With the passing of Phoenix favorite Cotton Fitzsimmons, Suns.com reached out to many of his former players, co-workers and peers, to get their thoughts and stories of the legendary coach.
P.J. Carlesimo | Cedric Ceballos | Tom Chambers | Bryan Colangelo | Jerry Colangelo |
Mike D'Antoni | Michael Finley | Dick Harter | Connie Hawkins | Lionel Hollins | Jeff Hornacek |
Marc Iavaroni | Eddie Johnson | Frank Johnson | Kevin Johnson | Tim Kempton | Steve Kerr |
Joe Kleine | Phil Knight | Dan Majerle | Red McCombs | Al McCoy | New: Steve Nash | Donn Nelson |
Elliot Perry | Gregg Popovich | Joe Proski | John Shumate | Paul Silas | Jerry Sloan | David Stern |
Seth Sulka | Dick Van Arsdale | Mark West | Paul Westhead | Lenny Wilkens | Tex Winter
“It was sad to hear of his passing, of course. I think of the people he left behind because he lived a great life. I always think of JoAnn as bubbly as he ever was and I don’t think I’ve ever met a pair as optimistic, friendly and upbeat as those two were. I feel greatly for her, but I know she must be thinking about what a great life she had with Cotton.”
(On early knowledge of Cotton)
“There were a lot of battles in the regular season and playoffs with the Suns and his Kansas City Kings teams. He was an innovative coach, a fiery coach and a guy that really stood out there. You had some of the guys who sported the loud clothes and then you had Cotton with the loud hair. He was one of those great college to pro coaches, which happened a lot more back then.”
(On King beating Suns in 1981 playoffs)
“He had to do a lot of coaching because he had some injury problems. By the seventh game, he was starting John Lambert at point guard and he was a big guy. He was really piecing things together. We must have been over-confident because we lost to a team who had lost most of their talent. That was a great coaching coup to win that series for him and for their team.”
(On Cotton’s attitude)
“The thing I remember the most was his upbeat attitude. I never played basketball for him. The one time I played golf with him was when I was paired up with him for a Suns tournament. It was Cotton, myself, Keith Erickson and it was the weirdest, most memorable round I ever played. Keith made a hole-in-one on a slicing shot that almost went out of bounds, but hit something and bounced in. Cotton was coaching me along the way because I’m not that good a golfer.
“Now, the most I ever bet when playing golf was a quarter. So Cotton said, ‘Alvan, you’re playing really well. How about we bet a milkshake?’ So, we started betting milkshakes. He was encouraging me, patting me on the back and saying, ‘You hit that shot really well, how about closest to the hole for a milkshake?’ Well, by the end of the 18th hole, I was down 29 milkshakes. Now, that was seven or eight years ago, so when I would see him in passing, I would say, ‘You want a milkshake now?’ He would say, ‘No, those things aren’t so good for you, but just hold onto it.’ I wish I could have paid him back his milkshakes.”
(On Cotton’s legacy)
“He served a bunch of different roles here. He did it all. He pulled the trigger on some big things, like the trade of Larry Nance to Cleveland. He knew the game. As a coach, he knew how to handle his players. He made it fun and interesting, and kept people passionate and interested in the game.”
"I’ll always remember how optimistic and happy he was. That optimism, that outlook, how he enjoyed life… He loved basketball. It was his great joy in life. He loved to compete. He was always coaching. Even when we would play golf together. I would be up eight shots on him and he would still be giving me tips on how to play better (laughs)."
(On why everyone took to Cotton)
"He always felt like he could win. His popularity, it came across to the players and the fans. He had a positive outlook on life and people are attracted to people like that."
(On Cotton’s methods)
"Cotton was a salesman. He could sell something to anybody. And that’s a positive element. He would sell his ideas and he’d get you to believe. 'Life is good; You can win.’ And that’s what people want to hear."
“You know, I think it was a blessing (that he passed away), because he was obviously struggling. When I went out to see him last week, I didn’t like seeing him in that situation.
“I just told him how much I appreciate his friendship and appreciate the fact that he brought me to Phoenix. You know, when most people pass away, you get a phone call that they passed away. So I think it was really cool that everybody got an opportunity to tell him what they thought and felt about him before he passed away. I’m glad to be in that group.”
(On Cotton helping bring him to Phoenix in 1992)
“I just really appreciate the fact that he got me out of Philadelphia. I always remember when he picked me up at the airport in the middle of the summer and it was about 115 degrees. We were riding in a two-door convertible. I had never been to Phoenix during the summer and I asked him, ‘Is it this hot all the time?’ But like I said, I can’t remember one time that I was with him that I didn’t spend a lot of time laughing. He just had a contagious personality and I’ll never forget him. I appreciate everything he did for me.”
(On why Cotton was so loved)
“I think he just had a warm personality. Any time you were around him, you laughed. And I think he was a genuine person. I can’t think of one time I was around him that wasn’t fun.”
(On funny times)
“I remember I told him I was a big Bill Clinton fan one time and he said, ‘Listen, if you keep voting for these democrats, you’re just going to be a black millionaire. Right now you’re a black multi-millionaire. If you keep voting democratic you’re going to be a black millionaire. And once you’re wife leaves you, you’re just going to be black.’ That’s probably the funniest story I can relate. That was just typical Cotton.”
“He was an original. I never met anyone like him. He could antagonize people and put them on edge, but I never ever got mad at him. I never got upset, because I understood him. I knew what he meant and I knew he was for me. This business, broadcasting, you don’t always have guys who are for you. With Cotton, it was always, `What can I do to make this better? I’m your partner; I’m your sidekick. Bender, we’re in this together.’ And that’s the way we looked at it. When we didn’t work together this year, it was hard for both of us, and we talked about it for a long time.
“He was a great encourager. Some time ago, things weren’t going well for me. I had some things that were happening to me both professionally and personally. And his positive approach to everything in life was just a great boost to me. As a person, as a broadcaster, I still used a lot of his phrases in my broadcasts. `He’s a dirtworker.’ When I was doing games this year, I used it on the air. (Former Sun and current broadcaster) Rex Chapman turned to me and said, `I know where you got that one from.’”
