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MANKATO, Minn. – Flip Saunders took over as Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations in May and he has been shaking hands and kissing babies ever since. The social butterfly has met with everyone from his star power forward to those responsible for the music in the arena as he tries to put his fingerprints on the organization.
Rick Adelman has been the coach in Minnesota for more than two years, and there are still plenty of people in the organization who have never spoken to him for more than a minute. It's all basketball, all the time for him, which means there is no time for small talk.
Saunders can most often be seen cloaked in one of his tailored suits, splashing some color with a well-placed pocket square and finishing the look with a tie clip here, a set of cuff links there.
Adelman wears black. All the time. On special occasions he'll accessorize by donning a black sweater vest over his black polo shirt.
The leaders of the Timberwolves live in different worlds socially and sartorially, but they have found common ground where it matters most — on the court.
They are still getting to know each other after Saunders took over for the departed David Kahn. But the connection has been an easy one despite their outward differences. At their cores, they are both coaches and speak the same language.
"There's probably not a day that we talk to each other that we don't talk about some type of X's and O's, some type of offense," said Saunders, who is in his first year as a top executive after 16 years as coach of the Wolves, Pistons and Wizards. "That's just coaches. That's what we do. That's what we enjoy doing and I'm sure we're going to continue to do that."
When Wolves owner Glen Taylor brought Saunders, who served as Taylor's coach from 1995-2005, back to run the show, there was an immediate concern that Adelman could bristle over having another coach around every day looking over his shoulder. But the 67-year-old Adelman clearly doesn't feel threatened.
"Well if I'm going to worry about that I'm in big trouble," Adelman said. "If I was 35 years old, I might be thinking about that situation a little differently. But for me I want his input even though I'm still going to make the final decision on what goes on with the team. But I want his input and his ideas."
The two knew each other from crossing paths over the years when their teams met on the court, but Saunders really got off to a good start with Adelman in Minnesota simply by keeping his distance.
Adelman spent much of the summer with doctors who were trying to find the right combinations of medication and treatment to address wife Mary Kay's seizures. The coach said at the end of the season that he wanted to make a decision on returning for this year fairly quickly. But Saunders and Taylor didn't pressure him. They told him to take all the time he needed.
"I've always respected him as a coach," Saunders said. "I thought this team was partly built with him in mind and we finished it with him in mind, the type of team that we wanted."
The approach went a long way with Adelman, who didn't always feel like he had a symbiotic relationship with the front offices in some of his other stops.
"Their patience made things a lot easier," Adelman said. "Everything was going OK, but I didn't know what to expect the whole summer. We approached it just like we said we were going to do and that made the situation so much easier for me."
As Adelman tended to his family, Saunders remained in constant contact throughout the summer to discuss players available in free agency, holes that needed to be filled and the philosophy going forward.
"I think he's got such a great understanding of the league and he knows what type of players I wanted, who was out there," Adelman said. "So it was a process and one thing I really enjoyed about it is the fact that if there is anything going on, he was always calling me and he was always asking for my opinion."
Now that training camp has started, the conversation between the two has shifted from roster assembly to strategy and philosophy. Adelman has likened the relationship to the one he had with Geoff Petrie in Sacramento, an encouraging sign given that Adelman has always looked back fondly at his days with the Kings.
"I think it's going to be great having Flip around and I know he knows the league very well, he knows what it takes to win and he'll add the people he feels can do that," Adelman said. "I think it's going to be a very positive move from my standpoint and I'm looking forward to it."
But Saunders' biggest task may be to inject some of his influence into Adelman's wardrobe.
"He'll do fine. No one sees him on the (practice) court," Saunders said with a chuckle. "They see him in his suits. He looks OK in his suits."
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