MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — His voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes, Flip Saunders pointed to the sky about 20 minutes after the Minnesota Timberwolves — the franchise that has been down on its luck for most of the past 25 years — won the draft lottery to get the No. 1 overall selection.
“My dad,” Saunders said, unable to complete the sentence. “Sometimes you have to have luck.”
Saunders’ dad, Walter, died last week after a long illness, and the coach and president of the Wolves had been shuttling back and forth between Minnesota and his native Cleveland to be by his father’s side.
Finally, after several weeks of heartache for Saunders and a lifetime of bad luck for the franchise, things broke right for the Wolves. The team that had never drafted No. 1 or improved its position in 16 previous trips to the lottery became the first one since 2004 to win it after posting the league’s worst record that season.
Saunders didn’t believe it was a coincidence.
Saunders’ NBA career started with the Timberwolves and he coached them for 10 years before getting fired midway through the 2004-05 season. He also coached in Detroit and Washington before returning two years ago as president of basketball operations. He said his father always wore a Timberwolves shirt, even after his son worked in other organizations.
“Maybe because that was my first job and I was here so long, but he was a huge fan and I can remember two months ago when he was watching games and we would talk,” Saunders said. “He would say you just gotta build and hope you get another good player. Maybe he had something to do with it.”
Several hundred fans gathered at Target Center to watch the lottery on the big screen, many expecting the worst-case scenario to unfold as it has so many times before for a snake-bitten team that has not made the playoffs since 2004.
The Wolves could have dropped as low as No. 4, but when that envelope opened to reveal the New York Knicks, the excitement in the arena started to build.
Then came the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3 and the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, touching off the kind of stunned celebration that so rarely happens for these fans.
“I feel happy most of all for our fans,” owner Glen Taylor said. “They’ve seen us never have luck in this lottery. They’ve seen us have bad luck with injuries. Bad luck with the playoffs. And now here we are. We have a good core and the No. 1 pick in the draft. Things feel like they’re finally starting to turn for us.”
Timberwolves vice president of communications Brad Ruiter was in the room when the ping pong balls were drawn, so he knew the outcome about 90 minutes before it was shown on television.
“I kept thinking, even if I could tell someone, no one would believe me,” Ruiter said.
Over the years the fans watched:
— Stephon Marbury force a trade that broke up a promising duo with Kevin Garnett in 1998;
— Sam Cassell injure his hip to spoil their only shot at a championship in 2004;
— Al Jefferson tear up a knee during an All-Star caliber season in 2008-09 and Ricky Rubio do the same to short-circuit a potential playoff run in 2012.
They had to endure David Kahn’s arrival and Kevin Love’s exit; draft busts like Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson and Jonny Flynn; and 16 trips to the lottery without improving their draft position once.
Then came Tuesday.
The stroke of good fortune means the Wolves will have the No. 1 overall pick from three consecutive drafts, including rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins and forward Anthony Bennett, both of whom came to Minnesota in the trade that sent Love to Cleveland last summer. They also have Rubio, Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng and expect Garnett to return as a mentor next season.
“Hope is nice to have,” said Josh Vincent, a fan since 2001.
The drawing was held on Garnett’s 39th birthday and the 11th anniversary of the franchise’s finest hour — a Game 7 win over the Sacramento Kings in 2004 that pushed the Wolves into the Western Conference finals.
Taylor said he was just happy to get into the top three selections, where the Wolves could take Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns, Duke big man Jahlil Okafor or Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell.
When it dawned on him that his team had finally won it “a lump stuck in my throat,” he said.
Taylor didn’t have the tears that Saunders had, but did say he had spoken with his coach and friend many times over the past few weeks as Saunders’ father started slipping away. Taylor has entertained selling the team in recent years as the losses — both financial and competitive — mounted. So they both needed news like this.
“It’s funny because, until about 20 minutes prior to the lottery, it was pretty much a normal day,” Saunders said. “My heart rate was 59 an hour ago. When the No. 1 pick was decided it was about 125 when I looked at my watch.”
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