“When I tried to do something away from broadcasting, he turned to me. `Bender, remember one thing. You are a sportscaster and nothing else.’ And he was right. I tried to venture into an area I thought was related, but wasn’t. He always called me `Bender.’ He’d say, `How’s the wife; How’re the kids? How’re you doing?’”
(On honoring Cotton)
“He’s got to be in the Ring of Honor. That’s just got to happen. Everytime I go to the United Center and I see Michael Jordan’s statue, I have thought to myself, `Who would we ever, in Suns history, do that with?’ Cotton would be the first guy I would consider.
“I read on the internet that he was the `brightest Sun.’ It also mentioned him as an icon. We misuse that word sometimes. We have a tendency to call everybody great, but he was an icon. He represented what this organization was all about. Maybe we can have a bust of him or something as you walk into the new Paseo and use a phrase that epitomized who he was. I’m sure there will be some people who’ll say, `If you do that, you’ll have to do that with everybody.’ But I don’t know if you do. I think this is different. This guy had a different impact on the Suns organization.”
(On Cotton’s thoughts about coaching)
“He used to say, `Gary, You’re hired as a coach. You’re going to get fired as a coach. I’ve found that to be true everywhere I’ve gone. I went into the Phoenix organization knowing that.’ He always had that philosophy, and he always handled it really well.”
(On Cotton critiquing his broadcasting)
“We would go to commercial and he’d say, `Bender, I don’t like that. I don’t think that was very good (laughs). He was funny. We’d go along and he’d say, `You know, maybe we’ll get the idea one of these days we don’t have to shoot threes all the time to win.’ He’d say it on the air. He’d crack me up because he’d have that look on his face. He never wanted to rehearse. He’d come in for production meetings and say, `Okay, Bender, what are we doing? Show me; I’m just going to follow you and I’ll take care of it. There will never, ever be another one like him.”
(On hearing of Cotton’s passing)
“It wasn’t unexpected. I was around Peter Vescey this summer and he let me know last week that he was going to Phoenix to speak to Cotton, and let me know what was happening. But, you’re never truly prepared.
“Cotton was always nice to me and I’d known him for a long, long time. He was at Moberly Junior College and I coached Kansas. He was the K-State guy and we go way back. He was a very dear friend and somebody that I had amazing respect for.”
(On earliest memories of Cotton)
“I know you don’t make deals with him (laughs). As a young coach, you would never come out ahead.
“I just loved the way he coached. His players seemed to have fun playing for him. They always played the right way. He never took himself too seriously. He was a coach’s coach. He really loved our game and always had nice things to say about the people he played against, which is something that a lot of people forget about now. Every player that I’ve ever dealt with that had played for him really felt he was like a father figure or a dear friend. The most recent guy was Mike Woodson. Cotton was his favorite and he was even down in Phoenix this week. Mike just took a head coaching job and left his team to go be with Cotton.”
(On Cotton’s coaching career)
“Not everybody is born with a spoon in their mouth like me. With the background I had, I’ve been given opportunities, but he had to earn them. He’s coached at just about every level and nothing’s been given to him. When he became a broadcaster later on, he had nothing but nice things to say about the opposing team and the opposing coach. He was so positive about our sport and I think that’s going to be missed. Too many people spend time talking about negative stuff and he was always upbeat. He always wanted you to do well even though he wanted to beat you. It was really nice just being around him.”
(On advice from Cotton)
“One year, we were at the coach’s meeting and we had a lawyer that was handling coach’s salaries and Cotton looked at me and said, ‘Larry, some day when you’re involved in this game, when you go to talk your owner about a salary, you tell him you want one dollar more than the best sub. Obviously, we’re not as good or important as any of the five starters, but I think we deserve a dollar more than any sub.’ I always laugh about that because if that came to pass, we’d all be sitting on a beach with a cigar in our mouth and a drink in our hand.”
(On Cotton’s legacy)
“A lot of us got into coaching for the right reasons. Because we love the game and we love to teach, and we wanted to give something back. Some kids are getting into the game now for the wrong reasons. If we just look at the records, we never realize the contribution he made. He helped coaches all over. He never took himself seriously, but he never stopped working to do better. He always cared about the people he coached and I think that’s the most important thing I’ll remember about Cotton.”
"Basketball lost a great ambassador. Cotton’s legacy as a coach speaks for itself but his real impact to basketball was his love for the game and the lives he impacted. One of the great personalities to ever roam the sidelines, Cotton was a friend to all. He is an unforgettable man and his charisma and energy will be missed. The Spurs organization was fortunate to share in his career. Cotton will be sorely missed by Spurs fans – and basketball fans – everywhere."
"We got very close over the years and he became a mentor to me. He was someone I respected when I first got into the profession. When I got a chance to come into the league, he was someone who helped me from day one. He advised me on my first contract when I got the Portland job. Cotton's the guy that I always bounced ideas off when he was coaching, but also later on when he was broadcasting. I'd always look forward to going into Phoenix. We'd always go out to dinner the night before a game.
"He was the best. It's hard to imagine next year going into Phoenix and not getting together with him. Cotton's one of the great coaches we've ever had in this league. He enjoyed tremendous success on all levels. He was a great junior college coach and in the Jr. College hall of fame. He was an unbelieveable coach in the professional game. He's somebody who's opinion I truly value. He's a very creative thinker. He's fantastic in terms of how he relates to all people. but particularly players. He was always known as a players coach, because he had a way to get players to work hard and at the same time maintain good relationships with them. He was way ahead of his time as a pro coach. Cotton's teams always had respect for him.
"When I think of the Phoenix Suns I think of Jerry Colangelo and Cotton Fitzsimmons. I think it's always gonna be that way."
