Welcome Back Cotton

By Jim Brewer, Fastbreak Magazine,
Originally Published: March 1996

A wise man once said, “Lucky is the person whose vocation and avocation are one and the same.”

In the world of the NBA, this anonymous credo applies to pretty much everyone involved with the game, but it would especially apply to Lowell Fitzsimmons.

For the past four years, Lowell – you may know him better as Cotton – has lived this motto. As senior executive vice president of the Suns, Cotton had his hands in player personnel decisions, served as color commentator on Suns radio and TV broadcasts, held a basketball camp for adults each summer and, more importantly, lived the NBA life without all of the stress and strain he had endured in his previous occupation of 30-some years. Yes, life was good for Fitzsimmons. Except for one thing.

Cotton Fitzsimmons is – and always will be – a basketball coach.

When Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo asked his senior executive VP to return to the Suns’ bench for a third time, Cotton could not turn him down. As Fitzsimmons often points out, he would do anything for the man who brought him in from Kansas State University for his first NBA coaching job in 1971. Even though the situation was not ideal, he was willing to step in with a struggling team – much as he had done the second time he was given the Suns’ helm in 1988.

For Cotton, this third time – like the first two – is inherently charming. After all, he is coaching again.

The Foundation

Hannibal…Shelbina…Mexico…Bowling Green.

Unless you’re from northeastern Missouri, or cartography of the Midwest is a hobby, these towns probably don’t mean much to you. For Lowell Fitzsimmons, they represent the quintessential small town upbringing.

His father, a dry goods delivery driver-turned-horse trader, moved his family of six to Bowling Green when Lowell was just a youngster. His fourth grade classmates soon decided that the name “Lowell” did not do the little Fitzsimmons justice. For the simple reason that his crew-cut hair was more white than blond, young Lowell Fitzsimmons’ adopted first name is not the only thing that has remained from his days in Bowling Green, Mo.

When Fitzsimmons’ father died less than a year after his young son gained the whimsical moniker, his mother was left to raise Cotton, his two sisters and brother. It was in the years shortly following the elder Fitzsimmons’s death that Bowling Green High School basketball coach James A. Wilson became an important influence on young Cotton.

“In the town where I grew up, the high school coach coached everybody, not just the varsity,” Fitzsimmons recalls. “In those days, coaches worked and Coach Wilson coached every team. He planned on staying in Bowling Green – even built his own house with his own two hands. And, no different than today, in order to stay you had to win. He wanted to build his team for the future, so he started us out in the seventh grade and coached us all the way through.

“Coach Wilson had the biggest influence on me of any male adult. He taught me the difference between rules and principles. Rules are made to be bent, sometimes even broken. Principles are something you live by. My mother raised me, of course, but I think I looked up to Coach Wilson as a father figure and wanted to be like him.”

To want to be like Coach Wilson was to want to be a coach. But before he fulfilled the destiny of that transition, Cotton still had some business to finish on the court.

His high school team twice advanced to the Missouri state tournament, only to be turned away each time. After working at a brick plant for two years to help support the family, the 5-7 Fitzsimmons moved on to Hannibal-LaGrange Junior College, averaging 25.5 points and becoming a juco All-American in his final year at Hannibal-LaGrange (1952-53). He then attended Midwestern (Texas) State, averaging 13.3 points over 82 games and, more importantly, earning a masters’ degree in administrative education.

Even though he was literally a little man in a big man’s game, Cotton never let the fact that the was “vertically challenged” dictate what he could and could not do on the hardwood.

“I was a guy who wasn’t supposed to be a player. I was too small,” Cotton says. “If you’re going to be small and you’re going to be a player, you’ve got to be good. Look at Spud Webb in our league – he’s good. You have to work harder than everybody else and you have to be more determined. You can never give in whatsoever. Nobody could tell me I was too small.”

With his playing days behind him, and a strong foundation laid with the help of Coach Wilson, Cotton Fitzsimmons began to build the career he always new he would.

A Basketball Coach

From the junior college level – Moberly (Mo.) J.C. – to the collegiate ranks – Kansas State – to the pros – Phoenix, Atlanta, Buffalo, Kansas City, San Antonio and Phoenix again. Cotton Fitzsimmons has coached his teams to victory more often than not. He’s one of only seven coaches to collect 800 NBA wins – over 300 of them with the Suns. Even after all of those wins, Cotton’s first pro team – the 1971-72 Suns -- is still his most memorable.

