McCosky: Saunders deserved better from Pistons

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit –— He never struck out, not once, in three years playing varsity baseball at Cuyahoga Heights High School.

And baseball was his second sport.

These are the types of things I remember about Flip Saunders. His life was a collection of amazing accomplishments and fortuitous connections — and almost non-stop winning.

He led the state of Ohio in scoring his senior season, averaging 32 points a game. He was the state's Class A player of the year. He went to the University of Minnesota, started 101 of 103 games. Played alongside the likes of Kevin McHale, Ray Williams, Mychal Thompson and Tony Dungy.

His last three seasons there, the Gophers went 18-8, 16-10 and 24-3, but were not eligible for postseason play because of sanctions levied against coach Bill Musselman.

He went into coaching, starting at Golden Valley Lutheran College in St. Paul. His teams there never lost at home — 56-0. Imagine that.

He coached in the CBA, hired first by Eric Musselman, son of Bill Musselman, from 1988 through 1995. All he did there was win 30-plus games seven times and two CBA championships.

He was then brought to the Timberwolves and the NBA by McHale where, with the help of Kevin Garnett, he put that expansion franchise on the map — eight straight playoff appearances, getting as far as the Western Conference finals in 2003-04, the year the Pistons won the NBA title.

He came to the Pistons in 2005 and over the next three seasons posted a .715 winning percentage, leading the team to the conference finals each season.

Alone in Motown

Saunders' life, from my vantage point, seemed so blessed the last thing I expected was that the cancer would actually beat him. Turns out, sadly, cancer has a higher winning percentage.

Saunders was 60 when he died Sunday. The lymphoma he'd vowed to beat took a deadly turn last week.

I look back on my time with Flip, those three wonderful yet torturous seasons from 2005-08. I think of the magic tricks (he could have made a living as a magician). I think of all the late night-early morning phone calls (the man did not sleep). I think of all the famous people he knew, not just in sports but in music (Prince) and Hollywood (Jack Nicholson).

Yet, I remember how lonely he was in Detroit. His family stayed back in Minnesota and he was often out and about by himself.

I remember he once took me on a tour of the Minnesota campus. As he was showing me all his old favorite haunts, he pointed to a sporting goods store.

"I bought into it when I was still a student here," he said. "The only sporting goods store on campus. It was a gold mine."

By "bought into it," he meant he was part-owner. He scraped up a few thousand dollars, invested in the store and wound up turning a good-sized profit when sold his share. It was not a surprise to read that Saunders' net worth was over $30 million.

By any measure, this man was a success. When you tally it all up, he won more than 1,000 games in a coaching career that spanned 35 years. He won 654 games in 17 NBA seasons.

And yet, you may never meet a more unassuming person. By the time he got to the Pistons, he had won nearly 59 percent of his games as a coach, but he would steadfastly deflect credit onto his players.

As the Pistons were winning 64 games his first season, Saunders was content to let Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace have all the credit. If outsiders wanted to think he'd merely inherited the keys to a championship team and had nothing to do with its success, that was fine by him.

But it was so untrue and unjust. He put in a new offense without altering the team's defensive identity. He was able to take over a veteran team just off a championship and a heartbreaking loss in the 2005 Finals, one coached by the legendary Larry Brown, and quietly, unobtrusively, make it better.

Here's something Ben Wallace told me early in that 2005-2006 season.

"Flip didn't just come in and concede the fact that we were a good team and that we will win games. He came in, put his system in and he coached us. Some coaches might have come in here and been intimidated and not really willing to rock the boat. But he came in wanting to make us better.

"We learned a lot from him and he's learned a lot from us."

Funny, by the end of that season, after the team's meltdown in the conference finals, Ben Wallace was one of the first to throw Saunders under the bus.

"Why don't you go ask Flip what happened," Wallace said after one of the last bitter losses in 2006.

The players turn

Turns out being unassuming and nondescript, leading with a gentle hand didn't work on a player like Rasheed Wallace, whose personal meltdowns led to the team's ultimate collapse. Once Rasheed turned, the others (except Billups) followed and it was Saunders, naturally, who took the fall.

Saunders never bad-mouthed any of those players to me — on or off the record. He did what none of the players ever did. He manned up. He said the same thing he said when the team was winning — you are only successful as a coach if your players buy in to your program. It was clear the guys stopped buying in.

It was the third successful coach this core group of players had chewed through in eight years — Rick Carlisle, Brown and Saunders. By the time he fired Saunders, then-president Joe Dumars was getting pretty sick of shooting the same scapegoat.

I've always believed, and so did Flip, that Dumars hired Michael Curry to replace Saunders almost to spite the players. Like, OK, you don't like any of the guys I've hired, I will give you who you want. Here's your guy.

We all know how that worked out. The Pistons won 39 games, got swept out of first round of the playoffs and haven't had a winning season or made the playoffs since.

Saunders had a brilliant mind. His offensive system was progressive for its time. He was a superb strategist, as well, able to define and exploit an opposition's weaknesses.

His shortcoming, though, was his inability to express himself. He often struggled to verbalize his concepts. His brain worked faster than his mouth, especially in the huddle during games. He wasn't the verbal communicator or motivator Brown was.

But anybody who has been fortunate enough to listen to him calmly discuss his theories and ideas, anybody who has had the chance to sit with him during a game and listen to his running commentary or listen to him critically break down a player or a particular play in a game — the man had a deep understanding of the sport and how it should be played.

I pray basketball historians will give Phil "Flip" Saunders the respect he's earned.