Wizards Coach Flip Saunders honors deceased mother Kay at spirited practice

Flip Saunders said his mother, Kay, was
Flip Saunders said his mother, Kay, was "an unbelievable fan of the NBA. If I wanted to know more about the NBA, I called her." (Jonathan Newton)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011

Philip Daniel Saunders was named after his two grandfathers, but he got his nickname from his mother Kay, who decided she would call her next son "Flip" after hearing a customer use the name at her beauty salon in suburban Cleveland. Kay Saunders also gave her son his feisty, fiery spirit and pushed him to always do his best.

Flip Saunders always credited his mother with being one of his staunchest supporters - from the time he grew up playing pickup basketball at parks on Cleveland's east side to now, as he serves as head coach of the Washington Wizards.

But for the first time on Saturday, Saunders will lead his team against the Minnesota Timberwolves knowing that his mother won't be around to root him on. Kay Saunders died at age 90 on Friday after battling deteriorating health for the past few months.

Her son received the news shortly after he left her bedside at a hospice, where she rested after being taken off life support earlier in the week. "I left her and got on the plane and had the news when I landed," Saunders said, as he held back tears after practice on Friday. "You get there and you think, 'What are you going to do?' "

After contemplating going right back, Saunders decided to go to work instead and led the Wizards through a loose but spirited practice. By focusing on offensive and defensive schemes, and making his players take extra time shooting free throws - a problem that has plagued his team in recent losses to Golden State and Dallas - Saunders was able to get his mind away from his own personal struggles.

"With the players, they are like family," Saunders said. "It's a good outlet. That's part of the situation, being around the team and being with the team, as much as anything, that helps anyone deal with any situation. Good to get back, see the guys."

Saunders said he plans to coach against the Timberwolves on Saturday, but will leave the team afterward, missing Sunday's game in Detroit, to attend the wake and the funeral. His father, Walter, who was married to Kay for nearly 65 years, encouraged Saunders to keep coaching.

"My dad said, when I talked to him this morning, 'She would want you to coach, especially because you're going against Minnesota,' " said Saunders, who led the Timberwolves for nearly nine years and keeps an offseason home in Minneapolis.

Lead assistant Randy Wittman will coach the team against the Pistons, having already led the team to a win over Indiana on Dec. 29 - when Kay Saunders first became ill - and a loss against Golden State on Wednesday, when Saunders visited her to say his goodbyes.

Kay Saunders had been in intensive care for the past few months and the Wizards' coach missed a few practices and used his off days to visit her.

Saunders and his older brother Greg contemplated taking her off life support in late January, but elected to do another procedure to remove fluid from her lungs and see how she responded. After the Wizards defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 13 for their only road win of the season, Saunders's thoughts drifted to his mother.

"I'm sure they had the game on for her, whether she was awake or whatever, I'm sure somebody said something to her," Saunders said afterward. "She probably knows that we won."

Saunders always praised her fighting spirit, once joking about how she defended her son's detractors while in a nursing home. He left the team on Tuesday, when she was taken off life support. The family thought she would die "relatively quick," he said, but she lived another three days.

"They called her the Miracle Grandma at the hospital," Saunders said with a smile, before offering somewhat of eulogy, "but she was an unbelievable fan of the NBA. If I wanted to know more about the NBA, I called her, because she watched all day. She watched NBA TV. She knew everything that was going on.

"She knew everything about our players. She's a huge fan of the Wizards. I remember earlier in the year, we lost to Orlando by one. We lost to Miami by one. She called up and said, 'Those are wins. I'm counting those as wins.' I told her to call the league and let them know."

At the end of Friday's practice, the players placed their hands in a circle and broke with the word, "family!" That word probably had more meaning for the team as its leader - and his son, Ryan, an assistant - deals with the loss of a loved one.

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