Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders dies of cancer

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Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Flip Saunders Dies at 60

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Flip Saunders, who rose from the backwaters of basketball's minor leagues to become one of the most powerful men in the NBA as coach, team president and part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, died Sunday, the team said. He was 60.

Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in June and doctors called it "treatable and curable." But he took a leave of absence from the team in September after complications arose during his treatment, which included chemotherapy. He had been hospitalized for more than a month.

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"Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization," owner Glen Taylor said in a statement. "He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered."

Sam Mitchell has been named interim head coach and GM Milt Newton is heading the team's personnel department.

Saunders went 654-592 in 17 NBA seasons with the Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. But his best days came in Minnesota, where he nurtured Kevin Garnett from a teenager who jumped straight from high school to the NBA in 1995 and helped turn the woeful Wolves into a perennial playoff team.

The Timberwolves had started to practice on Sunday when Newton got word from Taylor of Saunders' death. Practice was halted and a devastated Garnett left the floor, walked to the parking garage at the practice facility and sat down in the spot marked for Saunders. He posted a picture of the moment on his Facebook page with the message "Forever in my heart ..."

Forever in my heart....

Posted by Kevin Garnett on Sunday, October 25, 2015

"He was a great human being and one of the best offensive minds in basketball," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a friend of Saunders for three-plus decades, told The Associated Press. "I could talk basketball with him all day and night."

See photos of Saunders throughout his career:

