- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

New Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders is a hoops lifer, a former brainy point guard forever immersed in the game. “A basketball junkie,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said.

But Saunders does have at least one interesting hobby: He is an amateur magician.

“I’m great at kids’ birthday parties,” he said after his official introduction Thursday at Verizon Center. “I’m a big hit.”

It was that kind of atmosphere, with balloons overhead and Saunders’ picture splashed on the arena’s big scoreboard. There also were loads of children present because it was bring-your-child-to-work day.

For his next trick, the 54-year-old will attempt to transform a 63-game loser into a playoff contender.

Back on the sidelines after he was fired by the Detroit Pistons a year ago, Saunders brings to town a .597 career winning percentage and 11 playoff appearances in 13 seasons as a head coach - eight with the Minnesota Timberwolves and three with the Pistons.

He also carries with him a reputation as a “nice guy,” and all that suggests, good or bad. He heard that a lot in blue-collar Detroit, where life is tough, where the “Bad Boys” once wreaked havoc and are still idolized.

Saunders acknowledged being saddled with the reputation. “I think so,” he said. “But if nice guys can win 59 games a year, it’s OK.”

That’s what the Pistons averaged, but he never got the team past the conference finals after replacing Larry Brown. Detroit had just won it all when Saunders took over, and he was canned with a year remaining on his contract.

But not, he said, because he was too easygoing.

“Sometimes you’ve got to be tough on them,” he said. “But I live by the golden rule. I treat people like I want to be treated. … I’m not a yeller. In front of fans I shouldn’t have to yell. Some of the best teachers I ever had never raised their voices to me when I was in school.”

As a 5-foot-11 point guard at the University of Minnesota, Saunders experienced the contrast between playing for the volatile, hyperkinetic Bill Musselman and then Jim Dutcher, who was more laid-back. Musselman, he said, “was on me so hard that you couldn’t believe it.”

Dutcher, on the other hand, “believed in giving me responsibility,” Saunders said. “I think in the long haul, the more you can get players to accept responsibility and be able to make decisions that you’ve kind of incorporated into them, you have a better chance to have to some success.

“You can’t treat everybody the same,” he said. “But you treat everybody fair. As a coach, that’s what I’ve always tried to do. You have to find the temperament of your team and what motivates them. Some players aren’t motivated by [yelling].”

In a decade of coaching the Timberwolves, Saunders said, he never once screamed at Kevin Garnett.

“I never had to,” he said. “The guy practiced so hard and did everything he did, if I found a way to yell at him I’d almost feel bad.

“A lot just depends. There might be some players, if they’re not doing it, you can get your point across. You don’t necessarily have to scream at them. I want my players to play loose. I don’t want them to be robots. I don’t want them to have to worry about me, screaming at them for a shot or whatever.”

Saunders’ ascent to the NBA coaching ranks included four years as a junior college head coach, seven years a college assistant (five at Minnesota) and seven years in the Continental Basketball Association, where he is third in career victories. A high school All-American and big-time scorer in suburban Cleveland, his main job with the Golden Gophers was getting the ball to future NBA players Kevin McHale (who, as general manager of the Timberwolves, would later hire and fire him), Mychal Thompson and Ray Williams.

“I played because I was the only guy who would take it out of bounds,” he said.

Not really. Saunders started all four years and ran the show on the court. “I was a cerebral player,” he said. “But I still might be the best shooter that walks in [the Wizards’] practice facility every day.”

That wouldn’t be a good sign.

“You haven’t seen me shoot, now,” he said.

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