Flip Saunders had just joined the Minnesota Timberwolves as the organization’s general manager in 1995 when he combined with Kevin McHale to draft Kevin Garnett- the first high school player drafted into the NBA in two decades. Soon, Saunders became the struggling team’s head coach, tasked with nourishing Garnett’s growth. The pair developed a substantive, lasting relationship and Garnett matured into the league’s MVP. They both went their separate ways and reunited when Garnett agreed to a trade that sent him back to the Timberwolves last year. Saunders died from cancer in October at the age of 60.
The following is an interview Saunders conducted for ‘Boys Among Men,’ lightly edited for clarity.
What has most stuck out to you about coaching a young Kevin Garnett?
Saunders: Well I think maturity, but more than anything, that kid’s respect for the game. I mean, he came into the league and was the first player in 25 years since [Bill] Willoughby to come into the league [directly from high school]. He had great knowledge of the players that had played and what they’d accomplished, and basically what opportunities that they gave him. Just his whole respect that we saw—Bill Russell was Mr. Russell. Mr. [Jerry] West, Mr. [Elgin] Baylor, everything was always mister. I think he came in and to have that kind of respect for the league and the players that were in the league, it made him feel where he had an obligation to how he performed, how he prepared for his games, to come in and prepare ultimately to have success every time he stepped on the court.
Garnett was cognizant of the game’s history from the beginning?
Saunders: He was very much a preparation guy. He was always locked into what he was doing. I thought he had basically a photographic memory in that he could remember everything. I remember times where we’d play somebody four years later and he’d say “Four years ago, we got him to pick and roll this way,” against Tim Duncan or somebody good. He was very much a student of the game and he was like that from day one. And he came with a little bit of an edge. When he played, he knew that there were so many people who said he wouldn’t be able to succeed. I remember the first game he ever played in exhibition was against Milwaukee when [Glenn] Robinson kind of went after him a little bit, chirped at him a little bit…I remember every time that we played those guys from then on, his intensity to play against those guys was at a different level. I remember he had one time when Glenn Robinson, he scored on him. A year later, it was one of those things where he took the pride that he was going to try to dominate those guys because they had questioned him when he first came into the league.
How did Kevin react to the veteran leadership on the team as a young player?
Saunders: We set up some safety nets, so we were very much aware. We signed Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter. We winded up having two guys, veteran players, that could show him what it was to be professional. And those guys were very important in the locker room in his maturation over the years…Christian Laettner was the best player on the team at that time. I think he questioned how good Kevin was going to be or what he was going to be. Christian said something about Kevin and Sam said, “Hey, that’s the ticket. That’s the franchise right there. If you can’t deal with it, you’re probably not going to be around here.”
How did Kevin handle the jealousy he received from teammates and around the league?
Saunders: I guess the thing I’ve always respected about Kevin is his only agenda that he has is to do what it takes to win. That’s all he really cared about. He never cared about fanfare. He very rarely went out on the road. Later, he started going out to some restaurants, but early, he pretty much kept to himself because he knew that there were people at hotels, not tons and tons of people, but people waiting to get autographs because he was a high school kid. He wasn’t totally comfortable with that whole situation. He just wanted to play ball and go out and compete and play.
How were the practices with him?
Saunders: When it’s your best player, those other guys don’t have a choice [to play hard]. I mean Kevin is a pretty dynamic guy in practice. When it comes to practice, he’s an alpha dog. You either follow him or he’s going to run right over you. He believes that everyone should give 100 percent all the time. If we are talking about an exhibition game, he wanted to play, [when] we wanted to rest him. He played for the fans. We had to tell [equipment manager] Clayton [Wilson] to go hide his uniform because he was looking in the equipment room for where his uniform was because he wanted to go out and play. That’s just how he was.