There Will Never Be Another Cotton
By Joe Gilmartin, Suns.com
Posted: July 25, 2004
Even though you knew for some time that he was going, it was still hard to believe when you got the word he was gone.
But of course Cotton is gone and his passing leaves an irreparable hole in the Valley’s sports fabric -- and not just because the obituary notices had it right when they called him a coaching legend and Suns icon.
After all, there’ll be other coaching legends and Suns icons along eventually. That’s the nature of life. But there’ll never be another Cotton. He was truly one of a kind and you always miss those the most.
Cotton was as down to earth as he was smart, as funny as he was serious about basketball, as friendly as he was fierce, and as good a listener as he was a talker (and believe me that’s some listener).
Whether you were from ESPN or a village monthly, he always had time for you. You invariably came away from a conversation with him with a smile and a better handle on whatever subject was under discussion. And it didn’t necessarily have to be basketball. Cotton was almost as good a handicapper of horses as he was a judge of basketball talent (and believe me that’s some handicapper). He also had a great love for and followed baseball very closely.
But the name of the game for him, as we all know, was basketball. Cotton loved the NBA from the day he set foot in it as the Suns’ first true head coach in 1970. It was a case of love at first sight and it was a romance that never grew old. He had as much zest for the game in his 70s as he did in his 40s.
Red Holtzman had Cotton figured out very early. Cotton hadn’t been in the league two years yet when the Knicks' coaching giant pointed to him one day and said, “He’s a lifer.”
And what a life it was. He was first, foremost and forever a coach. But he was also a scout, general manager, executive, television analyst, media go-to-guy, and cornerstone layer. In fact, he had as much to do with laying the foundation for the many great runs the Suns have enjoyed down through the years as anybody not named Jerry Colangelo.
Indeed, one the most impressive testimonials to Cotton’s basketball acumen is that Colangelo hired him out of Kansas State in the first place, and more significantly delegated considerable power to him in what had previously been a one-man operation -- a faith Cotton justified by courageously dealing away the team’s best player, Larry Nance, for a group of young players that included Kevin Johnson in 1988.
Cotton was not infallible, of course. But one of the things that made him so valuable to the Suns was that he was never afraid to be wrong.
Words like “feisty” and “cocky” frequently popped up in stories about him, and not without reason. But on him those characteristics wore so well they to turned people on, not off. You see, Cotton could laugh at himself, which is a saving grace all too frequently lacking in feisty/cocky people. And while you didn’t exactly need a microscope to see his ego, unlike some of his peers in the coaching ranks he never lost sight of the fact that in the end the real key to victory was great players.
Indeed, when he took over the Suns at one low point, his opening remarks when taking over the coaching reins indicated that poor coaching had not been the root of the team’s problems.
“Read my lips,” he said. “The Suns need better PLAYERS.”
Yes they did. And, thanks in no small part to him, they got some. Quite a few, actually.
How good a coach was he? Well, let me put it this way: If you gave all the coaches the exact same amount of talent, Cotton's team would be as tough as anybody else’s to beat and a whole lot tougher than most. And I didn’t just come to this conclusion when he died.
Cotton was a very good coach when he had the horses, but a great one when he didn’t. He was at his most dangerous as an outmanned underdog. The more outmanned he was the more dangerous, a fact painfully brought home to the Suns when he led a talent-challenged, injury-riddled Kansas City team to a stunning upset of the Suns in the 1981 playoffs.
I never saw a coach who could do a better job of squeezing the absolute maximum performance out of minimum players. That’s how good a coach he was.
But as good a coach as he was, and as good an executive was he was, and as good a color analyst as he was, I don’t miss any of that. As noted above, there are, after all, other good coaches, executives and analysts.
I just miss him.
Joe Gilmartin has followed the Phoenix Suns since day one, covering the team as a beat writer, newspaper columnist and even a television analyst. Gilmartin -- who authored the book "The Little Team that Could," based on the Sunderella Suns of 1976 -- he now is an actual member of the team, serving as a web columnist for Suns.com.