37 PHOTOS
Flip Saunders through the years
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Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders dies of cancer
11 Dec 2000: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on from the sidelines during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Timberwolves defeated the 76ers 96-91. NOTE TO USER: It is expressly understood that the only rights Allsport are offering to license in this Photograph are one-time, non-exclusive editorial rights. No advertising or commercial uses of any kind may be made of Allsport photos. User acknowledges that it is aware that Allsport is an editorial sports agency and that NO RELEASES OF ANY TYPE ARE OBTAINED from the subjects contained in the photographs.Mandatory Credit: Jamie Squire /Allsport
21 Nov 2001: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves picks his ear during the NBA game against the Orlando Magic at TD Waterhouse Centre in Orlando, Florida. The Magic defeated the Timberwolves 117-106. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
07 Jan 2002: Coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves gives his team some last minute instructions prior to the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. DIGITAL IMAGE NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE Mandatory Credit: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
3 Feb 2002: Coach Flip Saunders and Chauncey Billups #4 of the Minnesota Timberwolves visually go over the last play against the Sacramento Kings at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. DIGITAL IMAGE NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges andagrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE Mandatory Credit: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
28 Apr 2002: Coach 'Flip' Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves meets the press after the game against the Dallas Mavericks during game 3 of the Western Conference Quarter-Finals series during the 2002 NBA Playoffs at the Target Center in Minneapolis,Minnesota. DIGITAL IMAGE NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE Mandatory Credit: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
MINNEAPOLIS - OCTOBER 27: Flip Saunders, head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves addresses the crowd during the Timberwolves Fan Fair on October 27, 2002 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS - MAY 23: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2004 NBA Playoffs at Target Center on May 23, 2004 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves won 89-71. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2004 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS - MAY 23: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves answers questions from the media prior to taking the practice court in preparation for Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2004 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers on May 23, 2004 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement: Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2004 NBAE (Photo By David A Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS - MAY 19: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves talks to the media after defeating the Sacramento Kings in Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2004 NBA Playoffs at Target Center on May 19, 2004 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves won 83-80. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2004 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
CHICAGO - MAY 4: Flip Saunders, former head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, works as a commentator during the game between the Washington Wizards and the Chicago Bulls in Game five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2005 NBA Playoffs on May 4, 2005 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Wizards defeated the Bulls 112-110 and take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven series. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - JULY 21: Flip Saunders (L), the new Detroit Piston Head Coach, is introduced by Joe Dumars, president of the Detroit Pistons to the Detroit media during a press conference at the Palace of Auburn Hills on July 21, 2005 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by D.Lippitt/EinsteinPhoto/NBAE via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Detroit Pistons reacts during the Fifth Annual Open Practice at The Palace of Auburn Hills on October 10, 2005 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Dan Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 17: Head coach Phil 'Flip' Saunders of the Detroit Pistons watches his team in game five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Aubrun Hills on May 17, 2006 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Cavs defeated the Pistons 86-84 and lead the series 3-2. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND - MAY 13: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Detroit Pistons talks with Chauncey Billups #1 of the Pistons in front of teammates Antonio McDyess #24 and Richard Hamilton #32 in game three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 13, 2006 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavs defeated the Pistons 86-77. The Pistons lead the series 2-1. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND - MAY 15: Chauncey Billups #1 of the Detroit Pistons listens to instructions by head coach Flip Saunders in game four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 15, 2006 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavs won 74-72. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - MAY 9: Flip Saunders, Head Coach of the Detroit Pistons speaks at a press conference following their win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2006 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons defeated the Cavaliers 97-91 and take a 2-0 lead in the series. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO - MARCH 23: (L-R) Head coach Flip Saunders draws up a play with assistant coaches Ron Harper, Terry Porter, and Dave Cowens of the Detroit Pistons during the NBA game the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2007 in San Antonio, Texas. The Spurs won 90-89. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - JANUARY 28: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Detroit Pistons won his 500th game with the win over the Indiana Pacers in a game on January 28, 2007 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by Allen EinsteinNBAE via Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 24: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Detroit Pistons talks with his team during a timeout during a game against the Charlotte Bobcats on November 24, 2006 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA - MAY 1: Flip Saunders Head Coach of the Detroit Pistons talks to the press before Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on May 1, 2008 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON - MARCH 5: Tayshaun Prince #22 of the Detroit Pistons talks with Flip Saunders against the Boston Celtics during the game on March 5, 2008 at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 31: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Washington Wizards watches game from sidelines against the New Jersey Nets at the Verizon Center during game on October 31, 2009 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 23: Flip Saunders(R) of the Washington Wizards is introduced as the new Head Coach along with General Manager Ernie Grunfeld during a press conference at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2009 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20: Head coach Flip Saunders of the Washington Wizards draws up a play during a time out in the game against the Dallas Mavericks on January 20, 2010 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The Mavs won 94-93. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 08: Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Washington Wizards talks to his player Brendan Haywood #33 during a break from the game against the Phoenix Suns on November 8, 2009 at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The Suns won 102-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 26: Gregg Popovich, Head Coach of the San Antonio Spurs chats with Flip Saunders, Head Coach of the Washington Wizards prior to the game on December 26, 2010 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 22: Flip Saunders Head Coach of the Washington Wizards directs from the sidelines against the Chicago Bulls at the Verizon Center on December 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 6: Head Coach Flip Saunders and the Washington Wizards stand during the national anthem prior to the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 6, 2010 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 12: John Wall #2 and Head Coach Flip Saunders of the Washington Wizards discuss tacticts against the Atlanta Hawks at the Verizon Center on October 12, 2010 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. .December, 9:Washington Wizards head coach Flip Saunders talks with G John Wall (2) during their first workout of the year on December, 9 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - June 28: Phil 'Flip' Saunders, President of Basketball Operations answers questions from the media during the introductory press conference for the team's 2013 NBA Draft picks on June 28, 2013 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 6: Phil 'Flip' Saunders, President of Basketball Operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves is named Head Coach of the team by owner Glen Taylor during a press conference on June 6, 2014 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 20: Flip Saunders and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves speak during a game against the Phoenix Suns on February 20, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 30: Gorgui Dieng #5, Thaddeus Young #33, Zach Lavine #8, Andrew Wiggins #22, and head coach Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves look on in a game against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena on December 30, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 24: Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves is introduced to the media by Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders on February 24, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 24: Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves is introduced to the media by Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders on February 24, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 30: Flip Saunders speaks while Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is presented with the 2014- 2015 Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award on April 30, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Philip Daniel Saunders was born on Feb. 23, 1955, in Cleveland and was a prep basketball star at Cuyahoga Heights High School. His mother Kay nicknamed him Flip after hearing the name at a beauty salon. He played in college at Minnesota, teaming with Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson as a senior to lead the Golden Gophers to a 24-3 record.

