For Wizards players and coaches, trip to Minnesota serves as a homecoming

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009; D07

The Washington Wizards have seven coaches and players with ties to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but when the two teams meet on Saturday, Coach Flip Saunders and Randy Foye will be the most visible participants, both looking forward to the game for different reasons.

Saunders, the most successful coach in the 20-year history of the franchise, will get to spend time at home with his family and reunite with a beloved fan base. Foye, who spent the first three years of his career in Minnesota before getting traded to Washington this June, will get to reflect some on what could have been while trying to move forward with his current team.

"I have a lot of mixed feelings about it," Foye said of his anticipated return, "but I definitely want to win there. I want to win by a lot."

The Wizards have seemingly been fascinated with Minnesota since hiring Saunders in April. Saunders rounded up some of his former Minnesota assistants, longtime friend and colleague Don Zierden and Randy Wittman, who also served as Timberwolves head coach for parts of three seasons before his dismissal last December. Saunders also added Sam Cassell, who spent two seasons in Minnesota, earning his lone all-star appearance while representing the team in 2003-04.

The Wizards later traded the fifth overall pick to Minnesota as part of a package that yielded Foye and Mike Miller, who is still nursing a strained right calf and sprained left shoulder. Mike James, who was on the Timberwolves during Foye's rookie season, was already with the team before Saunders's arrival but is on the inactive list.

"It's funny how things happen," Foye said. "We was all in Minnesota and we all get moved at different times and end up back in here in Washington."

Saunders still maintains a home in suburban Minneapolis, where his wife, Debbie, stayed behind while their twin daughters, Rachel and Kimberly, finish high school. After the Wizards defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 109-97, on Wednesday, Saunders and his son, Ryan, an assistant on his staff, drove for more than five hours to Minnesota to spend Christmas Eve with family. The team joined Saunders for a Christmas celebration at his home on Friday.

"I thought the schedule gods were making up for all of the bad parts of our schedule. They were giving us one little carrot," said Saunders, whose oldest daughter, Mindy, attends the University of Minnesota. "It's always nice when you have a chance to get back with your family."

'It's always nostalgia'

Saunders went 411-326 in nearly 10 seasons with the franchise, leading the Timberwolves to eight playoff appearances and one trip to the Western Conference finals, all with future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. But to this day, the moment that remains etched in his mind is the morning of May 20, 2000, when Malik Sealy died in a car accident. "I think in all my years coaching, that was probably the toughest thing that I've ever had to deal with," Saunders said. "There are times I still wake up now at 4:06, because the call came at 4:06 from the police station."

Saunders said he still gets chills when he enters Target Center and sees Sealy's No. 2 jersey hanging in the rafters. In three seasons with the Pistons, Saunders went 5-1 against his former team and said that it is always special to return to Minneapolis, where he has yet to lose in three games as an opposing coach.

"It's always nostalgia going back there," Saunders said. "The personnel, the players, a lot of those guys aren't there. But [Owner Glen Taylor] is still there, and a lot of the fans are."

Saunders attended several Timberwolves games last season, when he was on a one-year hiatus from coaching, and has watched the team fall on some hard times since his departure. The Timberwolves have failed to make the playoffs or win more than 33 games in a full season without him. Kevin McHale, the longtime face of the organization, was dismissed last summer as coach after replacing Wittman and had already been stripped of his duties as the primary decision-maker for the organization, a position he had held since 1995.

"The way the attendance was and everything else, at some point, someone has to be the scapegoat and go," Saunders said about McHale. Their longtime friendship was damaged when McHale, Saunders's former college teammate at the University of Minnesota, fired him in 2005. Saunders didn't speak to McHale for nearly 10 months afterward.

New Timberwolves General Manager David Kahn dismissed McHale as coach and quickly shook up his roster by dispatching Foye and Miller. He then used the No. 5 pick on Spanish teenage sensation Ricky Rubio, who decided to stay in Europe rather than make an immediate jump to the NBA. The trade upset Foye, who had progressed in each of his first three seasons in Minnesota, and was looking to buy a home in the area last offseason.

Foye said he had a place in mind but was reluctant to make the purchase, which actually worked out for the best when Foye's biggest ally within the organization, McHale, left. He said Kahn refused to meet with him to discuss his future with the organization. "It was clear what he wanted to do," Foye said. "I'm looking at it like, 'I'm one of the top two or three players on this team and you don't want to meet with me? It's clear what you're trying to do.' If McHale wouldn't have gotten fired, I felt I would've been there for at least another three to four years."

'I love Minnesota'

Foye was never able to fully win over fans in Minnesota and constantly drew comparisons to Portland guard Brandon Roy, whom the Timberwolves drafted sixth but swapped in exchange for Foye and cash. Roy has since won rookie of the year and made two all-star appearances, while Foye has just recently cracked the Wizards' starting lineup with Miller sidelined.

"The media made a bigger thing out of the Foye-Roy thing. Sometimes I was fighting against the fans that was reading it and I was fighting against our media," Foye said. "But I love Minnesota. . . . That's the team I felt as though believed in me and believed in what I can do. My biggest thing, I'm just excited about going back and seeing a lot of old faces."

Foye said that he held on to the hope of building something special with former teammates Al Jefferson, Kevin Love, Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes. He said he still watches the Timberwolves and is a little hurt that he couldn't complete his task there. "I was in shock. That's my first time being traded. I felt as though I was the key piece to what they were trying to do there, even with the change," Foye said. "When they made the move, it was no looking back. They made changes, I guess they got what they wanted."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company