In a year of firsts for the Saunders family, this one may have been the toughest.
Family members gathered at their cabin for the July Fourth holiday that patriarch Flip Saunders, the late president and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, cherished over any other.
Trepidation hung in the air as they made the one-hour drive from their home outside Minneapolis to Clearwater Lake. They had gotten through the first Christmas without Flip. Feb. 23, what would have been his 61st birthday, had come and gone. So had the first Father’s Day since his death last October from complications of Hodgkin lymphoma.
But the Fourth, that was always Flip’s favorite. It was his time to bring together so many of the people he loved – but rarely got to see during the hectic NBA season- for some good food, good company and a whiffle ball game between his Old Timers and son Ryan’s Young Guns. The cabin’s yard would be turned into a field, complete with an outfield fence, bleachers and a sound system for introductions.
Somewhere between 80 and 100 people returned last weekend for another game, another cookout, another celebration of family and friendship. They came to try to continue the healing process, to move forward but never move on, following Flip’s death.
”This was the hardest one,” said Debbie, Flip’s wife of 37 years. ”I can’t believe I’m saying that without crying. But I think because we did it the way we always did, it is exactly how he would have wanted it.”
But it was … different.
There was no sound system this year. Flip usually had a Wolves staffer bring speakers from the weight room at Target Center.
There were no sixth-inning rules changes that could abruptly shift the balance of power. Flip was the one who always stopped the game for that.
And the banter between the two teams was cordial. Flip was the one who got under Ryan’s skin and got the competitive juices flowing.
Ryan, an assistant coach with the Wolves, could feel it. As he squatted down to play catcher, he turned to his fiancee, Hayley Dulin.
”Hayles, you have no idea how it was,” he said. ”It was back and forth.”
Just two days earlier, Ryan proposed to Hayley in the gazebo near the field. One of the reasons he chose this weekend to pop the question was to try to turn a potentially somber occasion into a joyous one.
”There’s so many things I try to tell her,” Ryan said. ”She helped me through the toughest time. She saved me through everything. I knew her in college. And then we reconnected in the last year. I feel like the nudge that she needed after me being persistent for about three months was my dad telling her, `You gotta go save my son.”’
The Young Guns prevailed this time around, 3-0, but it wasn’t quite as intense as previous games. It wasn’t like the time when longtime family friend Jeff Vint, now father-in-law to one of Flip’s daughters, carried the championship belt given to the winner into the Hitching Post bar the night before a game a few years ago with Flip right behind him. The two barked at the young guys, got them all fired up, and may have snookered them into a few extra drinks.
”The next day we just hammered ’em,” a giggling Vint said. ”It was like 20-2 or something.”
This year family friend Steve Stinski had every jersey made with the No. 14 – Flip’s college number – on the back. They wore hats with ”Flip” written across the Timberwolves logo, and there was plenty of sheet cake and Mountain Dew – two of his favorites – on hand.
Everyone smiled, or tried to. Everyone laughed, or tried to. Everyone hasn’t moved forward but is trying to.
”People have no idea how hard it is,” Ryan said. ”They look around and see healing, but every time I walk into that building … ”
Ryan and his sister Rachel still work for the Timberwolves, and there are reminders everywhere. Pictures of Flip in the practice facility. Pins that say ”Flip” worn by team employees at Target Center. Opposing players who stop to offer their condolences.
”I think every first that we go through, those are hard enough. But it’s almost the in-betweens, the unexpected ones,” said Mindy Vint, the eldest of three daughters. ”It’s never going to be the same without him. But my dad would want us to always keep going and to celebrate and care for each other and carry on any part of him that we can.”
It took a while for Debbie to get back to the arena after Flip died.
”I didn’t know if I could do it,” she said. ”Maybe you’re numb a little bit, but the arena always felt like home. … It felt like it always was and Flip was on vacation or maybe a scouting trip or something. It always kind of felt right to be there, even though it was hard.”
She eventually became a fixture again next to her daughters at the games. She found comfort in watching the team her husband assembled grow up before her eyes while mourning the loss of a coach who was universally respected.
”I think there’s a little bit of pretending going on,” she said. ”If I see my kids doing OK, I feel OK. And vice versa. We’ve just been kind of bolstering each other up and leaning on our friends and trying to get through it.”
Ryan and Rachel could have left the Wolves to get out of the shadow, but there is a collective determination to finish what Flip started.
”I see the potential in these guys. I want so bad for them to be good because I know Flip was a big part of that,” Debbie said. ”I hope that that carries on with what (coach Tom Thibodeau) and (general manager Scott Layden) do. Basketball’s always been our world. I’ve always been that support there, the person behind the scenes that makes it right so he can go do his thing.”
That’s why last Sunday was so important.
As folks started walking to their cars to head back to the Twin Cities, a woman stood by her SUV and relayed the news of the day on her cellphone.
”The Young Guns won. They were just a little too much for the Old Timers,” she said. ”It was a good day.
”Everybody was happy.”