“I have a collection of pictures of the group of players from my first team hanging on a wall in my office across from my desk,” Cotton says. “I have individual pictures of all five starters from that team – Paul Silas, Connie Hawkins, Dick Van Arsdale, Neal Walk and Clem Haskins. I give them the credit for me remaining in the NBA for 26 years. They were solid people, they were willing to work and they wanted to win. The fact that four of them now work for the Suns says a lot for them, and the only one who doesn’t – Clem – has a lifetime contract to coach the University of Minnesota.”

Though that first team is his most memorable, Fitzsimmons says his best coaching job came in 1981-82 with the Kansas City Kings – a year in which his team won 30 games. And lost 52.

“Sometimes it’s not the most games you win where you think you did your best job,” Cotton says. “Probably the best year I ever had coaching, I took a group of young guys in Kansas City and won 30 games. Most people say that’s a loser, that’s a dead-cold loser. Well, we did a great job to win those 30 games.”

Fitzsimmons also did a great job in his second turn at the Suns’ head coaching wheel in 1988-89, turning what had been a 28-54 draft lottery participant the year before into a 55-27 title contender. It was a performance that earned Cotton his second NBA Coach of the Year award, but it was the next three years of 50-win seasons that solidified him as one of the league’s all-time greats.

“He’s obviously one of the winningest coaches of all time,” says assistant coach Donn Nelson. “It’s not just the ‘Xs and Os’ that make him a great coach.

What makes him a great coach is his personality – he’s tough with players and he won’t settle for anything but the very best from each. And he demands that not only in games but in practices. He also does it in a way that’s disarming to players. He’ll stick the knife in a guy, but he won’t feel it. He’ll do it in a positive way so that the players still feel respect, still the coach/player relationship is intact.”

This subtlety may be incongruous with the constant patter that “follows” Cotton the way a pack of Rottweilers follows a meat wagon – the man even talks during his own golf swing – but he isn’t chattering just to hear his own raspy voice. Young players especially are the usual target of the well-honed bark of this pit bull of a coach, even a young player like rookie Michael Finley, who doesn’t seem to do much wrong. At least, he doesn’t to the uninitiated.

“He just told me he wanted me to know the difference between a good shot and a bad shot,” Finley says. “He’d rather I drive to the bucket than shoot a three-pointer and I respect him for that.

“He’s been around the game for so long, so he knows the game.

The Charm?

Cotton knows the game enough to know that knowing the game isn’t enough, especially in this third go-around with the Suns. Placed in a unique position – even for him – Fitzsimmons has taken the task of crafting another “turnaround.”

"I’ve never taken over a team during the year, so it is a little different,” Fitzsimmons admits. “It’s different because you don’t have the time. That’s why I say that we were in preseason for the 13 games before the All-Star break. You would like to have the 28 days to work and have none of it count like a true preseason. But all of these games count.

“I have high goals, but I’m very realistic. First, make the playoffs no matter what our record is. Second, get over .500. We were seven games under .500 when I started and that’s not easy to make up, especially when you’re past half of your season. Third, play our best basketball at the end of the season as we go into the playoffs. Create havoc for anybody we play in the playoffs and hope to be able to go all the way – that’s the ultimate goal.”

It’s this ultimate goal that Cotton has always had in mind, whether on the bench or in the front office. There have been teams that he knew did not have the talent to reach the goal, as there have been teams with the talent that just couldn’t quite make the last step. He knows the injury-besieged 1995-96 Suns have the talent to contend, and he is determined that they will be in position to take that last step.

“Cotton is very intense with what he’s doing and that carries over to us, that feeling of hating to lose and that feeling of wanting to do things right out there,” says veteran Suns forward Wayman Tisdale. “He has brought a lot of enthusiasm back to the game.”

Bringing enthusiasm to his work is a labor of love for Cotton.

“I love the game,” Fitzsimmons says. “We all started because we love the game, so why take that out of it? Go ahead and do your job, work hard, win and still have fun. Every day in practice I want to have fun.”

It’s not that Fitzsimmons didn’t love being a senior executive vice president –guiding radio and TV listeners through Suns games while making trades and signing players in the front office. It’s just that, above all else, Cotton Fitzsimmons will always be a coach.

“Coaching is more fun, but making deals is also exciting,” he says. “The difference is that in coaching, you’re on stage, you’re front and center. Making the deals, you’re behind closed doors. Of course, every facet of this game is exciting – but there’s nothing like coaching. You have to do it to experience it. I’d be lying if I said I sleep better at night, but I love it.

“I think I was born to coach.”

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