New Wizards Coach Flip Saunders Is Learning as He Goes Throughout His Career

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

He could have paid attention to the kids at school and at the playground who told him that he had no chance. After all, he was only 5 feet 2. What made Philip Saunders think he could possibly play, let alone start, for the varsity as a freshman at Cuyahoga Heights? He was a gym rat with a lethal jump shot, but he was just too small.

After only a few games with the freshman and junior varsity squads, Coach Bill Coy promoted him to the varsity -- a first for the school -- and it upset several parents, who threatened to take their sons off the team. But by the time Saunders graduated as an all-American from his tiny high school in suburban Cleveland, he learned one of the most important lessons of his basketball career.

"Don't listen to what people say," Saunders said, "because they don't understand the will that you have."

The Washington Wizards hired Flip Saunders to teach them how to win again after the team endured its worst season in franchise history. Beginning with training camp that opens Tuesday in Richmond, Saunders will formally pass along the knowledge that he has accrued over the past 30 years as a coach at the NBA, CBA, college and junior college level.

He has learned lessons each step of the way, collecting the Xs and Os knowledge that comprises his extensive playbook and acquiring the rapport to best motivate players. And while his new players will look to him for guidance, Saunders believes that there is always more for him to learn.

"As a coach, when you stop learning, it's time to get out of the game. You should be learning every day," said Saunders, 54, who signed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Wizards. "I think the greatest thing you learn is to not take the game for granted, but give back to the game and respect the game. If you give something back good, it's going to give back two-fold."

Saunders's commitment to basketball is rooted in the training he received from his father, Walter, a former Marine who stressed discipline without ever raising his voice. Saunders picked up that personality trait but also the belief that "you could accomplish a lot of things with hard work and sticking to things," he said.

When he was told that he would never be able to play in the Big Ten, Saunders got a scholarship from Minnesota after Adrian Dantley opted for Notre Dame. By then he was 5-11, and he went on to start 101 of 103 games for the Golden Gophers. Saunders had rejected overtures from Maryland and landed at the school where he could learn matchup zone defense from coach Bill Musselman.

Musselman was taught the system as a player at Wittenberg University (Ohio) by Ray Mears, who later guided a long-haired, mustached forward named Ernie Grunfeld at the University of Tennessee. Grunfeld is now the Wizards' president of basketball operations.

Saunders has written a book about the defensive scheme, which uses man-to-man principles within a zone concept, and has used it at every stop of his coaching career. "When he was in college, he hardly ever taught us offense. All he did was teach defense," Saunders said of Musselman, whom he describes as the "ultimate disciplinarian."

Saunders recalls his freshman year, when Musselman made his team run the stadium steps and two miles with 30-pound weighted vests -- then made the players run more afterward if Musselman beat them in pushup competitions. "He had an unbelievable intensity level," Saunders said. "Losing was not in his repertoire."

Under the cloud of rules violations that eventually placed the school on probation, Musselman was fired following Saunders's sophomore year and replaced by Jim Dutcher. Dutcher was the opposite of the fiery Musselman, giving his players more freedom to make decisions. The team went 24-3 when Saunders was a senior.

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