MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - At the Target Center, the match-up was between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakes, but for many the game itself took a back seat as the team honored the late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders.
“I know it would touch Flip,” said Debbie Saunders, Flip’s widow. “We miss him every day, we think about him every day – not just because of basketball, he’s just a good person. He was a good man, so I am just so pleased and happy and from the bottom of my heart. Our family is so grateful that the Timberwolves took the time to do this.”
“We’re thrilled to be honoring him,” said Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves head coach.
The night was about paying tribute to a man who walked the hallways and the sidelines at the Target Center for more than ten seasons. Saunders passed away in 2015 after battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma.To honor his legacy, the organization hoisted Flip Saunders’ name to the rafters where it will be a permanent fixture.
“We wish he was still here,” said Thibodeau. “I think all of the things that he did here. He’s synonymous with Minnesota basketball.”
One of Flip’s trademarks was to create and hand out a new coin to his players and front office each season. He would often hand out those coins to fans while walking out on the street. Fans attending Thursday’s game got to take home a commemorative coin honoring the late coach.
Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton remembers playing against Saunders-led teams back in his playing days. He says playing against those old Wolves teams was never easy.
“They really did a nice job of taking advantage of where your weaknesses were,” said Walton. “So the few minutes I was on the floor, I was usually picked on by Flip teams. A fun coach who supposedly had a playbook that had 3,000 plays in it and the players that played for him all loved playing for him.”
Saunders’ name and legacy will live on forever in Minnesota, but beyond basketball, Flip Saunders the husband, the father, the man is missed the most.
“He was a special guy,” said Thibodeau. “He had the unique ability to make everyone feel good. You’d come up and you’d feel like you were his best friend. I think it’s an important night for everybody.”
The Wolves finished the night with a win over the Lakers 119 – 111.