MINNEAPOLIS - Ryan Saunders admitted it was emotional, and also complicated, back when he was named the Timberwolves’ interim head coach in January.
Saunders got the job he always wanted, but not in the way in which he hoped to receive it. His promotion was a ripple effect of the firing of Tom Thibodeau, who Saunders worked under and greatly respected.
Tuesday was different. Saunders sat the dais in the Target Center lobby, now as the Wolves’ official, permanent bench boss — not because of circumstance, but because he was selected as the right man to guide the team he loves for the foreseeable future.
“It is different in a way of, you feel that going through this process helps solidify, one, your position,” Saunders said. “But also it helps solidify credibility.”
This position was not given to Saunders, he won it. New Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas made that clear in his opening statement Tuesday.
Rosas put to bed any rumors that he had “commitments that I had to abide by,” hires he had to make or people he had to keep.
“That couldn’t be any further from the truth,” Rosas said.
Team owner Glen Taylor gave Rosas just one mandate re: the head coaching position.
“He said, ‘Hey, it’s your responsibility, it’s your decision,’ ” Rosas recalled. ” ‘I want you to go out there and find the best candidate for this organization.’ ”
So Rosas went to work. He started with the incumbent. Saunders had overwhelming support from the organization, including Taylor, and the players, but Rosas had to dig a little deeper.
Saunders and Rosas had an existing relationship Rosas referred to as a “friendship” dating back about 10 years. Rosas recalled when Tim Connelly, now Denver’s president of basketball operations, told him about this young, energetic coach who had developed an iPad program for NBA coaches to use.
“Here you had this young guy at an NBA coaching staff,” Rosas said, “pitching technology at a time when that was not popular to do.”
So Rosas linked up with Saunders, and immediately noticed his passion, fire and perspective for doing things differently.
But Rosas had to go far deeper to determine if Saunders was the right man for this job. He spent days with Saunders, learning about his philosophies, methods and plan for the future of this team. And then he went to others.
Rosas said the Wolves job was highly coveted on the market, adding that coaches looking for NBA opportunities “called here first.” He interviewed outside candidates for the position last week.
“I couldn’t make this decision of who this head coach was going to be without talking to other individuals who I thought would be leaders in this field who could impact this organization at the level that they needed to,” Rosas said.
But those interviews only confirmed Rosas’ belief that the man meant to coach this team was already on staff.
“It was a big confirmation on Ryan and who he is and what he’s about,” Rosas said. “It was hard for me to find another leader that connected with our players at the level he did, not just on the court, but off the court. It was hard for me to find a leader that shared my vision of how the game should be played — offensively, defensively, player development and our approach.”
Saunders said Rosas was upfront without him throughout the coaching search, and kept him abreast of the situation throughout. Still, it was hard — all job hunts are. But he’s glad he endured it, and came out on the other side.
First and foremost, he wants what’s best for the Timberwolves.
“Obviously I’m happy that I’m sitting up here today, but my love for this organization and my commitment to this organization goes beyond feeling like it’s one person,” Saunders said. “And I mean that sincerely. It’s not me, it’s what’s best for this organization. Decision-makers have decisions to make, and I’m just glad that they went through the process.”
The new coach took plenty of time Tuesday to recognize those who have helped him get to where he is, from the players to his colleagues to his family members present in the audience, including his 38-week pregnant wife, Hayley, and his mom, Debbie.
Then he mentioned a certain family member who couldn’t be there in person Tuesday.
“But I know he’s here, and he’s looking down and I know he’d say there’s no place else he’d rather have me get my start in coaching,” Saunders said. “I want to make sure I acknowledge my dad, Flip, and just thank him for putting me in this.”
In that moment, Saunders started to get choked up, and Rosas patted him on the shoulder.
“This is me, it happens, you get emotional with things,” Saunders said. “That’s one of the reasons this is so special today.”