"He contributed so much to my career. Not as a basketball player, but more as a man. His off-the-court teachings shaped and molded me out in the community and the world. He had a real sense of getting your attention and everything had a point to him. There was no goofing around with him. He had a great sense of humor, but most of the stuff he said, you really took it to heart. You’d push yourself to try and be what he wanted you to be. He had a warm heart, man. It’s a real sad situation. He’s really going to be greatly missed. The number of people he has touched throughout his life is endless. I still can't believe it."
(On his first meeting with Cotton)
"The first day when we got here, he had this aggressiveness. When I first met him, we had the press conference with (former Suns draft pick) Jason Williams and Jason said, ;I don’t want to be here.’ Cotton comes into the room and says, 'Well, that’s a man for you. The guy knows what he wants and what he doesn’t want.’ He looks at me and Negele Knight and says, 'So if you two want to be here, you’d better step it up and step it up real quick because we need players and we need them fast.’ My whole relationship with him was that way. 'Step it up. If you’re going to play, play as hard as you can.'"
(On Cotton’s words of encouragement before the All-Star dunk contest)
"He just said, 'You better not get hurt. If you get hurt out there, you’re gonna play even less than you have been playing.’ At that time I wasn’t playing at all, so I figured 'Why not' (laughs)."
(On how Fitzsimmons differed from other coaches)
"He was so honest. You know, I wasn’t really high in the draft. I was a long shot, but you want to perform, you want to play. I'd get a little anxious, but he would always keep me calm by being up front and telling me what was going on. There would be times my first few years here when the crowd would be chanting my name, 'Cedric, Cedric…’. Cotton would come over and say, 'I’m not putting you into the game because they’re yelling your name. I’m the coach of this team, not them. They’re here paying for tickets, but I coach the team. I need to do something to get my paycheck.’ He was honest. You could not deny what his methods were in trying to help you become a man, to become a good player. That was the way it was.
"You never had to guess with Cotton. Even when I was the last guy on the bench to when I became a starter, he was all up front. When I took Tom Chambers’ spot in the playoffs, Cotton said, 'Ced, we need energy. We need you to go in there and do that thing you do at the end of the game, but I need you to do it at the beginning of the game to get us all fired up and moving. You have the opportunity to get yourself going in the league, here’s your chance.’ He threw me out there and when I wasn’t doing it, he’d let me know. 'I didn’t bring you out here for this. You take the ball to the hole and score. You make the crowd enthusiastic. You get our fans and the players pumped up and then we sit you down.’ That’s what he wanted me to do. Tom Chambers was going to finish the game, be he needed a spark to get everyone going and motivated. That’s why I got the starting nod. When I was on the bench, win or lose, he’d put me in the game and say, 'Make some magic. Just go out with your head cut off and see what happens.’ I took it like that and kept going."
"Cotton was instrumental in doing a lot of different things. You talk about Kevin Johnson and myself and others turning the franchise around, but it was Cotton who spearheaded that, doing the most difficult part: sending the most popular player away. It drew heavy criticism, but he wasn’t afraid to make the deal. He brought in three quality players and a draft pick that turned out to be Dan Majerle. Without that trade happening, it would have difficult to have turned it around. He was the key. It wouldn’t have happened without Cotton."
(On meeting Cotton for the first time)
"I remember his energy. Cotton never really had a bad day, never had a down day. He was up all the time. In L.A., when he sold me on what was going to happen in Phoenix, he was a great salesman. Not only did he sell the Suns to me and a few other people, the franchise did everything they said they would do. `We play this style of basketball.’ Everything came to fruition. Cotton followed through on all his promises. He had a vision of what was going to come, and it happened."
(On a word that summed up Cotton)
"Success. Whenever Jerry really needed something to happen, he always seemed to rely on Cotton. He’d call him. He had confidence in him. Cotton always seemed to come through and accomplish the goals they wanted to achieve."
(On what Phoenix meant to Cotton)
"It was his sanctuary. He, like a lot of us who came to the Valley of the Sun, really enjoyed life and what happened here. He loved the Valley. The sun was shining. You had the people and fans. Also, he had the opportunity to have success here. He was a winner and just a great person."
(On Cotton being a players’ coach)
"A lot of players had their best years in the NBA under Cotton. I certainly am no exception. I had my best years here. He had his best years with us in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was a win-win combination. He let players do what they did best. He kept the game simple. He basically said, `Push the ball up and get into a screen and roll. If somebody’s open, pass them the ball and have fun.’ It was just an exciting brand of basketball and he was instrumental in making sure that happened."
(On how the Suns could honor Cotton)
"Certainly something needs to be done. He’s been with the franchise a long time and for good reason. When you talk about Phoenix Suns coaches, he’s No. 1 on everyone’s list. If a coach were to go into the Ring of Honor, Cotton would be the unanimous choice."
"I was 5 in 1970 when I first met Cotton. He took a liking to me immediately because my hair was white blond just like his. 'Whitey' was the name I heard Jerry call him all my life. The greatest impression I have of Cotton from those early days is that he was always so kind to me and my sisters. That has carried on to my wife and kids now. In some ways he was a grandfather figure to me my entire life. My family will truly miss him."
(On learning from Cotton)
"My move to the Suns was actually precipitated by Cotton. He was head coach and director of player personnel at the same time and felt a little underwater. I'll never forget the call he made to me asking me to come back to Phoenix to help out. The timing was just right as I had just closed a real estate deal in New York and the market was just beginning to show signs of a downward spiral. I came in as his assistant with regard to player personnel and we shared an office down on Central Avenue. He was an unbelievable mentor for me and taught me quite a bit about the business. There was no one better at sizing up a deal, creating a deal or closing a deal better than Cotton. He was an advisor and confidant to me right up until the end."
(On Cotton's fashion tips)
"Cotton was always on me about my choice of shoes. He came from a different era regarding personal style, some of which are actually making their way into the mainstream right now. He called me a 'yuppie' or a 'preppie' because I only wore black or brown shoes. For example, he would tell me I had to wear BLUE shoes and a BLUE belt when wearing a blue pinstripe suit. I would tell him I didn't even know where to find blue shoes or accessories. He had a place, Friedman's in Atlanta, that could even put blue alligators on your feet, any size you want. Grey, too, which was his directive for grey suits. I am not sure the blue shoes are coming back (laughs)."
