A few months ago, I wrote about the concept of #OneOfUs, where Minnesotans take pride in any successful professional athlete with even the slimmest of ties to Minnesota.
This time, however, there is no marginal or vague reference to Minnesota. No, this time, we’re talking about someone who grew up and went to high school and college in the Twin Cities area. He’s the son of the winningest coach in Minnesota Timberwolves history. And he just so happens to currently be the Timberwolves’ new interim head coach.
Ryan Takes Over
Yes, Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) took over last week, ending the tumultuous, stagnant and antiquated reign of Tom Thibodeau. Those adjectives, by the way, are about the nicest terms I could come up with for Thibodeau’s two-and-a-half seasons at the helm of the team.
Full disclosure, if it wasn’t apparent enough, I’m Wolves fan. So I won’t pretend to be completely objective in my assessment here – and it’s also part of the reason why I’m writing about Ryan Saunders.
Plus, fun fact, he is exactly one month older than I am (April 28, 1986 vs. May 28, 1986). We both went to suburban Twin Cities high schools and we both attended the University of Minnesota at the same time from 2004-2008. I never encountered Ryan on campus, and I’ve never actually met or spoken to him, but what I’m seeing now is bringing back memories of my favorite time being a Timberwolves fan.
The Power of Flip
Ryan’s dad Flip Saunders coached the team for parts of 11 seasons in two different stints before passing away due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in the fall of 2015. During Flip’s most successful years with the team in the late 1990s, I was obsessed with the Wolves. Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, Tom Gugliotta – you name it, they were a fun team just beginning to realize their potential.
During my formative years, I went to Flip’s basketball camps three different summers in my hometown of Burnsville, MN. Every day, he would ask campers to try and stump him with basketball trivia. Being the basketball nerd that I was, I can honestly say I stumped him a couple of times! It was always a thrill for me just being able to talk with him, let alone know more random, obscure basketball facts than him.
He was always kind and patient with campers – and it felt like a big deal just being in his presence. I got his autograph multiple times on an old basketball that’s still in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. He was the embodiment of what you’d want a coach to be: encouraging, energetic and, most importantly, he always stoked a passion for basketball.
Dad Gets It Done
Despite being a Wolves fan, Michael Jordan was my favorite player. There’s really no other explanation needed, he was just the greatest at what he did and I loved watching him play. But I wanted to see him play in person. Of course, the Chicago Bulls of the late 1990s were like the Beatles of the mid-1960s: every show was sold out. Getting tickets was impossible. And based on the NBA’s scheduling formula, the Bulls only came to Minnesota once a year to play the Timberwolves. But never underestimate the power of a determined parent.
On a cold, early December morning in 1997, my dad met a random person in the Mall of America parking lot (Woodward & Bernstein style) and paid hundreds of dollars for two upper deck tickets to the Bulls-Wolves game on December 30. I got them as a Christmas present and honestly couldn’t believe it! I was going to see my favorite player in person all thanks to him.
The game itself was the best of both worlds. Jordan played great, setting a new NBA record for consecutive double-digit scoring games. But the young, scrappy Timberwolves won 99-95, their first victory in franchise history against the Bulls. The image of Stephon Marbury chucking the ball as high as he could as the buzzer sounded is still a mental picture I replay to this day. My dad was right there by my side, celebrating one of Flip Saunders’ biggest wins!
The Root of It All
That’s why I’m rooting for Ryan Saunders to shed the interim label and become the team’s permanent head coach. I see the same passion and energy in him as I did in Flip. And it’s clear that, like my own father did for me, Flip instilled in Ryan the values and principles to be a hard-working and productive member of society.
Ryan winning his coaching debut over Oklahoma City on January 8 was only one game, but it represented so much more to me and other Wolves fans whose passion for the game was encouraged by their fathers. I may not have become a professional athlete, but my love of sports led me to where I am today in broadcasting. And Ryan’s dedication has now led him to the position his father cherished the most.
While some may feel nepotism is at play, there’s no denying Ryan worked his way up. He’s been an NBA assistant for the last 10 years. And yes, if his last name was Johnson instead of Saunders, he probably wouldn’t be getting the same amount of attention (or even the opportunity) he is getting now. But I’m on board. I think he’s young, innovative, and most importantly, connects and encourages his players.
While Flip was a literal father to him, Ryan now has to be a father figure to his team. No one is pretending it’s going to be all sunshine and rainbows. But for once, there’s a sense of pride and passion around the Timberwolves that any father would be appreciate. Ryan Saunders is #OneOfUs.