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What I owe Flip Saunders

The first time Flip and I ever talked hoops one-on-one was shortly before Christmas in 1995, the day it was announced he would become head coach of the Timberwolves. Something clicked.

Britt Robson: "Flip [Saunders] taught me to see and understand the game better through my eyes, not his."
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

It is Sunday afternoon, and the Minnesota Timberwolves just announced that Flip Saunders is dead. That’s the way it hit me, with no euphemisms or elisions to shield from that little shiver of dread that goes inside you when you absorb dire news.

Please forgive the amount of times I will use “I” and “me” in a story about Flip Saunders. It is unseemly, but I want to respect the man with an honest accounting, without platitudes or formalities. I know him only in the context of our unusual relationship, the dynamic through which I came to admire him and feel in his debt.

Flip and I weren’t friends in the customary sense. In fact, almost the only time he and I talked about something that wasn’t related to pro basketball or some other sport was in May, on a late-night call when I expressed condolences over the passing of his father and he launched into a long soliloquy in tribute to the man.

A mutual passion

Otherwise, pretty much the only place where Flip and I connected was in our mutual passion — to the point of addiction — for the recurring splendor of NBA basketball and our deep thirst for analyzing, understanding and communicating how the game is successfully played. When you meet a person who matches your ardor with such detail and specificity it can often make you giddy — especially if that person knows more than you do and is willing to share his wisdom.

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The first time Flip and I ever talked hoops one-on-one was shortly before Christmas in 1995, the day it was announced he would be replacing Bill Blair as head coach of the Timberwolves while retaining his job as general manager of the team under President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale. After practice, he came over to meet the media. I stuck around to ask him a final question or two about what changes he felt the team needed. And something clicked.

Part of it was that we were roughly the same age. I suspect a bigger part of it was that the questions I was asking indicated a solid and joyful foundational knowledge about the game, but also an ignorance and naivete about a more sophisticated level of perception. Flip recognized an apt pupil.

In what became a routine repeated hundreds of times over the years, Flip’s answers addressed the context of my questions in full, then expanded in ways that piqued my curiosity and provoked a follow-up question that sharpened the context or added a new one.

At the point of that first real conversation, I had been covering the Wolves for the alt-weekly City Pages for a little more than four years. But no coach or player had ever given me such an expansive window into their thought process, or led me into discovery.

Appreciation sharpened

The archive of my City Pages columns is a testimonial to the progress made under Flip’s tutelage. I became smarter about the game, but also made more mistakes about strategy and execution. A fresh batch of perspective, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. But on a visceral level, my appreciation for the nuances of the game sharpened in a manner akin to what happens when you trade in your regular television for high definition.

I loved the game even more. Part of it was a contact high.

I don’t want to suggest I was Flip’s sidekick, a Watson to his Holmes. I attended only home games and the occasional practice, and mostly grabbed time in two-or-three-minute increments walking along hallways, or in a quick phone call, or during pregame and postgame press conferences, where Flip was always an ace teacher. Two or three times per season I’d schedule a half-hour or so to discuss a specific player or theme for a column. Every now and then, the feature was about him.

Flip’s first stint with the Wolves lasted nearly 10 years, and those interactions added up. Dozens of conversations stuck with me. Some are pretty arcane, like the way he described camouflaging a zone defense back when the NBA didn’t allow them. And when zones did become legal, his glee over pushing the envelope by devising a 1-2-2 zone with 7-foot Kevin Garnett out front defending the perimeter was a kick to hear about and witness.

Two profound insights

But there were two other insights from Flip that became cornerstones for the way I perceive the NBA. The first is that the game is all about matchups between players — specifically, trying to engineer mismatches on the court. Winning is about creating, recognizing and exploiting those mismatches until an opponent adjusts, and then finding another.

The second simple but profound insight is about team chemistry. Flip told me that chemistry is all about establishing a pecking order that is fair and understood, and acceded to even if not everybody totally accepts it.

