Timberwolves' Saunders treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma
MINNEAPOLIS -- As Flip Saunders prepared for the franchise's first-ever No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, the Timberwolves' president of basketball operations was handling a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma.
MINNEAPOLIS - As Flip Saunders prepared for the franchise’s first-ever No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations was handling a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Wolves announced news of Saunders’ health Tuesday, saying his doctors have called his illness a “very treatable and curable form of cancer.” Saunders, 60, was diagnosed about two months ago during an examination by team doctor Sheldon Burns and immediately started treatment at Mayo Clinic.
“I am attacking this with the same passion I do everything in my life, knowing this is a serious issue,” Saunders said in a statement. “I also know that God has prepared me to fight this battle.”
Wolves owner Glen Taylor said Saunders told him the news soon after the diagnosis.
“As always, you are surprised and you are saddened to hear anybody having any health problems,” Taylor said.
Saunders was hired as president of basketball operations in May 2013 and replaced Rick Adelman as head coach in June 2014. He is expected to continue his work as both president and head coach.
“Though he is going to take some time off to get the treatments and stuff, we thought he could do the job,” Taylor said. “He certainly has the support staff for the day or so that he misses.”
Taylor said Saunders is not expected to be away from the team once the season starts in October.
“We don’t anticipate that. No,” Taylor said.
Saunders’ statement thanked Burns and Mayo Clinic “for their hard work in diagnosing my situation and creating a plan to help me achieve a cancer-free outcome.”
He added, “I am taking it step by step and day by day to understand how to best manage this process.”
Saunders, who played guard for the University of Minnesota from 1974-77, got his first NBA head coaching job with the Wolves in 1995. He led Minnesota to eight consecutive playoff appearances until he was fired in 2005. He went on to serve as head coach in Detroit and Washington.
The timeline of Saunders’ diagnosis earlier this summer coincided with the franchise’s important preparations for the first overall draft pick in team history.
The Wolves had a handful of prospects work out and interview at the new practice facility, Courts at Mayo Clinic Square, in the week or so before the June 25 draft. The Wolves then selected Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 pick.
On draft night, Saunders and general manager Milt Newton also traded second-round picks to get back into the first round and select former Apple Valley and Duke point Tyus Jones at No. 24.
Saunders didn’t stop there, adding European player Nemanja Bjelica and longtime NBA veteran Andre Miller to the roster this summer.
Taylor is confident in the Wolves’ support staff, including Newton and assistant coaches Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe, both former NBA head coaches.
“I think he has the right people around him,” Taylor said. “But at this point, I really think that he will continue his leadership. That is what it appears he will be able to do and we are anticipating that at this time.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer in which cells in the lymphatic system grow abnormally and spread beyond the lymphatic system. As it spreads, it can compromise the body’s immune system to fight infection.
The Mayo Clinic says advances in diagnosis and treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma have helped with the chances that a patient like Saunders can make a full recovery.
Former Wolves forward Gary Trent said the news of Saunders’ cancer hit him hard because a childhood friend is losing a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Trent saw Saunders while working out at Life Time Fitness at Target Center this week and thought his former coach “looked frail.”
“When I looked at (Saunders’) body, it made me think of my home boy,” Trent said. “I wasn’t thinking cancer because it didn’t come out. It’s just messed-up news, and I wish him the best.”
Current Wolves forward Shabazz Muhammad tweeted about Saunders on Tuesday: “Prayers go out to Coach Saunders and the family he will be back on the court in no time! #wolvesunited”
Beyond Trent and Muhammad, many NBA teams and local organizations such as the Vikings and Minnesota United FC expressed well-wishes toward Saunders.
“It shows that he’s very well respected and loved by the people around our NBA family,” Taylor said. “Almost everybody knows him, so I just think that is the natural feeling about people that care about their peers in the league.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.