Former Suns Nominated for Hall of Fame Again

Westphal served as an assistant under Fitzsimmons.
(Courtesy of the Phoenix Suns)
By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: Jan. 9, 2013

In 1959, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was created to honor and celebrate the game’s greatest moments and brightest stars. It only seems appropriate that this year’s nominees would include four Suns.

Suns Ring of Honor members Kevin Johnson, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal, as well as former Suns forward and assistant coach Paul Silas have been nominated for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2013. From a list of 31 nominees, each candidate will need to receive seven of nine votes from a screening committee to become a finalist, and then receive 18 of 24 votes from the Honors Committee to be chosen for induction in April.

The four former Suns would be enshrined next August if they secure the necessary votes. The most recent in memories of Suns fans is Johnson, who was a three-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection for the Suns.

KJ ranks third in franchise history in scoring and second in assists. He is also one of only five NBA players to average 20 points and 10 assists a game for three straight seasons.

The NBA’s Most Improved Player during the 1988-89 season is currently the mayor of Sacramento, CA. While Johnson is freshest in the minds of fans, he is not alone in hefty contributions towards the franchise. Both Silas and the late Fitzsimmons hail from the earliest days of the franchise, with Silas coming over to the Suns in 1969, the team’s second season in existence.

“Throughout the years, Paul remained one of his favorites and Cotton thought so highly of him,” JoAnn Fitzimmons, wife of the Suns’ beloved coach, who passed away in 2004.

Cotton was originally named Suns Head Coach in 1970, the team’s third year in existence, leading Phoenix to its first winning record. Silas earned an All-Star appearance as a Sun in 1972, and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team twice with the Suns.

“There were so many players that he remained in close contact with over the years, but he had such a special relationship with the guys that were on that 1970 team that he first coached like Paul (Silas),” JoAnn Fitzsimmons said. “Paul and Cotton were neighbors and used to ride to practice together everyday."

But JoAnn noted that having such a unique relationship created for some comedic and awkward moments.

"I’ve heard from both Paul and Cotton that when things didn’t go smoothly at practice, the ride home was sometimes done in complete silence,” JoAnn said laughing.

Silas finished his career a two-time All-Star and a three-time NBA Champion. He was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team twice, and to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team three times. Westphal, who was drafted by the Celtics, played with Silas in Boston before being traded to Phoenix. As one of the team’s veterans, Silas was one of the many storied players in that franchise's history to take Westphal under his wing.

It was that leadership that led Westphal to add Silas to his staff when he was named Phoenix's head coach.

“He expected all of his teammates to play to win or you’d have a problem with him,” Westphal recalled. “He would do the dirty work – as far as rebounding and defense – but mainly he was about winning. If you were going to be on Paul Silas’ team, you needed to be about winning.”

The former 6-7 forward was known statistically for setting an NCAA record for the most rebounds in three seasons and for averaging 20.6 rebounds per game in 1963 for Creighton. In the NBA, Silas distinguished himself as a rebounder, totaling more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds during his 16-year career.

To this day, Silas’ 12.5 a game rebounding average during the 1970-71 season ranks as the highest in the franchise’s history. His 27 boards against Cincinnati in 1970 also remains the franchise record for the most rebounds in a game.

After retiring as a player, Silas went on to serve as a head coach for the Clippers, Hornets, Cavs and currently for the Bobcats. He was an assistant coach for the Suns from 1995-97 under Westphal, Cotton and Danny Ainge.

Cotton, who passed away in 2004, coached the Suns three times in a coaching career that nearly spanned six decades. Twice he was named NBA Coach of the Year, with his second honor coming at the Suns at the conclusion of the 1988-89 season.

“I’m sort of surprised that he hasn’t been inducted already,” Westphal said. “Cotton had a real big impact wherever he was. I always respected him and enjoyed competing against him and then with him.”

Besides Suns Head Coach, Cotton also served as the team’s director of player personnel, color analyst and senior executive vice president. In 1988-89, he engineered what was at the time the third-biggest turnaround in NBA history, guiding the Suns to a 55-27 record.

Upon retirement in 1997, Fitzsimmons was sixth on the NBA’s all-time win list for coaches, but has since slid to No. 11 on that list. Already inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Missouri Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Junior College Hall of Fame, an enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame would be the icing on the cake.

“It’s like the Academy Awards though,” JoAnn Fitzsimmons said. “You don’t expect to win because everyone nominated is so talented. There is such a worthy group of people that were nominated that it’s just exciting to hear that people still know and remember him.”

One of Fitzsimmons’ coaching disciples was Westphal, who took over for him following the 1991-92 season. After serving four seasons under Fitzsimmons as an assistant coach, “Westy” became the winningest rookie coach in NBA history when he led the 1992-93 Suns to a 62-20 record and a trip to the Finals.

“Being nominated is a great honor, but it really hasn’t sunken in very deeply,” Westphal said. “I never played the game to rack up honors or accolades, I played it because I loved it and I could keep going in it.

"At the same time, when you look at the people that have gone before that I’ve competed against, to be recognized and thought of in that category, is really a special feeling.”

A five-time All-Star as a player, Westphal was named First Team All-NBA three times and Second Team All-NBA once in his career, all of which came as a member of the Suns. In addition, Westphal is the Suns’ sixth all-time leading scorer, averaging 20.6 points a game during his tenure in Phoenix.

“Cotton always had the most respect for Paul as a player when he coached against him,” JoAnn said. “He always thought that he had such a clear understanding of the game. He thought of him as a coach when he was a player.”

The 6-4 guard was the Suns leading scorer every season that he played in Phoenix, also leading the Suns to the 1976 Finals against his former club, the Celtics. As a Celtic, Westphal was able to capture an NBA Championship in 1974.

Although nominated for his work as a player, Westphal most recently served as the head coach of the Kings. Even years after Cotton’s passing, Westphal still treasures his relationship with him.

After receiving one of Cotton’s ties from JoAnn after his parting, Westphal wears the tie for the first game of every season as a way of paying tribute to an old friend.

Perhaps the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame will pick up where Westphal left off.

Any questions or comments for Stefan Swiat? Click here to send him your comments by e-mail.