A look back at the last meeting between the Suns and Kings

Cotton’s Kings

By Joe Gilmartin, Suns.com
Posted: April 19, 2001


The Suns and Kings have a playoff history. It is short, but not sweet, and the Suns have to hope it does not repeat.

Return with us now to that inglorious yesteryear and relive the agony of a postseason defeat that stands to this day as the most ignominious exit in team history. Or as it was put tactfully at the time, "The Suns were surprised by a gritty Kansas City club." (Yes, the Kings were in Kansas City back then, having migrated there from Cincinnati and other points East).

Surprised is putting it mildly. Stunned is more like it. And make that "very gritty" Kansas City Club.

To set the stage for you, let's start with the cast of characters: These were the 1980-81 Suns of Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, Dennis Johnson, Truck Robinson, Kyle Macy, et al. And all they had done was post the best record (57-25) in franchise history, win their first Division title ever and post the best regular-season record in the Western Conference, another first.

And these were the Kings of Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, Phil Ford, Reggie King, Sam Lacey, Ernie Grunfeld, et al. And all they had done, to tell the truth, wasn't very much, as they posted a 40-42 record. So at their healthiest they were not all that good. And as we shall soon see, they were far from their healthiest for this Western Conference Semifinal series.

So, with the stage properly set, it is time to meet the villain of the piece, none other than Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons himself. Yes, the very same Cotton who was the first real coach in Suns history, would later return to engineer one of the greatest turnarounds in not only Suns but NBA history, and is still with the club as senior executive vice president, colorful TV analyst, and resident savant.

But in this series, he was definitely the villain. The man who let the air out of the basketball and the Suns in a series in which even Cotton would later admit basketball didn't fare much better than the Suns.

But let him tell it (like you could stop him):

"In all honesty, we had lost our entire backcourt," he recalled. "Phil Ford had ended the regular season in street clothes with an eye injury, and Otis Birdsong went down in the third period of Game 1. We had also lost our sixth man, Hawkeye Whitney, and Joe C. Meriweather, our backup big guy. And with Birdsong going down I had to move Wedman from small forward to guard, alongside Ernie Grunfeld."

So, what we have here is a crippled, sub-.500 team against a 57-win powerhouse at full strength. A total mismatch, right? If it had been boxing, it never would have been sanctioned, right?

Wrong!

Oh, it started out that way as the Suns romped in Game 1 in Phoenix, 102-80, with Davis and D.J. each scoring 16 points, and Jeff Cook (one of the "et als") grabbing 12 rebounds."

But then, well, let's go back to Cotton:

"I don't know what I said that next morning in the old visitors' locker room at the Coliseum, but I should have bottled it. I do remember this, when I got done talking to them before we took the court to practice, I said just as I opened the door, 'Anyone who doesn't think we can win tomorrow night, I want my trainer to get them a ticket back to Kansas City.' I do remember that. I don't remember anything else, except that I coached the ugliest that I've ever coached basketball in my life. With so many people out I had no choice.

"We win Game 2, and then we go back to Kansas City, and we win Game 3 and 4. Now we're up 3-1 and everybody's excited. But I'm not too excited because the Suns had the best record in the West and they didn't get there by accident. And we had barely eked out those games we won (93-92, 102-95). So, we go for Game 5 in Phoenix and play well, play the tempo we were having to play -- slow, deliberate, don't shoot unless you've got a lay-up until you get down to six seconds on the 24-second clock. But we can't win because in the last two and a half minutes Walter Davis won't let us. He makes sure they win. But it was our type of score (101-89), so even though we lost I wasn't that upset, because we were still able to play at our tempo.

"Now we go for Game 6 in Kansas City in the old Kemper Arena, and people were saying surely we'd win at home. But I didn't believe that at all because the Suns had too many good players. And sure enough, coming down to the wire in the last two and a half minutes, Walter Davis won't let us win. He buries his shots along with his free throws, and they win.

"So now it's Easter Sunday and we come back to Phoenix for Game 7. And one thing I'll always remember is Donald Pitt, one of the owners of the Suns back then, was coming back on the flight with us. And he says, 'Cotton, I want you to know you did a great job in the series and you have nothing to be ashamed of.' And that sounded like they already had Game 7 won. But I said to him, 'I wouldn't say we're out of it by any means.'

"So here comes Easter Sunday, Phoenix, national TV, and I know I have to move Wedman back to forward so they can't put two and a half people on Reggie King. So what can I do? I really don't have anybody on the bench."

Now comes the final insult to this injury.

"But I did have one guy, John Lambert, 6-10, played at USC. We called him Pretty Boy. I moved him to the backcourt, matched up against D.J. and that did open it up a little bit."

So Cotton went with a backcourt of one guy with no speed and another with no game playing out of position. What happened? Reggie King scored 23 points and the Kings won, 95-88, to put the finishing touch on one of the largest upsets (all things considered) in playoff history.

"I liked to say that since it was Easter Sunday, somebody Up There liked us."

Indeed!

But that was then, and this is now. And now Cotton's back on the Suns' side, the Kings are in Sacramento, and there will be no big upset in this series because there's no big favorite.

PS -- Houston took the Kings out in five games in the Western Conference Finals. And from that Easter Sunday to this very day the Kings have never won another playoff series. In fact, in the intervening 19 years they've only won five playoff GAMES!

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