Former Gopher Hoopster Takes His Leave

Marc Elliott

MINNEAPOLIS…. Current Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, and former Minnesota Golden Gopher point guard Phillip “Flip” Saunders passed away Sunday at the age of 60. He had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma back in June but his prognosis for recovery was good. Hodgkin’s patients have about an 80% recovery rate. But after chemotherapy treatments Saunders developed pneumonia, slipped into a coma and never recovered or regained consciousness. Saunders is survived by his wife and 4 adult children. He is also survived by every person in the North Star State that ever cared a lick about basketball.

I have said this before but I am not a hoops guy, I am a follower of the almighty puck. But I have long supported any Minnesota sports endeavors and all University sports programs. I saw my first Gopher basketball game in 1963 with my dad, and I can still smile broadly when I recall walking through the entryway into the Barn for the first time and seeing players wearing Maroon and Gold in pregame warm-ups upon that fabled raised floor. The total atmosphere of that experience left quite an impression on that 9 year old kid.

In High School my ’U’ fandom was broadened by a casual acquaintance with two classmates whose father was the Sports Information Director at the time. Through them we always got a little more of the story behind the story that you may not have read in the newspapers. For instance, I remember how revved up one of them was the morning after the infamous brawl between the Gophers and Ohio State basketball teams at the Barn the evening before. He and another classmate were there in person and stated that it was pretty crazy when the melee began. It ended up being a stain on Gopher basketball that still may not be totally washed away. It was that ugly….

But by the time the 74-75 season rolled around there were some new faces on the team and change was in the air. One of them was a freshman point guard named Phil Saunders. Somewhere along the line his mother Kay bestowed the nickname “Flip” upon him. He was a short 5’ 11” player who was known as an overachiever in High School, and also as a very intelligent player who lived for the game and all he could learn from it. The Gopher Coach at the time, Bill Musselman, was also a different cat, very smart and with a very unique approach to how he taught and coached he game and he and Saunders seemed like an immediate match.

One of the things that Musselman had the team do was a Harlem Globetrotter-like warm-up drill, and this drove fans wild. I mean, it was something to see and the first player out onto the court with basketballs spinning on each index finger was none other then Saunders. By the look on his face I would say that he reveled in his role with the warm-up drill and he excelled at it. Flip played 4 years at the ‘U’ and dare I say it left an imprint on him that lasted his lifetime.

He went on to coach Junior college, he assisted with the Gophers, then the CBA experience, then into the NBA with the T-Wolves, Wizards, and Pistons, and he had some measurable success at each stop save for maybe his time with the Wizards, all the while Saunders was weaving himself into the cultural tapestry of Twin Cities and Minnesota basketball lore. There aren’t many in our state who have achieved single name recognition, but surely Flip was one of them. He was such an accepted part of the Minnesota scene that, 24 hours beyond the time I found out about his passing I still can’t really believe this has happened. Flip, to merely thank you for what you have brought to us since coming here 43 years back would be woefully inadequate so I’m not even going to try. Rest in Peace….

WE HAVE ENTERED INTO WEEK 4 of the young NHL season and there are some early NHL Power Rankings emerging now. I read some and give them thought, I read some and laugh, and I have developed my own in the past, but not on a consistent basis. Most of them are entertainment and most don’t have a lot of value to them. So what if someone says the Thunder Bay Trout Kings are the 7th best NHL team in late October? So I have learned to take them with a grain of salt. However, if you really enjoy tracking this type of info it could help gauge a specific teams progress throughout the year if you keep an eye on their rank and match it up with league Division and Conference standings.  

I am going to pump up one Power Ranking service though that I do check frequently and I think this particular one might be one Power rank with a semblance of some accuracy as to where a team is at on a weekly basis. If you would like, just Google up the Sagarin NHL Rankings. They are, I believe, updated daily and are easily found in one major publication and online. I like the Sagarin in College Football and for the NFL and NHL. The Sagarin takes into account “the predictor“, where the only factor that would matter would be the score. Then “Golden Mean”, which utilizes actual scores, and finally “Recent”, whereby, recent scores are weighted more then previous scores at an earlier stage of a season.

They arrive at an overall rating combining these three factors to come up with rank. For instance right now the Minnesota Wild, after yesterdays debacle at Winnipeg, are rated the same they were prior to that tilt, in the 14th spot. Well, I winced about that a bit and then after giving it some additional thought came to the conclusion that that is probably a fair rank at this juncture all things considered. Who have the Wild beat? Who have they lost to and how? I’m not unlike any Wild fan in that I want them in the one spot all season long. The reality is that they are 5-2-1 after the Jet loss and have only beaten one team above them in the Power Rank. Darn that real data based rank! PEACE