mark in 1977. I was a baby; my dad was a fan.

He began his coaching career at Golden Valley Lutheran College, where he was 56-0 at home in four seasons. Flip went on to coach as an assistant at his alma mater for five seasons and for two at University of Tulsa before making his mark in the CBA for seven seasons with the Rapid City Thrillers, the La Crosse Catbirds, and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. He won two championships and was second all-time in wins with 253. Then he got his NBA break, when his buddy McHale hired him as GM of the Timberwolves, who had never had a winning season in franchise history.

It was 1995. This was the confluence for me personally. I graduated from high school a few weeks after he got the job. A few weeks later, Flip, McHale, and the Timberwolves would draft Kevin Garnett, the first player to jump directly from high school to the pros in 20 years, at No. 5 overall. Twenty games into the season, Flip took over as coach. His first game fell on my birthday on Dec. 19, a loss in his hometown of Cleveland.

Incidentally, on Feb. 23 of 1995, Andrew Wiggins was born. On Nov. 15, Karl-Anthony Towns was born. We’ll get back to them.

What followed were the golden years for the Timberwolves. The following season was the first playoff berth in franchise history and began a span of eight consecutive, culminating in a run to the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers in 2004. I was at the Target Center for the last home playoff game for the Timberwolves until last spring. KG played point guard that night with Sam Cassell hurt, and the Wolves won. It was a giddy experience, even though they would lose Game 6 in LA. I often wonder if they would have won the title that year if Cassell hadn’t foolishly hurt himself celebrating.

Flip was gone less than a year later; KG two years after that. What followed were the really dark years for the franchise. They coincided with some of my darkest years personally.

Fast-forward 20 years. Flip returned to the franchise he loved in 2013 as team president after coaching stints in Detroit and Washington. He couldn’t stay off the sidelines though and took over as coach in 2014 after orchestrating a trade with Cleveland to bring in the No. 1 overall pick that season, Wiggins, for disgruntled star Kevin Love. The morning before the 2014 draft, Flip had the feeling the Timberwolves would select UCLA’s uber-athletic Zach LaVine in the draft at No. 13. He wrote down his name and put it in his pocket. The Wolves did, and he gave that piece of paper to LaVine, to signify his belief in him. LaVine says he still has that paper. Flip’s generosity of spirit, of his time, was legendary.

Then in the winter of 2015, he brought back KG. I was living in the Twin Cities at the time, and I was ecstatic. I had made steps to put my life back in order; now Flip was doing the same with my favorite basketball team. I attended KG’s first game back; Flip ran his favorite play—552 twist—for KG on the first play of the game. The atmosphere was electric. I fell in love with the game, the team again.

The Timberwolves had never moved up in the NBA Draft Lottery until 2015, but they won the first overall pick, igniting an exuberant celebration—look it up on YouTube and watch Flip run around the room giving high-fives. Flip selected Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick. He traded up in the second round for hometown hero Tyus Jones. His vision for completely rebuilding the team and returning them to prominence was in sight. He had his franchise center, a la KG, and the original there to mentor him. He had talented, athletic wings in Wiggins and LaVine and an unselfish point guard, the wizard Ricky Rubio, to orchestrate the whole thing. I was more than ecstatic.

Then the dreadful news came in early August that Flip had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The eternal optimist sounded as if he was going to beat it, and I didn’t have any doubts he would either. I don’t know where I was on Oct. 25. I just know I had the radio on as I drove somewhere and heard the shocking, awful news—that Flip had died from complications from treatment of his cancer. He was 60.

The first person I called was my dad. Flip, on some ways, had always reminded me of my dad. Rubio called Flip “dad” and called the team his family. Towns, who’d known Flip for just a short time, wept. KG went and sat on the ground in Flip’s parking spot, his own personal tribute to the man whose career would forever be entwined with his. The entire NBA grieved. Tributes flowed in from all corners. The man was about as universally loved as anyone in the league.

I want to share some excerpts from Jon Krawczynski’s piece in The Athletic last February, when the Timberwolves honored Flip by raising a banner with his name on it to the rafters of the Target Center:

Just before Ryan Saunders takes to the Target Center court for pregame warmups on Thursday night, he will slip on a pair of customized, dark blue Nikes with silver swooshes on them. Above the swoosh on one side of the shoe is written “ASNF.”

It’s a reference to “Men of Honor,” the Robert De Niro-Cuba Gooding Jr. movie about the first black master diver in the U.S. Navy. Ryan used to watch the movie with his father, Flip, and one of their favorite moments is when the meaning of the acronym is revealed. “A Son Never Forgets.”

They are special shoes for a special night.

The Timberwolves will raise a banner for Flip Saunders on Thursday night before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers, a gesture meant to cement the late coach and executive’s place in the franchise’s history.

In the nearly two and a half years since Flip passed away, ASNF has become a mantra of sorts not just for Ryan, who remains with the organization as an assistant coach, but for the entire Saunders family. The tidal wave of stories and memories of Flip that flooded into the family from all corners in the days and weeks after his passing have naturally slowed as time has gone on. Now, finally, a pregame ceremony is being held to put a banner in the Target Center rafters that will ensure that a reminder of his legacy will always be just a tilt of the neck away.

For a family determined to prevent its patriarch from fading into the shadows, the gesture will offer something that Ryan, Flip’s wife Debbie and daughters Rachel, Kim and Mindy have been searching for every day since Oct. 25, 2015: just a little bit of relief.…

The father and son were closer than anyone could imagine. Ryan still calls him his best friend. They watched movies together, developed gadgets for basketball practice together, ate meals on the road together.

Ryan has taken on Flip’s penchant for flashy suits, and that’s not where the similarities end.

