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Stories, smiles shared at annual NBA Legends Brunch

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Feb 15 2009 5:54PM

PHOENIX -- This weekend in Phoenix, today's All-Stars have been in the spotlight. On Sunday, the legends who paved the way to make weekends like this possible got their moment in the sun.

In cooperation with the NBA, The Legends of Basketball held their 10th annual NBA Legends Brunch at the Phoenix Convention Center. Each year, the event brings out the game's finest players and this year's brunch proved to be no exception as a number of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players were in attendance -- Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Earl Monroe, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Bob Lanier and Magic Johnson to name a few.

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Event co-host and TNT analyst Kenny Smith quipped, "It's like all your trading cards come to life."

But the gathering is more than old friends shaking hands, patting each other affectionately on the shoulder and telling stories whose rough edges have been smoothed by the passage of time. Wayne Embry, the NBA's first African-American general manager and now a senior basketball advisor with the Toronto Raptors, noted the brunch provides perspective as to where the game of basketball has come from.

"It keeps the legacy of the league alive," Embry said. "You want to continue the legacy by honoring those who, really, were the foundation of the league."

The man who was the founding father of the Phoenix franchise, Jerry Colangelo, echoed Embry's sentiments.

"For me, an NBA lifer, to see all the players come back who have made such a contribution to the NBA over the years," Colangelo said, "the camaraderie, the legacy, that's what, in my opinion, makes the NBA so unique.

"I put an awful lot of value on this get together. It's one of the highlights of the entire weekend."

Appropriately, all of those honored Sunday were at one time involved with the Suns, including R. Steven Colter, Mark West, Walter Davis, Connie Hawkins, Kevin Johnson, Wayman Tisdale, Colangelo and the 1976 Finals team that lost in six games to the Boston Celtics.

"We're proud of our contributions to the NBA over the years," Colangelo said. "We've produced a lot of great players and great people. I know we have the fourth best-record in the history of the NBA, but we've always been a good team and I think we've contributed to the growth of the NBA, in terms of where it is today.

"We're proud to be a part of it."

The Suns are also a vital part of the Phoenix social fabric. JoAnn Fitzsimmons, the widow of the late Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, noted how the franchise has left its imprint on the city's citizens.

"They've been such a good organization for the community," Fitzsimmons said. "Our players have historically have been so good at being involved. They've always been embraced, in good times and bad.

"It hasn't been the best year for us, but we have such loyal fans that we'll get through it."

Those fans and the commitment to them are one of the reasons Tisdale came to play in Phoenix in 1994 for the final three seasons of his career. On Sunday, Tisdale, who had his right leg amputated in August of 2008 because of complications of cancer, was presented with the Legends Courage Award.

"It's an honor to be honored by this prestigious group of guys," Tisdale said. "It's our fraternity. Just the fact to be acknowledged as one guy who came through and did some good, it feels great."

Tisdale, who is now an accomplished jazz musician with eight albums to his credit, told the audience that the past two years has "been a test of his mental state," and he's making progress.

Another emotional moment came when Tom Chambers talked about the late Cotton Fitzsimmons, who won his second NBA Coach of the Year award in 1989 when he led the Suns to a 55-27 record and went all the way to the West Finals.

The gregarious and talkative Fitzsimmons, who coached the Suns on three different occasions, passed away in 2004. JoAnn said Cotton would have marveled at a gathering like Sunday's.

"I remembered when they called me," she said, "I was just so touched by doing it, and yet I have such mixed feelings, I can't help but think how much Cotton would have enjoyed it if he was here.

"Anyone who ever knew him, they would tell you, he would take complete charge of something like this. He would be pleased and humbled and honored by it and would enjoy every second."

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