(On golfing with Cotton)
"Cotton was always known as a talker. He was a great golfing partner over the years but he couldn't help himself when watching me play. Once a coach, always a coach. I couldn't beat him until I learned to tune him out, especially in my backswing."
(On Cotton's legacy)
"Cotton is as big a sports icon as this Valley has ever seen. His name is synonomous with the successs of the Suns and the general respect that our franchise has earned over the years. He was a special person, a great communicator, a fierce competitor and a loyal friend to both Jerry and me. This franchise and this city will surely be void of a great and colorful sports figure."
"The entire Phoenix Suns family is deeply saddened by Cotton's passing. Cotton Fitzsimmons embodied all things that are great about life and the game of basketball. His energy, passion, and upbeat approach to everything impacted those that he touched in a positive and meaningful way. The Suns, the city of Phoenix and the entire NBA family will miss the game's ultimate coach, teacher and communicator. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Cotton's wonderful wife JoAnn, his son Gary and the rest of Cotton's family."
"It's just too bad. The guy was one of the great guys in our sport and in any sport. I guess the biggest thing is he was just fun to be around. Because of his personality, you can't measure how fun it was to be around him. That's something that everyone within the Phoenix Suns is going to miss."
(On Cotton's coaching legacy)
"His contributions were immeasurable. He was one of the best, and he combined that with just being a good person. That's not always easy to do, but he was able to do both of them."
(On what he learned from Fitzsimmons)
"The biggest thing was the way he attacked problems, having patience and understanding how to go forward. He knew when to minimize issues and how to keep a positive attitude, and keep pulling towards the same goal."
"Coach Fitzsimmons was a genuine man. He was a man who my family and I respected and a man who gave me a chance to live my dream as a basketball player. The way his personality lit up a room will always be remembered. May God comfort his family in this time of grief. "
"I've known Cotton from way back from when he was a college coach many, many years ago. Besides being a wonderful person and a fine human being, what I think I'll remember most about him as a coach is that his teams had a wonderful ability to play very very hard. His enthusiasim and toughness, we're gonna miss that in the NBA. He was a wonderful, friendly, nice person that you always looked forward to seeing when he was doing TV and other duties for the Suns. It was always fun to go into the building and know you could see Cotton and visit with him not have to play against him, because playing against him was doggone tough. You knew his teams would be prepared and make an all-out effort.
"Both the Kings and Suns teams to me were Cotton's teams. He was a special guy and a special type of coach."
"He was the first NBA coach I ever had. He was probably one of my best friends outside of basketball, on a personal level. Anytime I needed something, he never let me down. He was a true friend of mine."
(On what he’ll miss most about Cotton)
"He was always honest. Cotton was a guy who would always tell you the truth. He’d tell it like it was. If he liked something, he’d tell you. If he didn’t like it, he’d let you know that, too. He was always a pretty straightforward guy. I liked that about him. The guys who knew him, they respected that about him, too. I’ve played for a lot of coaches, but the thing he let me do was play my style of basketball. He respected me, and I respected him. That’s how we got along together."
(On Cotton's coaching record)
"To be honest, he won a lot of basketball games, and I mean a lot of basketball games, with very mediocre teams. If they really checked the records, the games he won and the teams he carried, he probably should be nominated for the Hall of Fame. That was never even something he thought about, but that was just the way he was."
(On Cotton’s importance to the franchise)
"He’s meant everything to the Suns. There are some ballplayers that have done a lot of things for the Suns, but I think as far as the franchise is concerned, Cotton meant as much to the Suns as any of those ballplayers."
(On their first season together in 1970-71)
"He came in from a junior college. We weren’t a veteran team, but we had guys who had been around a while. He was open minded and willing to listen to stuff that we suggested. Most coaches who come in, they come in with a real arrogant attitude and want things their way. He wasn’t that way at all. He had his way of doing things. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of times, he would let us try some things that a lot of coaches wouldn’t."
“Cotton impacted a lot of lives in a positive manner. He impacted my life in such a positive way, giving me my first opportunity as a coach in the NBA. He was a boss, mentor and more importantly, a friend. He lived life to the fullest and he loved people and valued relationships. I am thankful for being one of the people who was involved in his life, and who he enjoyed being around. He will be missed.”
"Coaching-wise, he was a blast to play for. He would go out there, and we never really worried about the other team. He said if we did the things we were supposed to do, we wouldn’t have to worry about what the other team’s doing. We went out there and had a lot of fun. One year we averaged 120 points a game. He would just tell us, 'Go out there and play hard.’ He was a coach who said, 'If you guys have a shot, I expect you to take it. If you’re open, knock it down.’ The confidence he gave the players was tremendous. Players really got caught up in how enthusiastic and positive he was, and he made them play better."
(On his first impression of Cotton)
"I actually didn’t like him in the beginning (laughs), because he traded for Kevin Johnson. At that point I was the point guard, but I knew it was just one of those things. He saw something in Kevin that we probably needed. Looking back, that move probably made my career, because I moved over to the two spot which I played for the next 12 years. So, we always joked about that. I was mad in the beginning, but it all worked out for the best, not only for the Suns but for me and my career, as well."
(On how Cotton stood up for his team)
"The one thing Cotton did was really involve family and because of that Phoenix is known as a family organization now. I’ll never forget one of the first years we were in the playoffs with Golden State, he and his wife JoAnn made it possible for wives to go on the trip. Little things like that are what players appreciate. Cotton had gotten Jerry Colangelo to fly everybody out to the playoff game and put them up in good hotels. It made it a nice atmosphere to play in. He took the team from the not-too-bright times to what it is today."