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Early in 2013, when Wolves owner Glen Taylor told me he was in regular contact with Flip again and rumors were hot and heavy that he was lobbying hard to replace David Kahn as President of Basketball Operations, I argued against the idea. I remembered how much he cherished coaching. “When you notice something and then call a play out of a timeout and it works just the way you thought it would, it doesn’t get much better than that,” he once told me.

I envisioned, and predicted, that Flip in the front office would meddle too much with then-coach Rick Adelman, who, like Flip, is a future Hall of Famer. I felt it would mess with the pecking order at the very top, and do trickle-down damage to team chemistry.

After Flip convinced Taylor to give him the front office job and was nothing but supportive of Adelman — who imploded anyway because of concerns over his wife’s health — I argued against Flip hiring himself as coach. I mocked his protestations that he was conducting a thorough search of other candidates. After he did indeed replace Adelman on the sidelines, I pointed out the ways his coaching proclivities could put himself and his team at a disadvantage in the modern game.

Whenever these actions made me uncomfortable, I told myself that I was respecting the integrity of our relationship. Flip taught me to see and understand the game better through my eyes, not his. One of his enduring traits was his amiable pugnacity when he was arguing a point that went against the grain. Almost always, he enjoyed the courage of his convictions.

‘Ask me anything’

In any case, I couldn’t ask for better treatment upon his return. In the middle of the past two seasons, he granted me long interviews that he knew were going to be published verbatim (only a handful of times, when he was tipping strategy to the rest of the league, did he stipulate that he wanted to be “on background”). There were also times when the communications staff cut short postgame press conferences only to have Flip extend them by specifically noticing I wanted to ask a question. “Ask me anything,” was one of his catch-phrases.

Some of that accessibility came from self-confidence, but some of it came from his desire to be liked, which was one of the reasons he always needed a plainspoken disciplinarian, be it player or assistant coach, to set the tone and police the locker room.

I have missed Flip Saunders since his setback from chemotherapy caused him to be hospitalized and separated from basketball activities two months ago. But his death leaves a new depth of missing.

I’ll miss the sight of him barging past the border of the coach’s box on the sideline and wandering well past midcourt to exhort his team in the middle of games. I’ll miss the stressful tic he had of craning his neck as if his collar was too tight. I’ll miss the footnotes and sidebars wedged into his spoken sentences that left pronouns and prepositions totally up for grabs. I’ll miss the way he always sought eye contact when he was telling you something. I’ll miss the terse little laugh that, depending upon context, had about 15 different meanings.

I’ll miss the tales of his days in the minor league Continental Basketball Association, anecdotes that seemed two parts MacGyver to one part Bad News Bears, in the way he’d be having to stitch together bus rides, laundry, and constant player movement with ingenuity and baling wire.

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Willpower of the gritty underdog

His voice was always thick with pride telling those CBA stories, because the subtext was the willpower of the gritty underdog. As a player, Flip was an undersized point guard who went on to lead the University of Minnesota to a couple of its finest seasons ever. As a coach, he had to start from scratch — four seasons at Golden Valley Lutheran, seven as an assistant coach at his alma mater and the University of Tulsa, and then his time driving through the winter with the Rapid City Thrillers, the La Crosse Catbirds and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. His 253 wins are the second-most in CBA history, and yet he still he needed a connection from his college buddy McHale to crack the NBA.

Yet when he died, he was president of Basketball Operations, head coach and part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, an array of power without peer among his colleagues.

The Wolves begin their 2015-16 season Wednesday with a team Flip constructed from top to bottom. Every single player on the roster has been acquired, drafted or had their contract extended by Flip during his two and a half seasons back with the franchise. Two of the current assistant coaches used to play for him; another is his son.

The pall now cast on the season is inescapable, but I know I am going to find enjoyment in it anyway. It’s NBA basketball, a glorious game I know intimately, played by a franchise I will be covering for the 25th year. A fair chunk of my self-identity is tied up in writing and talking about this game. And a fair chunk of what I think and say about it has been influenced by Flip Saunders. Having the opportunity to properly thank him might be the thing I’ll miss most of all.