Saunders family presses on with Wolves after Flip’s death
The easy thing for the Saunders family to do would have been to walk away.
Flip Saunders’ fingerprints are all over the Minnesota Timberwolves — from the players on the roster to the new scoreboard that hangs in the arena. One year after his death, his presence is still a strong one at Target Center, and it would have been understandable if his family wanted to step back from the organization while grieving the loss of their patriarch.
Ryan Saunders could have easily found another coaching job. He didn’t. He is still here, coaching the roster that his father had such a critical role in assembling. Rachel Saunders could have found another job in the corporate world. She didn’t. She’s still here, working as manager of team services for the front office that her father rebuilt from the ruins of the previous regime. Debbie Saunders could have retreated to her home in the Minneapolis suburbs, avoiding the place her husband devoted so much of his time to restoring. She didn’t. She bought four seats just behind the Timberwolves bench so she could be there to watch the young men Flip drafted, traded for and signed continue to grow up in front of her eyes.
“I was nervous to go back in there this year because time has passed and life goes on,” Debbie Saunders told The Associated Press. “The minute I got back in there, it felt right again. It’s obviously different, but some things are the same.”
They are a basketball family that has endured a crushing loss. Flip Saunders died on Oct. 25, 2015 from complications related to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was one of Minnesota’s most beloved sports figures, a gregarious and outgoing coach and salesman who turned one of the NBA’s woebegone franchises into a family reclamation project. His death rocked the organization and the league. It shook the foundation of a tight-knit family that includes daughters Kimberly and Mindy, who sit right next to their mother at the games to this day. A year later, they have endured many of the firsts that make moving on so difficult.
“This year has been a struggle,” Debbie Saunders said. “I don’t know. I guess I thought I would be a lot further along than this with handling it. But it has been a struggle.”
But one thing is clear: the Saunders family isn’t going anywhere. Still grappling with the loss of his father and best friend, Ryan Saunders politely declined to comment for this story. But he did say in July that leaving Minnesota never crossed his mind “because I believe in this organization. I believe in the guys. My relationship with the players is great. Minnesota’s home. Family’s here. Fiancee’s here. Minnesota’s home.” He is working under Tom Thibodeau now, providing some continuity for the new head coach. Thibodeau was one of the most sought-after coaches in the league this summer, and he jumped at the chance to come to Minnesota in large part to the promising young core that Flip and his staff assembled.