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Saunders Is Learning as He Goes
New Wizards Coach Has Embraced the Lessons at Every Stop in 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.

"It was very unique in that I learned from both. With Bill, it was attention to details when you're teaching and how hard you have to play," Saunders said. "From Jim Dutcher, it was many times you have to let players fix it. You can't always fix everything for them. Coach Dutcher believed you teach at practice with the idea of letting them perform. I try to use that philosophy a lot, to be very adaptable."

Saunders tried out for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers but when then-Coach Bill Fitch cut him, he told Saunders that he should put all of his energy into coaching. Having already accepted the job as Coach at Golden Valley Lutheran College in the Minneapolis suburbs, Saunders didn't consider Fitch's words a snub, but rather a nudge in the right direction.

Over the next four years, Saunders led his team to a 92-13 record and a 56-0 record at home. The experience helped him form his own philosophy and develop his style. "Most people go from assistant out of college then get a head job," said Saunders, who was younger than half of his team when he accepted the job at age 21. "Not knowing any better, I took the job and I've [coached] ever since until last year."

Saunders also began to formulate his sizeable playbook, compiling notes from his previous coaches into a three-ring binder. Dutcher invited Saunders back to Minnesota each year to teach the match-up zone defense and later asked him to serve as an assistant at his alma mater. After five seasons and one Big Ten championship, Saunders moved to Tulsa, where he spent two seasons working under J.D. Barnett, whom he describes as "probably one of the best defensive minds I've ever been around."

Musselman's influence returned about 13 years later when he asked Saunders to coach the Continental Basketball Association's Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers, whose general manager was Musselman's son, Eric. "Two weeks after I got there, the owners informed me that if we didn't win and draw people, they were probably going to fold the franchise," Saunders said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'What did I get myself into?' "

After leading Rapid City to a 22-game turnaround in his only season, he won two CBA championships and two CBA Coach of the Year awards with the La Crosse (Wis.) Catbirds. In seven seasons in the CBA, Saunders was forced to become more flexible, with players repeatedly getting called up to the NBA or moving over to Europe. "One year we went through 42 players," Saunders said. "That was one of the reasons, my playbook evolved so big, it was from the standpoint of always losing players and always having something that the players will feel comfortable with and be successful. What you learn to do is maximize their talent. It was like a dinosaur, you either adapt or die."

Saunders adapted and found himself in the NBA when he was hired by his former college teammate, Kevin McHale, with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves were a dreadful franchise only a few years removed from expansion and had lost at least 60 games for four consecutive seasons. Saunders took on another rebuilding project, and led Minnesota into the postseason in his first full season as coach.

Saunders said he was able to establish his core beliefs with the Timberwolves. He had four 50-win seasons in Minnesota. "My whole career there I was extremely lucky to have Kevin Garnett," Saunders said. "We always competed and I thought we always pretty much overachieved."

The blessing of Garnett was counteracted by the curse of being in "a monster" called the Western Conference. Saunders and Garnett had the misfortune of losing in the first round for seven consecutive years. "It was taxing on KG a little bit. He got crucified," Saunders said. "It was frustrating going through that at times. I was disappointed but it's not one of those things that I never went back and said, 'I really screwed up.' I think we competed at a very high level even though we got beat."

Saunders finally had a breakthrough in 2003-04, when Garnett won the league's most valuable player award and the Timberwolves advanced to the conference finals. Less than a year later, the team sputtered to a 25-26 record and Saunders was out of a job.

He then took over a situation unlike any other in his career. He replaced a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown and was hired to lead the Detroit Pistons, a team that had made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances and won a championship in 2004.

"At the time I took the job, people asked, 'Why would you go to that type of pressure cooker?' But I felt it was a challenge that I welcomed and I was looking forward to," said Saunders, who took the Pistons to three consecutive conference finals appearances but lost each time. "I learned that in order to win a championship, there is a process that you go through and you can't cheat the process. I think there were times, I gave them a lot of leeway."

Saunders also learned the importance of establishing solid relationships with his players. He already had a strong relationship with Chauncey Billups from their time in Minnesota, but by the end of his tenure, many of the Pistons did not respond to him. "They were pretty much who they were as a team," Saunders said.

After sitting out all of last season, Saunders was eager to bond with his new players. He set out to meet some in their home towns, called and sent text messages to others. "I was chomping at the bit," said Saunders, who will live in a rental apartment in Washington this season while his wife and daughters stay in Minnesota. "I didn't want the players to come into training camp and not have an understanding who I was, what are the things I believe and how open I was to communicate with them and listen them. So when training camp does start, they have a better understanding of me."

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