Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders takes time to decompress, reconnect with family


Wizards Coach Flip Saunders talks to forward Kevin Seraphin last season. (Steve Yeater)
October 20, 2011

Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders suffered a huge loss in March when his mother, Kay, died at age 90 after a long illness, but coaching provided him with a way to channel his pain and not dwell.

When the regular season ended and he had no more games to prepare for, had watched his last bit of game film and had offered his final piece of advice to departing players, Saunders was forced to confront the sorrow.

“You do come to grips. I had an opportunity,” Saunders said in a recent telephone interview. “I think the one thing that does happen when you become a little more removed, you try to put it out of your mind, and you forget a little bit about how she suffered maybe at the end. And what happens is, you just kind of think about the good times.”

The NBA lockout has already resulted in the elimination of summer league, the postponement of training camps and the cancellation of the preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season. With team employees prohibited from contacting players, Saunders has had to adjust his usual preparation. But he still met regularly with members of his staff in Washington and Minnesota, devising a game plan for the upcoming season.

He was also afforded the opportunity to spend more time with his family and make more frequent trips to suburban Cleveland to be with his father, Walter, who is alone for the first time after 65 years of marriage.

Saunders provided his father with some much-needed companionship, helped him clean up when the basement flooded and brought flowers to the cemetery every opportunity he could. He spoke to his mother at the grave site and reflected on pleasant memories.

His mother’s funeral prompted family members to organize a reunion for nearly 100 people in Columbus, Ohio, where they held a clambake this summer. “I think the one thing that this did, for coaches, especially for coaches that have been in it for a while and gone through the rigors, you’ve had a chance to decompress and really gear up moving forward,” Saunders said of his extended offseason. “I probably spent more time [at home] in the last year than I did the previous five or six years combined, because of getting back as much as I could when my mom was sick and, of course, because of our situation, just having time to be there.”

Even through he had more down time, Saunders said he never lost his focus on improving a team that has gone just 49-115 since he took over before the 2009-10 season. His coaching staff has changed, with Wes Unseld Jr. leaving to become an assistant with the Golden State Warriors and Mike Wells assuming a job as an assistant at George Mason. But Randy Wittman, Sam Cassell, Don Zierden, Gene Banks and Saunders’s son, Ryan, were retained after signing two-year extensions that would keep them for the duration of Saunders’s four-year, $18 million pact with the Wizards.

Saunders brought his assistants together to break down film and discuss strategies over dinners in Washington, while having individual meetings with Wittman and Zierden, who live in Minnesota, like Saunders, during the offseason.

“Coaches are challenging each other, them challenging me and me challenging them, how we’re doing things, what can we do to be better? I think that’s been a real positive,” Saunders said. “Everything was handled the same as always. Going through and watching every one of our games, our staff went through and broke them down in a more extensive way. Just doing what normally we had been doing, but having a bit more free time.”

Back in Washington, Saunders and his son, Ryan, attended Georgetown practice this week, and Saunders plans to visit more college practices with other assistants next week. Saunders said two or three assistants are usually in town and that the staff is organized and prepared.

Since taking over the Wizards, Saunders has encountered some unusual circumstances, having to deal with the fallout from the Gilbert Arenas gun incident, then trying to guide the team through a painful rebuilding process. And now, NBA Commissioner David Stern has vowed to eliminate more games should the owners and players’ union fail to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The two sides met with a mediator this week in an effort to reach a settlement, but talks ended Thursday.

Saunders cannot talk specifically about the lockout — violators risk a hefty fine — but this is not uncharted territory for him. He was coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves during the previous work stoppage in 1998-99, when the league had a 50-game season.

“Any time you’ve been in any situation, experience always helps because you have an idea of how things go and how to go about it and how to prepare,” Saunders said. “The league has changed a lot. It’s changed drastically from when I first came in the league. We didn’t have as much of an emphasis on the summer, working with guys, so you had more of a chance to decompress.

“But the more I got into it, because other teams are spending more time, it just became something everyone started doing, start spending so much time working with players and going to summer league. You didn’t have as much of a chance to decompress prior to the season and gear up.”

But Saunders has certainly had his share of time, using the opportunity to heal — and connect more with his father. “With my mom passing away during the season, I tried to make a conscious effort to get back and see him as much as possible, to kind of be around him,” he said.

“Everyone this past summer has probably gone through a situation where they had an opportunity to spend more time with their loved ones and their family and doing things you normally haven’t had the opportunity to do as much. But still always preparing, like we normally would.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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