(On Cotton’s impact)
"Cotton came in around 1988. We won about 28 games the year before. He came in and the whole team’s attitude just changed. Before, nobody enjoyed playing, but he made it enjoyable. His personality exemplified his coaching. He made it fun for everybody. And not just for players. I think he transformed the whole Phoenix Suns organization to the point it's at today where players love to come to Phoenix. He was the one who changed it all from those darker times."
"It's hard, because it happened so quickly. I mean, when did he first hear (he had cancer), four, five months ago? So everybody is in shock right now and very sad about it, obviously. I just feel terrible for JoAnn and his family, (son) Gary, and all the grandkids."
(On playing for Cotton in San Antonio)
"Cotton was a coaches' coach. He always wanted his players to learn every day. I went from a very veteran team in Philadelphia. The vets had been playing for a long time, so we basically came in (to practice), did a little bit and then went to work during games. It was a completely different atmosphere when I got to San Antonio. It was one of every day fundamentals. Shoot arounds were like a very well structured practice. All it was about was making sure players were getting better and doing things they had to do to win games. Everything was about doing things according to the book. It was just about how to play unselfishly. He really was a very good teacher.
"He was a bit of a perfectionist. All he cared about was his teams playing together and playing hard. Probably the thing that sticks out the most though is how upbeat he was. No matter what happened, whether we lost two in a row or five in a row, or won two in a row, he was always very upbeat about the next game. Every day was like his last."
(On special memories of Cotton)
"Oh, there's probably a lot of them. But I just remember the time I, like a fool, held out. I had David Falk as my agent, but I had minimal leverage. I mean, I had a good year. I'd been traded to the Spurs from a world championship team in Philadelphia. Had a good year, finished that year and then the next year I was given some bad advice by David Falk not to come to the camp. 'We deserve $50,000 more' or however much it was at the time, so I held out. After a while, I wasn't going to get the deal I wanted, so I came in and I met the team at the Philadelphia airport, of all places, and got on the bus for a preseason game in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The first thing Cotton says to me is, 'Marc, Marc, you don't need an agent. You could have done this deal by yourself.' You know what, I said, 'Cotton you're absolutely right.'"
"I was the 29th player taken overall in the draft by the Kansas City Kings, so my first encounter with him was as a coach. It was intimidating. He was a guy who commanded attention and commanded respect. That was really the start of molding me into the player I became.
"Growing up in a single family where my mom was basically my mom and dad, Cotton was a father figure to me. He was the closest thing to a father to me as one could get. Not only did I heed his advice on the basketball court, but I took his advice off the court, as well. So we were very close. He was a guy who wasn’t just a coach. He really took interest in you as a person. When you were affected off the court in your personal life, he was affected. That was a special quality about him.
"He didn’t just treat you like a player. He viewed you as his son. In Cotton’s eyes, everybody that was on his team or played for him was a son to him. He really took interest in their lives. Then he got to know their wives and their kids. It was much more than just being a coach. That was the type of person he was. He was the only coach that was really interested in your personal life."
(On playing for Cotton)
"He traded for me. I was playing for the Sacramento Kings and he traded for me, bringing me to Phoenix. He wasn’t the coach at the time. John Wetzel was, but Cotton took over the next year. He’s always been a positive. On those teams in Kansas City, we only won about 28 games, but yet he found a positive light in that situation. There was never a negative atmosphere around him. We lost a game by 20 points and he let us have it right after, but the next day it was like we won.
(On why Cotton was so involved with the Suns)
"One reason he stuck around the Suns organization was because he was loyal. Of all the organizations he coached for, he was most loyal to the Suns. He always viewed himself as a Phoenix Sun, even if he was on another team coaching. He took a lot of interest in how this organization was going. The last few years, even though he wasn’t involved as much as he would have liked, he was a guy the Suns turned to for advice when they needed it. He was a guy who was interested in not only the players, but the employees as well. That’s the thing I’m going to miss when I’m sitting there broadcasting games. I’d always look for him to walk into the arena. We’d have a little banter between each other; we’d ride each other (laughs). I’m really going to miss that."
"I never got a chance to play for Cotton, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed that experience. As a point guard, he let you run his team. He held you accountable. He’d go after you rather than go after the whole team. He’d just go after his point guard. `You are supposed to know what’s going on, and I’m holding you responsible.’ But he also gave you a lot of leeway.
"I knew Cotton when he was at Kansas City. I used to play against his teams when I was in Washington. He was always over there yelling, telling his guys to knock me on my butt. He was a competitor, but never a competitor in a way to embarrass you. He treated you as he wanted to be treated."
(On what basketball meant to Cotton)
"It was life to him. That’s what it was. He just enjoyed being around people, coaching, teaching. And it didn’t have to be about basketball. It was about life. Cotton was so good with people."
(On the effect Cotton had on players)
"When I first came to the Suns in 1992-93, Cotton was still very much involved in everyday things there. And you would always see his former players come up and talk to him or they’d go out to dinner with them. That lets you know how each of his players felt about him."
(On Cotton’s great qualities)
"`Be fair to everyone.’ Cotton was a very fair person. He pretty much treated everyone the same. As a coach, he was able to communicate. If I just had his energy, day in and day out, it was infectious. I talked to Cotton the Wednesday morning before he had his stroke and I talked to him every two to three weeks. Every time he’d say, `Hey, I’m doing great. No big deal. I’m going to lick this. I’m going to keep on going.’ He would make fun of himself. You never had the impression that anything was wrong. It was amazing."
(On Cotton's coaching methodology)
"Every time we talked about coaching, he’d say, `Frank, you’re hired to be fired. You’re hired to be fired, and I’ve been fired a number of times. I’ve been fired from this job, that job and this job but you just keep moving on.’"
(On being able to talk to Cotton)
"We played golf sometimes. I confided in Cotton with coaching, asking him his thoughts and ideas on certain things. And he was always there. I could call Cotton 12 o’clock after a game or at six o’clock in the morning. I’d say, `Hey, Cotton, what do you think about the game?’ He was always there with constructive criticism. He’d put it in a way where he’d make you feel like you did okay. He was a guy you could call about anything. And if I couldn’t get a hold of him, by God, he’d call me back. I knew that.
