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Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders passes away after battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders walks onto the court during the team's summer league practice at Target Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Minnesota Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders died Sunday after a four-month battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 60 years old.

Saunders, who was not expected to return to the team this season, was hospitalized last month when his conditioned worsened.

The Wolves, who open the season Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Lakers, cancelled practice Sunday and might reschedule their Monday flight to the west coast.

When the team announced Saunders’ leave of absence Sept. 11, his assistant Sam Mitchell took over as interim coach. General manager Milt Newton assumed the daily operations of the organization.

“Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion and dignity for our organization,” Wolves 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.

“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. We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss.”

Dozens of Saunders’ former players took to social media Sunday to pay their respects.

“Today, the guy who believed in me since day 1 passed away,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said on Instagram. “He was all smiles passionate and really loved this game. He gave everything to the Timberwolves and did amazing things for us. He was our leader. Really gonna miss you coach. RestInPeace Flip.”

Second-year Wolves guard Zach LaVine’s Instagram post on Saunders said: “Thank you for everything you have done for me coach! U will Truly be missed. I know God will take good care of you and keep your family safe!#TwolvesFamily love ya Flip.”

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

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said in a statement that “the Timberwolves have lost a brilliant leader, and Minnesota has lost an outstanding citizen. I extend my deepest condolences to Flip’s team, family, and friends.”

Saunders’ illness didn’t appear terminal when he first went public with his condition in August, calling it a “very treatable and curable form of cancer.”

Saunders was diagnosed in June by team doctor Sheldon Burns and started treatment at Mayo Clinic soon after. Taylor said at the time that he didn’t expect Saunders to be away from the team once the season started.

“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 on Aug. 12.

Saunders, who grew up in Ohio, played guard for the University of Minnesota from 1974-77.

He met his wife, Debbie, at the U. They have four children: Ryan, Mindy, Rachel and Kimberly.

Ryan Saunders is a Wolves assistant coach who followed his dad’s footsteps to play guard for the Gophers.

Jim Dutcher, who coached the Gophers from 1975-86, remembered that Saunders was the team’s MVP as a senior in 1976-77, which is saying something on a squad that included great players like Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson.

“He was the guy that made the team go,” Dutcher said. “He played that point guard spot where we didn’t have a backup. He wasn’t our best player, but he was our most valuable player. He was the one guy we couldn’t do without.”

Saunders’ first coaching job was at Golden Valley Lutheran Community College in Minnesota from 1977-81. Following that stint, Saunders worked as a college assistant at his alma mater from 1981-86 and Tulsa from 1986-88.

His first professional head-coaching position was with the Rapid City Thrillers of the Continental Basketball Association in 1988-89. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan was a player on the team.

“I thought he did a great job just developing the team, bringing us together,” Donovan said before an exhibition game with the Wolves this month. “He was light-hearted in practice. I thought he really made it enjoyable and fun to work. I think he created a lot of good chemistry out of our team.”

Saunders coached in the CBA with the La Crosse Bobcats and Sioux Falls Sky Force before heading to the NBA.

As the Wolves coach from 1995-2005, Saunders guided the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances and a franchise-best 58-24 record in 2003-04, which resulted in a trip to the Western Conference finals.

He became the all-time leader in wins in franchise history with a record of 411-326 (.558) in nearly 10 seasons. He also coached the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards.

In May 2013, Taylor brought Saunders back to be the Wolves’ president of basketball operations. He replaced Rick Adelman as head coach in June 2014.

The Wolves finished with an NBA-worst 16-66 record last season under Saunders, but they won the NBA draft lottery and selected Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns as the No. 1 pick.

Saunders made a seemingly tough decision picking Towns over polished Duke center Jahlil Okafor. He also acquired Tyus Jones, the Cavaliers’ first-round pick, to bring the Apple Valley native home in hopes of developing the rookie point guard alongside Rubio.

“I’ve been thinking for 30 minutes of what to say but words can’t describe how special and important Coach Saunders was to me,” Towns said on Instagram. “I want to thank you coach for giving me the opportunity to play in the NBA and achieve my dream. I know the man above has a special place for you in his kingdom and this world, this league, this family will never be the same. I love you coach and I’m going to miss you so so much.”

The Wolves have a talented young core of players Saunders put together: Towns, Jones, former No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad.

Saunders also balanced the roster out with veterans Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince.

“Flip and I had a great relationship,” Garnett said at the start of training camp. “I had a great rapport with his son (Ryan).”

Saunders’ last news conference this summer was to welcome EuroLeague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, a Serb who finally joined the team after being drafted in 2010.

Those close to Saunders and people around the NBA had hoped he would be healthy enough to be around to see what the team he built could accomplish this season.

“Before you talk anything about the Twolves, you just certainly send thoughts and prayers to Flip,” ESPN NBA analyst and former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson said this week. “Outstanding basketball mind, but more importantly an outstanding person, class and quality. Certainly thinking about him and praying for him and his family.”