By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Flip Saunders’ presence can often be felt before he is even heard as he makes the rounds at Target Center.
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ new basketball boss likes to sneak up behind unsuspecting folks and give them a squeeze on the shoulder, with a vise-like grip clamping down and a wry smile on his face. The strength in his hands comes from his youth, when he spent hours upon hours massaging his mother’s aching body while she dealt with polio.
“Her legs would hurt her and unfortunately she was in a wheelchair a lot,” Saunders said. “It was just one of those things that when you love somebody, you’ll do something because you know it helps them and makes them feel good.”
Now Saunders is trying to put his fingerprints on the entire Timberwolves organization. Once fired as the head coach of the Timberwolves, he has made a triumphant return as the top basketball executive, and a minority owner in his adopted hometown.
He grew up in Ohio before playing college basketball with Kevin McHale at Minnesota. McHale made Saunders the Timberwolves coach in 1995. When he was run out of town in 2005, less than a year after leading the Wolves to the Western Conference finals, some fans and team followers greeted the decision with a shrug.
Saunders had led the team to eight straight playoff appearances, but only one time did the Wolves make it out of the first round, and his final team was disintegrating in large part due to personal agendas and contract squabbles. Some thought that a new voice and a new approach is what it would take to get the team over the hump.
If they only knew.
Saunders left and the Wolves plunged into a long, dark period of futility. They have changed head coaches five times in the last eight seasons and haven’t sniffed the playoffs since. The one time they did, in 2011-12, a rash of injuries derailed that pursuit. Last year was over before it started thanks to more significant injuries, and Glen Taylor was starting to wonder if he owned a cursed franchise.
“Some days you can’t help but wonder what did I do wrong, Lord?” Taylor said with a hearty chuckle. “I’m just kidding, but some days you wonder, why us? Why so many injuries here? You hope that over the long run it will sort itself out.”
If there is one move that Taylor genuinely regrets, it’s firing Saunders in the first place. Bringing him back as team president, and welcoming him as a minority partner, has rectified that misstep. Saunders’ return has energized a fan base that now views Saunders’ run as coach as the closest thing this long-suffering franchise has to glory days.
Saunders said he’s been told by fans that they didn’t know how good they had it when he was coaching, but he blanches at those types of compliments.
“It’s nice that people remember what you did,” Saunders said. “At least that’s some type of tradition you can hold on to. It’s a baseline that you can start at. You know where you want to get to because you know what it was like when it was there.”
As familiar as things are for him, he will still be seeing things from a different angle this season. He isn’t the coach anymore, so he has to take in the bigger picture.
“As a coach, you live strictly in the present. You have a game that night, what are you going to do that night? Who is in your rotation? You start thinking about plays you’re going to run at the end of the game,” Saunders said. “In our situation, you have to worry about the vision, too. You have to worry about the vision and development of players and the whole thing.”
With Saunders at the top and Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Rick Adelman leading the way on the court, there is a palpable energy surrounding the team as it prepares for the season opener against Orlando on Wednesday night. After spending last season at ESPN, Saunders has enjoyed being back in the middle of the action and talking with players and coaches about the game.
“He’s great. He keeps things light,” Love said. “Between him and coach, they have 40, 50-plus years’ experience. That’s a lot of basketball knowledge. ... It’s going to be very beneficial to have him around. He’s like an extension of the coaching staff, and on and off the court he really helps the guys.”
Saunders said there is still a lot of work to be done before he can say his fingerprints are on the organization. With each squeeze of the shoulder, he gets a little bit closer.
“One thing you miss is the camaraderie of being around the players,” Saunders said. “In the position I’m in, I’m lucky to have that camaraderie with the players, with the staff, with coach Adelman. Those are the things as coaches you miss. And I have that now. Whether it’s the shoulder pinch or whatever it is, you have a chance to reach out and touch them a little bit.”