Memories of Flip Saunders (1955 to 2015) | Wizards Blog Truth About

Memories of Flip Saunders (1955 to 2015)

Updated: October 26, 2015

Flip Saunders passed away on Sunday at the age of 60. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma earlier in the summer and the surrounding complications accelerated the cancer suddenly and unexpectedly. Saunders will be remembered most for successful head coaching stops with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, but he also was an integral part of the transition from the Washington Wizards of the Gilbert Arenas era to the current version now being led by John Wall. From Flip’s first days at the helm of the Wizards, Truth About was there to chronicle his tenure and the tumult that surrounded his time with the team. Three site staffers, Sean Fagan, Rashad Mobley, and Kyle Weidie, would like to take a moment to share some of our favorite Flip memories, and offer prayers and well wishes to the Saunders family in this time of mourning.

Sean Fagan:

Looking back now, Flip Saunders was the poor guy who thought he was getting the job of his dreams, only to find out that those who hired him had talked up the glitzy aspects of the gig and made little mention of the circus that Saunders was going to encounter upon landing in the DMV.

He was hired with the purpose of getting the Wizards over the hump and back into the playoffs. With a “Big 3” of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, as well as the veteran acquisitions of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. With Flip coaching, the Wizards were actually going to play a bit of defense, and his Hawk-set offense promised to up the offensive efficiency of the free-wheeling cast. A year after the interim disaster of the Ed Tapscott era, the franchise finally had a coach who had experienced success and was poised to take a team of veterans to the next level. The Wizards became the sexy pick to go deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Instead, Saunders was blindsided by the looney bin nature of the Wizards locker room and how little professionalism existed on a supposed team of veterans. Saunders not only had to deal with the three young knuckleheads who failed to meet any level of professional expectations (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, and Nick Young), but also the older and  increasingly crotchety Jamison and Butler, who both openly critiqued the amount of touches they were getting. Above all, you had Arenas as the impresario of the entire comic opera, playing coy with the media (and his own coaching staff) and holding the entire organization hostage at times with his antics.

When GunGate happened, it wasn’t as much a referendum of Saunders as it was a reflection of just how far out of control the Wizards locker room had become, despite the presence of a coach who demanded respect and whose track record should have at least earned him a modicum of dignity. That Flip’s first year went down in a fiery blaze was beyond his control, but it speaks to his integrity that Saunders decided to honor his contract and attempt to help the Wizards after jettisoning Butler and Jamison and deciding to rebuild through the draft and around a young point guard named John Wall. Saunders had not signed on to be part of a rebuilding project (and in fact openly questioned his desire to coach young players) but rolled up his sleeves and got down to the dirty business of making chicken salad out of the chickenshit of Andray, JaVale, and Nick, all the while protecting the young Wall and encouraging his development.

My most vivid memory of Saunders was the infamous cancelled practice of the 2010-11 season. It was one of my first practices covering the Wizards, and I was shocked at how lax the team’s practice appeared, especially since they had started the season 1-4. Players were loafing up and down the court and bitching about every perceived foul or slight. Saunders grew visibly more irritated as the scrimmage went on and finally decided to call it a day, walking off with his assistants at the time, cancelling practice, and kicking everyone out of the building. Such a move was unheard of, and the Wizards players were visibly confused, so much so that Hilton Armstrong of all people had to gather the team together to implore them to take Saunders and practice a bit more seriously. Said Saunders of the cancelled practice:

“We didn’t accomplish what we needed to accomplish. After you lose a couple of games you hope to come in with a sense of urgency. I was excited about coming here, I actually got here at 7 a.m getting ready for practice … we didn’t come with that same urgency as a team. We’re not going to beg guys to play hard. If they don’t want to play hard we’ll come back in at another time and we’ll get people in who do play hard. That’s the one thing as coaches, you can’t coach effort. So we’ll find guys that will do it and do it in the right environment.”

Saunders’ bold move did not have the desired effect (the Wizards continued to lose), but it was his hardline stance that playing time was earned in practice that eased the way for Coach Randy Wittman to employ his hard-as-nails style once Saunders was mercifully let go in his third season with the team. It was Saunders who introduced the “line change” (subbing all five players) when his starters played lackadaisical basketball, a tactic that Wittman coopted. It was Saunders who repeated the mantra that playing “the right way” was going to get you on the court, not empty buckets and highlights, a mantra often heard in the Wittman era. Players who played the right way always earned time in Saunders’ rotations, whether it was journeymen Othyus Jeffers or James Singleton. Those who continued to put themselves before the team would always quickly find themselves right back on the bench.

Flip as disciplinarian is probably not the coda he would’ve wanted appended to his time with the Wizards, but it is his standards that are currently enforced today. One can play the “what if” question all day, but if Saunders had the “coachable” Otto Porter Jr., or Bradley Beal, players who would have been able to adapt to Flip’s complex offensive schemes, things may have turned out quite differently. Instead, Flip was constantly laden with the uncontrollable (Jordan Crawford) or ill-fitting (Yi Jianlian) puzzle pieces that make the NBA such a wonderful sport to cover, if not necessarily coach.

Saunders’ time in Washington will probably be overlooked during the glowing eulogies that are written about him over the next several days. But Saunders was as influential in steering the Wizards to their current successful path as Ernie Grunfeld or Randy Wittman. Saunders lifted the veil on organizational dysfunction and set in place a climate of accountability. Sadly, it was only after his departure, with the man Saunders hired as his assistant, Wittman, that the lessons finally seemed to crystallize. And through it all, through GunGate, through Arenas feigning an injury to get Nick Young playing time, and even through the most ill-advised Andray Blatche 20-footers, Saunders somehow managed to maintain his wry sense of humor. I’ll miss that the most and miss the fact he won’t get the chance to see his young project in Minnesota take off.