"When you played golf with Cotton, you figured it was 18 holes of advice on a lot of things: life, golf, marriage, basketball. There was a lot of advice over 18 holes. `Maybe it’s how you’re gripping the club’ or he’d talk about this great shot from a few years ago (laughs)." Return to Top
"My thoughts and prayers are with Cotton’s wife JoAnn and his family during these difficult times. It was an honor to have been Cotton’s friend and his passing leaves a great void in my life. He will be truly missed. To me, Cotton was much more than just a coach – he was a father figure, a mentor and a true friend. His spirit, passion and generosity will forever hold a place in my heart and on each Father’s Day, as I’ve done for the last sixteen years, I will again pick up the phone and say hello."
(On Cotton calling after 1988 trade)
"I was sitting in my room at the Westin Hotel at the Metro Center in Cleveland and I was in shock. The phone rang and on the other end it was Cotton. In this raspy voice he said, 'Hey, I want to let you know everything will be alright, I promise. Trust me.' He made good on that promise."
(On Cotton as a coach)
"One of the first things Cotton told me was, 'Play hard. Play together and have fun.' Also, in October of 1988, as a 22-year old player, Cotton took me aside and handed me the ball saying, 'We will go as far as you can lead us.' The impact he had on every player he coached was enormous. The love and support his players gave him in his final days and the way the paid tribute to him at his funeral was a testament to Cotton’s legacy. He taught us how to be men."
"I’ll always remember Cotton telling me, 'Don’t think. Just Play. Do it my way. That idea of yours sounds good and when you get your team you can do it that way. But, it’s my team now so we’re going to do it my way.' He was right. His way was the best way."
(On personal relationship)
"What started out as a coach/player, teacher/student relationship evolved into a father/son relationship. Cotton and JoAnn adopted me as their son and the bond we shared was as strong as any family relationship."
(On relationship with Cotton in recent years)
"Never stronger. We talked regularly on the phone with him always taking a keen interest in what I have been doing in Sacramento. I also always made it a point to call him on Father’s Day and tell him what he meant to me."
“Cotton was one of those guys that liked to label everybody and he put the ‘short arm’ label on me. I always got a kick out of that because of his gravely voice. I was one of those guys that was 6-10 with a 6-6 wingspan and Cotton always like to point that out.
“Where I really got to know him was later on when I started doing the announcing and particularly this last year, because we split the duties with Al (McCoy). His health took a little bit of a toll early on in the season and his not traveling this year opened up the door for me. It was disappointing the way it came about with his health problems, but he was always very positive to me. We both played golf and I saw him a lot at golf events. The shocking part was how quickly it came. Cotton was not one of those guys who you expect to be gone that quick. I was at the game (Saturday) night doing the Mercury game when we got the news. It was just a complete shock.”
(On taking over for Cotton on the radio)
“One of the greatest things about the Suns’ organization and Cotton having such an influence there was that they really helped the guys get involved and stay involved with the team. There’s no other team in the NBA that has an alumni association that does as much as the Phoenix Suns. The list goes on and on, and it was like a good old boys club. Everybody liked everybody around and everybody really had fun with each other. There wasn’t a lot of competition. It was just like one, big, happy family. There weren’t any hard feelings. Cotton was very positive in the relationship. It was an opportunity to get two different points of view in the same position.”
(On playing against Cotton)
The one thing as an opposing player, you always knew the little white-haired guy with the raspy voice. You could pick him out in a crowd because he had that raspy voice, you knew who it was. He was just one of those fighters, and he was up and down the sidelines. If he could, there times he wanted to jump into the fray and just get it done himself. He’d been around, seen so many things and coached so many great players. He had a very distinct approach to the game.
“It was funny in the huddle when you looked over there; you had a little munchkin at everybody’s waist diagramming a play. Here is yelling and cursing at all these seven-footers, and he’s down around their waist. If anybody wanted to, they could probably just flick him away.”
(On players respecting Cotton)
“That comes with the wins and the decisions he was involved with. He commanded that respect and he earned it.”
(On missing Cotton)
“I’ll miss his wit and his sarcasm, and his love of the game. It was a joke with him, but he was the first to tell you he was the vice-president of nothing for the Suns, but he was so much more than that. He was the Suns. He and Mr. Colangelo really put their mark on the team. He’s definitely going to missed, with his colorful wit and his sarcasm with all the players. He was a great person, a great basketball mind and he had a lot of colorful sweaters. We’ll miss the colorful sweaters on the sidelines, that’s for sure.”
"Terrible. Terrible. I'm just really, really sad. He was my first coach in the NBA and he was always so full of energy and spirit. I just spoke with him a few weeks ago and he just seemed like he was doing great. That's the kind of guy he was. He was always upbeat, no matter what the circumstances that faced him."
(On his first impressions)
"Well, I think his unofficial nickname was the Riverboat Gambler, or the Snake Oil Salesman. Whatever you wanted to call him, he just had so much energy and he just had such a coloful way of expressing himself. I remember there was a play in practice my rookie year, where I was being very conservative. I was just trying not to make mistakes, because I didn't want to screw up. I remember he stopped practice and said, 'I bet your parents voted for (Barry) Goldwater. You're so conservative!' I always remembered that. And, of course, the next play I got more aggressive and stole the ball. He laughed. That was what made him who he was, just his zeal for life and his great way of expressing himself."
(On Cotton's coaching legacy)
"He meant so much to the game. He's touched so many people's lives and had so much success as a coach. You know, every year I came to Phoenix as an opponent with the Spurs or the Bulls, I would always say hi and we would always visit. You know, he was the guy who really gave me my chance. He told me my rookie year, 'If you keep working, your'e going to play in the NBA for a long time.' Nobody else seemed to think so, but he said, 'Hey, shooters can stick around.' So he gave me a lot of confidence and I know he did the same for so many other players. I mean, he coached for 40 years. Think of all the people that he touched during that time. It's a pretty amazing legacy to leave."
