Originally Published: December 1988
It was only natural that Cotton Fitzsimmons would be the smallest guy on the court that evening. At 5-7, he was the acknowledged floor leader of Hannibal-LaGrange (Mo.) Junior College, and the occasion was quarterfinal action in the National JUCO basketball tournament 35 years ago in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The clock showed a couple of seconds left in the first half when Cotton took a pass in the backcourt and observed that time was of the essence. But let him tell it:
“I was at the top of the free throw circle. I put the ball on the floor once and let it fly for the basket at the other end. I wasn’t even sure I could get it there, and I followed it all the way. Doggone if it didn’t go in!
“I don’t remember who we were playing, or what the score was at the time. But I DO remember we won the game by one point.” The shot heard ‘round the world—or at least ‘round the town – stood, then, in JUCO history as “that little guy’s 70-footer,” although Fitzsimmons, the Phoenix Suns’ second-time-around head coach, privately admits that the shot “may have gained a few feet over the years.”
If anything else has gained over the years, it’s the reputation – now widespread –that Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons is one of the most respected men in his trade. Most of this dates from a boyhood spent in such northeastern Missouri towns and hamlets as Hannibal, Shelbina, Mexico and Bowling Green. “There’s a whole big part of me back there,” he says.
He got most of his schooling in Bowling Green. Also his adopted first name “Cotton.”
Soon after his parents moved with their four youngsters to Bowling Green, Cotton’s fellow fourth-graders sensed the name “Lowell” was unwieldy. His crew-cut hair, “probably whiter than blond,” he recalls, brought his playmates to call him Cotton.
Who among them could have known they’d tagged him with a name for life?
Cotton knows he didn’t have enough years with his dad, a dry-goods delivery driver-turned-horse trainer who died when he was in the fifth grade. But others had great influence on his life, he recalls, chief among whom was his hold high school coach, James A. Wilson, now 84 and long since retired.
“He taught me the difference between rules and principles. Rules are made to be bent…sometimes even broken. Principles are something you live by.”
Revealing an embarrassing lesson he learned from the no-nonsense coach, he recalled playing in a holiday tournament at the other end of the state, where the competition would be too tough for Bowling Green, despite its unbeaten record.
“The tourney was in Savannah, and he wanted us to get beat. Mr. Wilson thought it would be good for us later – state tournament and such. But we fooled him. We won the thing. We also met some local girls, who invited us to a party. Three of us decided to go, even though the coach had a midnight curfew. We found out it would be five laps around the gym for every minute we were late.
“Coach caught us in the lobby of the hotel, and we were late all right. ‘By doggies thunderation,’ – those were his swear words – ‘I thought about keeping you guys up all night, but I’d have to stay up with you,’ he said, adding that he’d think of something else.
“And he did.
“At our Monday assembly back in Bowling Green, he thanked the faculty and students for praising the team’s tournament victory, acknowledged that the team had played well, then announced: ‘We had three Casanovas who broke curfew, however, and partied with some young ladies afterward in Savannah. Will these three please stand.’
“We stood. There was no way out. I don’t have to tell you that all three of our girl friends broke things off with us that very day.” Bowling Green twice advanced to the Missouri state tournament with Cotton part of it, though it failed to win the title in stiff company. It was equally tough at Hannibal-LaGrange JC, but Cotton – the little man in a big man’s game – was a JUCO All-American in 1952-53, his final season there, when he averaged 25.5 points.
“There’s always been room for the little guy, even in the NBA (as witness Spud Webb).
“But the little guy has to be unique. He has to beat the odds. And there can’t be any quit in him.”
If things didn’t come easy for Cotton, he at least had enough sense to realize it. Before he enrolled at Hannibal-LaGrange JC, there was the matter of economics, and he had to go to work for two years first. It was two years spent gaining strength of mind and strength of body.
After high school graduation he’d taken a job in nearby Farber, Mo., at a brick plant, thus helping support the family until the first of his two sisters got her diploma and took her turn in the workplace to free Cotton for college. Older brother Orland had done the same before them in this pre-arranged progression of sibling cooperation.
But Cotton didn’t miss a bet. The brickyard had a basketball team, mostly high school coaches and co-workers in the brick plant. Needless to say, Cotton was quickly among them. “We played an 80-game schedule. These guys helped me develop, and I hadn’t even played my college ball yet.”
Then thee was a time he took a job working for a dry goods company in Bowling Green, where they readily named him assistant manager. “I thought it was an honor until I found I was to open the place early, close it late – and sweep out. But they gave me a two-hour lunch, long enough to play pickup games with guys I knew.”
No wasted time for Cotton!
Basketball wasn’t all he knew. He was an infielder on the town baseball team during the two years he waited to enter junior college and for a time was the team’s teenage manager. “It’s not easy going to the mound as a kid and taking out your pitcher, who’s probably 30,” he observed.
He was officiating high school basketball games in those days and also remembers breaking a few bamboo poles as a prep pole-vaulter.
On officiating, Cotton says: “It’s something I still do, you may have noticed. I like to help ‘em out.” NBA officials to-date have shown no willingness to seek his assistance, however.
By the time Cotton moved on to Midwestern (Texas) State for three more years of collegiate basketball, he’d made up his mind that he wanted to coach professional basketball. “Not too many people know what they want to do with their lives at that age,” he says. He stayed beyond graduation to get a masters’ degree in administrative education, spurned an offer to play AAU ball with Goodyear and began his coaching career at Moberly (Mo.) JC, where he won two national titles and was voted JUCO Coach of the Year in 1967.
From there it was one more stepping stone to the pros: a two-year stint as head coach at Kansas State, where his Wildcats reached the NCAA semi-finals in 1970 and caught the attention of Jerry Colangelo, Suns’ general manager who pioneered the hiring of college coaches in the NBA.
The rest of the story we know. Two years of winning records with the Suns, then stints with Atlanta, Buffalo, Kansas City and San Antonio. He returned to the Suns last year as director of player personnel; now takes on the added duties as coach.
Cotton’s son Gary (by his first wife) grew up in a basketball environment, to say the least. Gary is player personnel chief of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Divorced 15 years ago, Cotton married JoAnn, his present wife, 10 years ago.
“I met JoAnn by chance in New York. She was a buyer for Sears and refused to cancel a lunch appointment with a fellow who wanted to have lunch with me and (the late) Pete Maravich. Instead he gave athletes clothes at wholesale, but JoAnn could care less. It was lunch on this day or he could forget doing business with Sears.
“So we all had lunch together. I carried on a long-distance romance with JoAnn for four years before we got married.
“And the other guy kept his Sears account.”