Phil “Flip” Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves coach who racked up over 1,200 victories over the course of his 16-season head coaching career, passed away Sunday following a two-month battle with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was 60. At the time of his death, Saunders served as the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations, although the team revealed Friday that, following a setback in Saunders’ cancer battle, he would miss the upcoming 2015-16 season, ESPN reports.
“The NBA family is mourning today over the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Flip Saunders,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “Flip’s untimely passing has left a gaping hole in the fabric of our league. Flip was a beloved figure around the NBA, nowhere more so than in Minnesota, demonstrating a genuine and consistent passion for his players, his team and the game.”
Saunders, who played college basketball at the University of Minnesota, was hired as the coach of the Timberwolves in 1995, where he was tasked with guiding young power forward Kevin Garnett, who earlier in the year became the first player to be drafted out of high school since 1975. With Saunders at the helm and Garnett emerging into one of the league’s premier talents, the Timberwolves secured their first ever playoff berth in 1996-97, the first in a string of eight consecutive playoff appearances. However, in that span the Wolves only made it out of the first round once, and Saunders was relieved as coach midway through the 2004-05 season.
On Facebook, Garnett paid tribute to the coach that had such a huge impact on his career with a photo of the future Hall of Fame player sitting in the coach’s now-vacant parking spot. Similarly, Kevin Love, another power forward who perfected his game in Minnesota, also remembered Saunders on Twitter. Love’s teammate LeBron James also tweeted his condolences.
After stints as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, Saunders reunited with the Timberwolves in 2013, first in a front office capacity before returning to his role on the floor. During the 2013-14 season, then-Brooklyn Net Garnett approved a trade back to Minnesota in order to reunite with Saunders and serve as a mentor to the young crop of future all-stars that team had cultivated, players that include Andrew Wiggins, Zack LaVine and 2015 first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
“Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization,” Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said in a statement. “He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered. Today is not a day to reflect on Flip’s accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large. We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss.”