"I'm just very sad. If you were around Cotton for 10 minutes, as much as he chattered, the guy was full of life. He was fun to be around and was very knowledgable. I'm very sad he's gone. The world's not as good a place as it was yesterday.
(On Cotton's coaching style)
"I liked it. He wasn't afraid to take a challenge. He knew the organization was struggling (in 1995-96). He knew that things weren't right and he took it on. He had confidence in himself and he was a very good coach. He knew what he was doing. He was a really good communicator. We were losing tons of games and he was always in the locker room talking. After you lost the game, he didn't run off with his assistants and bad-mouth you. He came into the locker room and talked to you, and some of it you didn't want to hear. But, it always ended on an encouraging note. You might have just played the worst game of your life and he'd let you know, but he'd always let you know that we were going to 'get 'em tomorrow.' It always ended upbeat and that's one thing I noticed about him. However bad the situation was, he would address it and then the final word was always something positive, and I liked that."
(On Cotton during games)
"He wouldn't shut up (laughs). I was playing with Boston and one time I made a left-handed hook. I went by the bench and he said, 'Aw, c'mon Joe. You're right-handed, give me a break.' He was just chattering about something all the time. It was never malicious or mean-spirited, he was just always talking.
"He knew I was from Slater, Missouri. He was aware of where that was. He was probably the only coach in the NBA who actually knew where Slater, Missouri really was. When he was at Mobley, he coached a great player out of Slater named Roscoe White, who died of a brain aneurism. He was a terrific player and Cotton always let me know that I was the second-best player out of Slater, Missouri. Every chance he got he said, 'You know, everybody thinks you're the best player out of Slater, Missouri, but I'm the only guy who knows you're the second-best player out of Slater.' The thing is that he was right. I'm glad he was the only one who knew, but after he got done, everybody probably knew. He'd always let me know that (laughs)."
(On Cotton's legacy)
"All you've got to do is look at the Suns before he came (in 1988) and look at it after he left. When he took it over, it was a nightmare and when he handed it over to Paul (Westphal), all I can say is they had a brand new arena and the best player in the world (Charles Barkley) that year wanted to play for them. That says it all. When he let it go, it was in very good shape. He had a lot of help, but he had a lot to do with it."
(On missing Cotton)
"I come to Phoenix a lot. I love Phoenix and I love the Suns. It's going to be different without having him there. Going out to Suns games and seeing players and not having Cotton around, it just won't be the same. There's going to be a little less color in the Suns because he brought a lot of color and a lot of life.
"All I know is that God better look out because he's got a live one coming to see him. Whatever business he's got going on, there's a guy coming that's going to voice his opinion."
"I met him 30 years ago. For me he was always one of the brightest stars in the sky.
"He was a genius coach, a terrific front office person. He won all those games, accomplished all those things, without somehow ever making an enemy. But most of all he was my friend. I will miss him more than words can say."
"I first met Cotton when I got here back in 1988 when they drafted me. The night they drafted me he got on the (microphone) and said those nice words about me to the fans. He was my first coach and we’ve been friends ever since. It’s been a great relationship because he showed a lot of trust in me right away when I came here. He gave me a lot of playing time and let me grow as a player. A lot of coaches wouldn’t play rookies, but he played me and allowed me to make my mistakes on the floor and become a better player. Even when he was done coaching me, he was around with the Suns and I used to play golf with him quite a few times. We’ve had a great relationship and he's been a great part of my life. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here."
(On Cotton, the motivator)
"He was a great coach. I remember bad games, which we were going to have, and he would come into the locker room, walk over to the toilet, and flush the toilet and say, 'That’s where that game belongs. We’re going to flush it down the toilet and go on.' Then he would proceed to take off his suit and his slacks. The first thing he would do was put on his cowboy boots, so he’d be walking around the locker room with his cowboy boots and silk underwear (laughs). I used to just sit there and laugh as he walked around in his boots and underwear, before he slipped his pants on over his boots."
(On Cotton, the person)
"He was always concerned about me and about my family, and my parents and how everything was. He was just a fantastic person to me. You know, he wasn’t just a coach. He was genuinely concerned with how I was doing, how I was feeling, whether I was doing the right things. I remember back in the day when I was single. I had people living in my house and I remember one time one of the assistant coaches came over to the house a little early. I was actually sleeping on the couch and a couple of my friends were in the beds, and everything was all over the place (laughs). Cotton heard about this, of course, and sat me down to make sure everything was all right and make sure I was taking care of myself. He was just always really concerned with how I was doing and what I was up to. He got to become good friends with my parents and my dad, too. He and my dad used to go golfing."
(On Cotton's battle with cancer)
"He’s a fighter; very competitive. Always upbeat, always positive. I never saw him in a bad mood. I never saw him in a negative mood. When I went and visited him in the hospital, he was sitting up and he gave me the thumbs up, and you could tell there was still a lot of fight in him. He was very positive and that’s just the way he’s always been."
"Cotton is one of the most important guys in my life, to be honest with you. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be here. He stuck his neck out on a limb to draft me, a guy who was pretty much unknown. He had a lot of faith in me. I’ve been here now for 16 years and Phoenix is now my home. I’ve got a lot of people here and it’s all because of him. I’m, obviously, in debt to him and JoAnn. They have always been very special to me. It’s been a pleasure to know him and if wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have near the life that I have. It's definitely not going to be the same without him."
"Cotton always made you feel good with his positive bantering. He was a winner."
"I go back with Cotton a long time. He used to bring his team from Moberly Junior College in Missouri to Drake University (McCoy's alma mater) to play their freshman team. Then, I followed his career when he went to Kansas State as an assistant and took over as head coach. Then, of course, when he came to Phoenix with his purple cowboy boots and purple jackets, he fit right in with the purple gang from Phoenix .