God speed, Flip. You deserve better than we gave you in the DMV.

Rashad Mobley:

When someone dies, the knee-jerk reaction is to ignore the bad or negative times and to play up the good. The rationale being: after someone is dead, is it really worth focusing on anything but the good times? There were plenty of bad times here in D.C., and so many of them happened under Flip’s regime. A simple search on Truth About It or Google will help you find those articles. I’m not about to go there right now.

My good times with Flip were mostly after weekend practices, when the mood tended to be light and the media presence was even lighter. Between the team underachieving, Gilbert Arenas’ never-ending antics, and Flip having to monitor the behavior of the likes of JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche, the pressure around the Verizon Center was immense. The PR staff knew this, so on game days they would hover around Saunders like the Secret Service. If it looked as if he had enough or if an undesirable question was asked, he would be whisked away.

But on practice days, Flip would talk about this team candidly, or speak about his family, or other teams, players or coaches in the NBA. It didn’t lessen the tension or free him from shouldering the burden of his underperforming team. It did, however, make everyone realize that Flip was a genuine character trying to navigate his way through the toughest of situations. Coach Wittman rarely shows that side (to me, at least), and that is 100 percent his prerogative, but Flip did and it spoke volumes about his character. His occasional disarming nature didn’t make me take it any easier on Flip, from a journalistic standpoint, but on a personal level I respected how he navigated his plight, and I felt honored that he let me look behind the curtain.

I posted the picture below on Twitter and Facebook, and it perfectly captured the pressure this man was under on a daily basis during his Wizards’ tenure. Part of it was his fault, part of it was the hand he was dealt, but it was undoubtedly stressful. May he rest in peace and may his good traits continue to permeate social media.

Wizards Flip Saunders Media Huddle - Photo by K. Weidie

Kyle Weidie:

Flip Saunders was smooth around the edges, but scrappy enough to get where he got. Five-foot-11 from Cuyahoga, an Ohio high school basketball phenom, University of Minnesota stalwart, NBA offensive innovator, and caretaker of point guards. The coach was non-confrontational in nature but adeptly dealt with some of the game’s most passionate yellers—Kevin Garnett and, to various extents, Rasheed Wallace. Saunders achieved great success coaching at the NBA level—his 654 wins currently ranks 20th all-time—but never made it to the league finals, coming up short in the conference finals four times over 11 playoff appearances.

Saunders “didn’t sign up for this,” he would say, speaking of the situation he ultimately got in Washington in 2009. A veteran team featuring Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and a high draft pick traded for more veterans enticed the coach to leave a television job during a one-year hiatus from the sidelines for his 14th NBA season at the helm. However, a combustible mix of personalities, each with their own agendas, derailed the efforts. A crisis manager, Flip was not. The franchise was jolted from promising to historically bad and rebuilding in a matter of months. But Saunders made do. It sticks out in my mind him claiming that he was “relieved” he could coach, as a teacher, again after the dust settled from the criminal case involving guns in his locker room. You could tell that Saunders ultimately found some comfort with team expectations being shot.

“It’s like I always say,” the coach would reflect before one of his old refrains: “Point guards aren’t made, they’re delivered from heaven.” And this was when Saunders helped coach and facilitate the resurgence of Shaun Livingston’s career at the end of that fateful 2009-10 season. Franchise fans, and Saunders, were rewarded for their patience when the first overall draft pick in 2010, later named John Wall, was delivered unto their lap. Saunders taught Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell, Chauncey Billups, and was blessed with a talent like Wall. For a coach who designed so many offenses around a variance of point guard styles, Saunders might have been more ideal for the integration of Wall into the NBA than imagined. Perhaps things really do happen for a reason, sometimes.

Unfortunately, Wall was not surrounded with a good supporting cast upon his entry into the league, something which was not lost on Saunders on a return trip to D.C. last December as coach of the Timberwolves. The coach seemed pleased with how far the Wizards franchise had come and content with his imprint on it: from tumultuous and unexpected entry, to getting relieved of his duties in Washington in January 2012 after a poor start, to handing the reigns to his hand-picked, top assistant, Randy Wittman, who found initial success executing a similar system under better circumstances.

Two memories of Saunders stand out most—and no, they don’t involve Subway sandwiches, gold coins, or construction hardhats. Late in that 2009-10 season I was working on a story about the Wizards and part of it involved one of several journeymen who rode the carousel for Washington that season. Several players were unhappy with their roles and how things had transpired, and I had comments from some. I’d contacted team PR to see if Saunders also wanted to comment, fully expecting the path of inquiry to come to a screeching halt. But not much later in the day my phone started ringing. It was a 248 (Michigan) area code; could have been anyone. “Kyle, how the fuck are you? It’s Flip Saunders.” Not only was this an NBA coach calling me—this was my first year covering the Wizards—but he was also asking me how the fuck I was? It was a lighthearted query, Saunders was happy to talk shop and go over what he felt were the tenets of managing NBA players, whom he chose to give playing time to, and why he didn’t have to dole out burn to squeaky wheels. Saunders was enlightening, kind, a shepherd of the game of basketball, and he will be sorely missed. Thoughts go out to his family and friends.

The second Flip Saunders memory that stands out: Taking this picture of Saunders, Wall, and even Sam Cassell peeking in on the far right, at Wall’s first NBA Las Vegas Summer League in 2010. R.I.P.

[Flip, John, and Sam -- Wizards 2010 NBA Summer League, Las Vegas -- photo: K. Weidie]


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Sean Fagan
Reporter / Writer/Gadfly at TAI
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Sean has contributed to TAI since the the dawn of Jan Vesely and has been on the Wizards beat since 2008. His work has been featured on ESPN, Yahoo and He still believes that Mike Miller never got a fair shot.