We lost another good one: Flip Saunders, the kind of guy who had dozens of best friends.
Our CBA coaching careers overlapped from 1988 to 1992. He with Rapid City and then with La Crosse; me with Rockford, Oklahoma City and Albany. And none of my teams ever posted a regular-season win against any of his teams. Yet he always treated me — and all the other coaches he routinely defeated — with the utmost camaraderie, graciousness and respect. He was totally competitive, but always exercised a sense of decorum that was rare in a CBA coach. Indeed, as far as I know, he never received a technical foul there.
Moreover, he gladly shared scouting reports of teams he’d already played that I had not. And he certainly had a hand in making sure that teams visiting his franchises were regarded as guests. Unlike too many CBA outfits, under Flip’s auspices the vans were on time to drive us to and from the airports, there were plenty of towels and the housing was first-rate. He was a classy guy and he ran a classy organization.
During his playing career at the University of Minnesota, Flip was a point guard whose primary duty was to get the ball to Kevin McHale. After working as an assistant coach at U of M and then at Tulsa, Flip moved into the CBA.
In many ways, winning a CBA championship is more difficult than winning an NBA title. That’s because a CBA team’s best players are frequently signed to 10-day contracts by NBA squads — usually late in the CBA season and often during the CBA playoffs. Yet, during his seven seasons in what inmates called the “Crazy Basketball Association,” Flip won two titles, was twice named Coach of the Year and never came close to having a losing season.
Through it all, he was modest, good-natured and meticulous. Flip toted an iron with him on the road and, before every away game, he crisped up his shirt and neck tie.
Coaching against Flip was difficult. His teams played with a discipline and precision that was remarkable. And the loyalty, respect and admiration that Flip shared with his players were palpable. The term “family” is sometimes employed to describe the relationship among a team’s players and their coach. It’s an overused term that’s often more phony than real — but in Flip’s case, there was no denying that he and his players comported themselves as though they were all related.
Among his CBA contemporaries, it was agreed and understood that he would follow the path established by Phil Jackson and eventually become an NBA coach. In fact, when John Bach was pink-slipped from the Chicago Bulls’ coaching staff in 1991, Flip (who was coaching the La Crosse Catbirds) and Jimmy Rodgers were the two candidates whom Jackson considered to replace Bach. Rodgers had already served 13 NBA seasons as an assistant coach (with Cleveland and Boston) and 12 as a head coach (with Boston and Minnesota), so he was the obvious choice.
It was really no contest, but just to be considered in the same bracket as Rodgers attests to Flip’s reputation.
Ah, the good ones keep falling. Darryl Dawkins, Moses Malone, Neal Walk and now Flip Saunders …
The game is diminished by the sudden absence of these men, and they were each, in his own particular way, a blessing to those of us who knew them.
RIP, Flip. And thanks for the run.