When Flip was coaching, he developed a sort of nervous tick in which he would stretch and crane his neck as if his shirt collar was two sizes too small. Debbie started buying him shirts with extra room in the neck and Flip often left the top button undone and his tie a little loose.

Watch Ryan for 10 minutes on the sideline and you’re sure to see the same neck twitch at least once or twice.

“What’s weird is I don’t realize that I do that,” he said with a sheepish chuckle. “I’ve got a number of people that say that I’ve got the same little ticks. Everybody always used to joke with him about how they looked.

“I hope I don’t have them that bad,” he continues, the laugh growing heartier. “He’s my idol. I took a lot of things from him, even if I didn’t mean to take them.”

He lives in Wayzata, just like his dad. He takes the same road into Target Center that he did when he was an 11-year-old ballboy for the Wolves. Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” is Track 1 on his pregame playlist, just like dad.

In the days after Flip’s death due to complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Ryan wondered if it would break him. All he ever wanted to do was be just like his dad, and now that beacon was no longer there.

Like the rest of a strong family, he just keeps soldiering on.

“Having that loss and trying to jump right back into things, everybody grieves differently,” he said. “But you realize you’re at a tipping point here. You make a decision and you live with that decision. I made a decision to not let it break me.”

The joy I saw this past Tuesday after the win over OKC, the joy that rose inside me evidently spilled onto my face. My wife came into the room shortly after the buzzer. As I explained to her the relevance of this victory, the meaning to me, to Ryan, to the players, as I told her about one of her beloved Kansas Jayhawks, Wiggins, who had maybe the most spectacular game in his young career—40 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, include the beautiful pass on the game-winning three-pointer by rookie Josh Okogie; he carried the team on a night when Towns was in foul trouble all night, point guard Jeff Teague got ejected in the third quarter, and Derrick Rose and Robert Covington were in street clothes because of injuries—she looked at me and said, “You’re just so happy, aren’t you?”

With a lump in my throat, thinking of Flip’s vision for this team, the family which had been partially ripped apart by the fired (thank goodness) Tom Thibodeau (he lost me when he traded Rubio, and then LaVine in what turned out to be the Jimmy Butler fiasco), I said, “Flip would be so proud.”

His son Ryan’s first play that night was 552 twist, run for Towns and Wiggins, a tribute to his father. Wiggins bailed out the Wolves by drilling a long, contested jumper on the play and was sensational all night. Under Thibodeau (and especially next to Butler), Wiggins had spent the past two seasons looking as if he were playing in basketball purgatory. Tuesday, he looked free. He looked tenacious, driven, his explosive talents unleashed.

When I first heard that news that Thibs was fired Sunday, I was thrilled. When I read that his replacement was none other than Flip’s son, I was ecstatic. “That’s the way it should be,” I thought, even as the NBA world chattered about who would take over the team next season. In my head, Ryan was the perfect man to execute his father’s plan; I believed in that moment that the story was coming full circle. It’s one game, as one of my perpetually negative friends noted as he tried to rain on my parade Tuesday night. That’s true; it remains to be seen what will happen over the final 41 games of the season.

I don’t believe in coincidence, but I do believe in love, and that is what I saw from the players in Wolves’ uniforms that night. Love for their new coach, love for his father. It spilled over after the game as the players doused their coach as he entered the locker room and Towns handed Ryan the game ball.

Flip once told a reporter in 2009, “Don’t listen to what people say because they don’t understand the will that you have.”

It’s advice I’ve adopted as my own. It’s advice that I hope the Wolves take to heart. I hope to see Ryan Saunders on the sidelines for seasons to come, the flashy suits, that familiar neck twitch, the love for and from his players.

I’m not the only one who thinks he has a shot to, like Stefanski, have the interim knocked from his title. The Athletic’s Zach Harper writes: “He’s one of the smarter development coaches in the league and he developed a real-time, in-game analytics assessment program years ago. The league and NCAA both have used it. He’s brilliant.”

As KG howled at the sky after he won his only NBA title in Boston a decade ago, “Anything is possible!” I had joy in that moment too—in that midst of my grief over my brother Jon’s death less than two months before—mixed with wistfulness, nostalgia, and pride. The title should have been with Flip, in Minnesota. It was a rare bright spot in the midst of a terribly difficult stretch for me.

It’s funny how life weaves itself together— I don’t know whether or not I’ve connected the strands here. One of Flip’s many favorite pet phrases was “The truth isn’t controversial.” In this era, I guess that just might be controversial, but how true.

And my life and so many others that have changed for the better are a testament to the fact that truly, “Anything is possible.”

Until next time…

Brian Miller is a longtime local writer who lives with his wife Bethany and puppy Case in Eveleth, MN. He welcomes glowing accolades and scathing reviews at brianm@htfnews.us. He can be found on Facebook at Out of the Blue: Brian Daniel Miller.

A note from The Lost Puppy Case Files:

This is Case. Maybe you’ve heard of me? The Man promised me last week that I’d be back in the saddle writing again this week, but again, he got all long-winded and emotional again. I’m pretty sure I’m being punished. First, I was sent to jail for 10 days, now he won’t give me the space to write anymore! It’s so unfair. I have so much to say. I was going to write about my New Year’s resolutions (I’ve broken 88-percent of them already, so I may need to rethink them), about Annie giving me a manicure, and I think Petey the Stool Pigeon may be dead – I haven’t seen him in weeks.

The Man insists I’m not on timeout and that I will indeed be back next week. I think he’s just kicking the can down the road, making empty promises, kind of like a politician, like the facts don’t matter if you think you’re morally right. How ridiculous. I hope he doesn’t read this. The fact is I need more treats! Oh, and Annie and I say: “Go Chiefs!”

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