The death of Minnesota Timberwolves president and head coach Flip Saunders touches all corners of the game, every level and every coach.
On Sunday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo issued a statement paying homage to his late friend who, according to a report from CBS, died at age 60 after fighting Hodgkins lymphoma–a disease that compromises the body’s immune system.
The following is Izzo’s message to the Saunders family and basketball community, according to a release from MSU’s athletic department.
“My heart is heavy for Flip’s wife Debbie, son Ryan, who will carry on the basketball coaching torch, and daughters Mindy, Rachel and Kimberly. I lost a beloved friend today, but I can only imagine the heartache his wonderful family is feeling. I’ve read and heard some of the tributes to Flip, and I take solace in seeing the outpouring of love for him. Flip had many great qualities, and an outstanding coaching resume, but what made him special was the way he treated people. It didn’t matter if you were one of his players, an opposing player or coach, front office personnel or first-year intern, loyal fan or heckler, media or critic, or simply someone he passed on the street, he treated everyone with utmost respect.”
Izzo went on to detail his relationship with Saunders, whom he had met decades ago on the court.
“I played against Flip in college and later convinced him to join our staff at Tulsa, although I left two days later. I had the pleasure of coaching for him in the 2001 Goodwill Games, and spent a lot of time with him while he was coaching the Detroit Pistons and in between jobs. It’s been a 30-plus year friendship, but Flip never changed. From junior college coach to college assistant to the CBA, and eventually the NBA, it didn’t matter what level of success he achieved, Flip always treated people the same.”
Izzo then explained how his bond with Saunders grew. Saunders often offered advice to Izzo, who also ended up becoming of one top coaches in the game.
“Our friendship grew over the years and we became very close, but I never felt like he treated me better than anyone else. To Flip, everyone was special. He was gracious in defeat, humble in victory, and he was always willing to help out other coaches. He had a brilliant basketball mind, and it was always a pleasure watching film with him or having him teach me a new offensive strategy. But inevitably, those conversations that started out as a basketball chalk talk would turn to our families, and other more important matters. Flip had a passion for coaching and basketball, but he also had amazing balance in his life.
If there’s one thing that brings a smile to my face on this very sad day, it’s hearing his players talk about him. The respect and love in their voices and in their words are the ultimate tribute to a coach. Basketball and, more importantly, humanity lost a great man today, but Flip’s positive impact on everyone’s life that he touched will leave a lasting legacy – one which can inspire and drive us all.”
Saunders coached the Detroit Pistons from 2005 to 2008. He won three division titles before being relieved of his duties. The Cleveland native started his head coaching career with the Timberwolves in 1995. He coached them until 2005, jumped to the Pistons and spent the next three years with the Washington Wizards–only to rejoin Minnesota in 2014.