Not long after graduating, Saunders got into coaching to begin a long and winding path to the NBA. He started at Golden Valley Lutheran College just outside of Minneapolis and was as an assistant at Minnesota and Tulsa before seven seasons in the Continental Basketball Association.

Saunders often credited his stint in the CBA with instilling in him the work ethic and breadth of organizational knowledge he needed in the NBA. He made stops in Rapid City, South Dakota; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and often retold stories of his adventures in the minor league while expressing affinity for the NBA coaches who followed similar paths.

He landed in the NBA in 1995, when he wrote a letter to new owner Taylor asking for a job. His college buddy, McHale, took over the basketball operations with the Timberwolves and Saunders became the general manager. When Bill Blair was fired 20 games into the season, Saunders was suddenly the head coach of a struggling franchise that had never made the playoffs.

Saunders and Garnett led the Wolves to eight straight playoff appearances, the last a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004. He was fired the next season when the team disintegrated thanks in large part to contractual battles with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. The Wolves have not made the playoffs since.

Saunders won 64 games in his first season in Detroit in 2005-06 and 176 in his three seasons coaching the Pistons. But he couldn't quite get a veteran-laden team over the hump and into the NBA Finals, so he was dismissed in 2008.

He coached three more years in Washington before returning to Minnesota as president of basketball operations in 2013. Again, he took over a franchise in turmoil and was bringing the Timberwolves back to relevance before he fell ill.

Saunders deftly handled the exit of disgruntled forward Kevin Love, trading him to Cleveland for a package including budding young star Andrew Wiggins and Thaddeus Young, who was flipped to Brooklyn in February to secure Garnett's return.

"Flip you were one of a kind. Great basketball mind and even better human being," Love said on Instagram. "You had a great impact on my life personally and professionally. RIP my friend. Prayers are with the Saunders family during this time."

Saunders also signed Ricky Rubio to a four-year contract extension, drafted Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Karl-Anthony Towns, brought in veterans Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince and helped design a new $25 million practice facility across the street from Target Center.

As team president, coach and a minority owner, Saunders grabbed a level of influence within his organization that was unmatched in the NBA. His fingerprints were on everything, from personnel decisions to in-game strategies, even down to the pregame entertainment.

"Today is not a day to reflect on Flip's accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large," Taylor said. "We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to (his wife) Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss."

Saunders is survived by his wife, Debbie, son Ryan and daughters Mindy, Rachel and Kimberly.

"The Timberwolves have lost a brilliant leader, and Minnesota has lost an outstanding citizen," Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said.

He liked to sneak up behind unsuspecting visitors to Target Center, clamp his hand down on a shoulder and squeeze with a vise-like grip that came from hours of massaging his polio-stricken mother in his youth.

He would carry around autographed cards of himself to hand out to fans, and playfully give them to media members as well with a mischievous grin on his face.

"We have all been blessed by your wonderful life, Coach Flip," Muhammad tweeted. "You will be deeply missed. Rest in peace."

Gregarious and outgoing, he endeared himself to a Twin Cities community that viewed him as a hometown boy done good, with his Gophers roots overshadowing his Cleveland upbringing. And Flip loved Minnesota right back. When he returned to the organization after 10 years away, he recounted a story about working for ESPN and being asked why he still lived in Minnesota so long after he was fired.

"And I'd say 'Well, you don't really understand unless you're from Minnesota. You really don't get it. Even when it snows on May 3rd you really don't get it,'" Saunders said. "And the loyalty and the passion that the people have here is what always drives me back."

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