Minnesota Timberwolves coach and longtime NBA fixture Flip Saunders passed away Sunday of Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 60.
The NBA mourned Saunders all day, but no tribute compared to Kevin Garnett's photo in the team parking lot.
In 1995, Kevin McHale was promoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations of the six-year-old Timberwolves franchise. He hired Saunders, his former University of Minnesota teammate, as general manager. In the 1995 NBA draft, McHale and Saunders gambled on a high school prodigy, Garnett, with the fifth overall pick.
At the time, no NBA player had been drafted directly out of high school in 20 years.
Saunders changed roles to become Timberwolves' head coach 20 games into the 1995-96 season. A year later, the Timberwolves made the franchise's first playoff appearance, and Garnett became the then-youngest to ever play in an NBA All-Star Game (Kobe Bryant broke the record one season later).
Saunders' first Timberwolves tenure lasted ten seasons, all with Garnett. Minnesota made the postseason in eight of those years, missing only in Saunders' first and last, neither of which he coached in full. Garnett made eight All-Star Games and won an NBA MVP Award under Saunders.
That era of Timberwolves' history will always be remembered for a lack of playoff success -- Saunders' teams lost in the first round seven of eight times. In 2003-04, the franchise did make it all the way to the Western Conference finals, losing in six games to the Lakers.
Saunders was fired in 2005 and spent the next eight years coaching the Pistons (making three conference finals appearances in three seasons) and Wizards. He also held a brief role with the Celtics as an advisor.
Saunders was re-hired by the Timberwolves in May 2013 as President of Basketball Operations and named head coach in June 2014. Last February, Garnett was traded to the Timberwolves in a deal that brought the duo full circle. Many Minnesotans believed the move could have been a precursor for Garnett and Saunders pooling their money to buy the franchise (Saunders was a part-owner at the time of his death).
Garnett was devastated by the news he lost his longtime friend and mentor. Saunders believed in Garnett as a teenager, and for a decade, the two made Minnesota an NBA power. In 2015, the nostalgia was real. Saunders and Garnett were building a new power, grooming youngsters Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad as the next big thing.
Now, Garnett will need to carry on Saunders' Minnesota legacy.
The Timberwolves open the season Wednesday night at the Lakers in what is sure to be an emotional evening.