"From day one, he brought his own special kind of vitality to basketball. He had a great passion for the game and that was apparent from first appearance as head coach of the Suns. The great thing about Cotton as a coach is that he had great love for his players. When you played for Cotton, your family was involved, your girlfriend was involved, everybody was involved and he was always that way.
"There’s no one I know in the world that couldn’t like Cotton Fitzsimmons. He was probably one of the most positive people that you would ever want to meet in your life. Positive not only about himself, but positive about everything that he was involved with. He was just one of those guys that the first time you met him, you thought you’d known him forever."
(On the good times)
"I remember we opened the season in Japan against Utah (in 1990). We finished up the preseason in Chicago and he wanted everybody to be adjusted to Tokyo time. So, after our preseason game in Chicago, he took the whole team to this great Italian restaurant and wouldn’t let anybody go to bed. He wanted everybody to stay up all night so that then the next day we’d be on Tokyo time when we flew in. It didn’t work (laughs). Everybody got on the plane and crashed, and we got to Tokyo more tired than ever. But, he tried.
"Another time, we were in Chicago. We were to be leaving on a commercial flight and there was a blizzard going on. Our bus got to the airport and the players all ran off the bus to get inside to stay warm. There weren’t any skycaps because they didn’t want to be out in that storm. So, Cotton grabs our trainer, Joe Proski, and myself, and we wound up unloading the bags from the bus. I don’t know what people thought. Here was the head coach of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA covered with snow from head to toe and he’s unloading the team bus. But, that was Cotton. He did whatever it took."
(On Cotton, the broadcaster)
"I knew Cotton, obviously, first as a coach, then as a friend. In recent years, he’s really been like a brother, working on television and radio together. People loved him and the way he said things on the air. It was great because he was himself. He had that great ability when he went on TV or radio with me, he didn’t try to be anybody else but Cotton Fitzsimmons. He had tremendous knowledge of the game, but he was able to pass it along. If the situation was humorous, he would do that.
"A few times, he wound up in my lap (laughs). He liked to lean against me when he got excited during the game and sometimes that got a little hectic, but I’ll miss that leaning against me, believe me. We had worked so many games on TV and radio through the years, that we both were very comfortable working with one another. I’ll certainly miss that."
(On Cotton's legacy)
"He means a great deal to basketball, not only to the Suns. There’s never been a better ambassador for the NBA than Cotton Fitzsimmons. He was so positive about every aspect of the game and he loved it. He loved basketball. He loved the NBA. He loved talking to the media. He loved everything about it and I don’t think there’s ever been a coach like him and probably never will be. We don’t want to forget that he was an outstanding coach. He won over 62 percent of his games in the NBA, over 840 victories. So, he was an outstanding coach. I’m sure that he will be remembered not only as a coach, but also as an outstanding person.
"You can’t even think about what it’s going to be like. It’s just an unbelievable vacuum that will be created without Cotton. At these times, you only think about the good times and I’m just thankful I was able to share those good times with a great guy."
“He was my coach for my first eight games. I had my first training camp with him and he was all over me. It was fun. Cotton was a big name in the NBA growing up and when I was in college. To go to my first training camp with him as a coach was an honor and something I’ll always remember.”
"It is with the deepest heartfelt sorrow that we say goodbye to one of the greatest coaches the NBA has ever known. My family's thoughts and prayers go out to JoAnn, Gary and the Fitzsimmons family during this very difficult time. This is a huge loss for the NBA and its coaching fraternity. Cotton was a close family friend which makes this a particularly difficult time right now. He had a big impact on me as a young coach and a young man.
"Cotton brought color to everything he touched, whether it was the office or the arena you always knew when he was in the room. His spirit seemed to energize everyone he came in contact with. He had an incredible gift to make people believe in themselves. Whether you were an usher, janitor or a member of the NBA, you walked away better after a Cotton encounter.
"His on-court success speaks for itself. But the thing that separated Cotton was his passion for people. Basketball was his vehicle to touch the hearts and minds of many and he used it only like Cotton could. I was proud to serve under him and will miss him deeply."
"I'm going to miss him sorely and deeply, especially every time I come back to Phoenix. I always loved Cotton, seeing him and hearing his voice. For me, the thing I'll probably miss the most was the way he loved and encouraged people. I know he touched a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but for me I can't emphasize enough the big time encouragement he gave to me. That was the best part of my career, when I was in Phoenix and I owe a lot of that to Cotton."
(Memories of Cotton)
"I was coming into the league at a time when I had a lot of uncertainty in my career and he took a liking to me. He always encouraged me and talked to me on a personal level. That really helped me more than anything, for a guy like him to call me and talk to me. He told me how to be professional, to keep doing what I was doing and stay positive. He just gave me that sense of stabiliity. He and his wife, JoAnn, were always two of my favorite people."
(On playing for him)
"It was good for me. Cotton was a very energetic, hands on coach and taught more than anything. He was always teaching and that helped me at different aspects of my game. I can hear him now with that raspy voice. It was a great situation. I loved Phoenix, the people there and especially Cotton. That's like a family."
(On Cotton during games)
"I remember him jumping up and down with one leg up. You could hear that raspy voice calling out the plays or if you make a mistake. To see how he interacted with the players and to see the plays he drew up, I was always interested in that side of coaching and he was a very knowledgable coach."
"Coach Fitzsimmons was just one great guy. I always looked forward to going to Phoenix to play because he would come talk to me about basketball, give me some great advice and then his sense of humor would take over. Spending that time with him was always special. He appreciated people, he appreciated good basketball and he always did it with a warm demeanor and a readiness to laugh. We will all miss him."
"I don't know what to say. I was out there a couple times this past week and to see a guy who was always as lively as him... you know, I'm glad that he's at peace now. I would say life is not fair. It shouldn't happen to a guy like him. Definitely, it's too soon for him."
(On early memories of Cotton)
"I remember one of the first times we went on the road. It was 30 below or whatever and here's my coach, and he's out there (on the tarmac) helping me hustle these bags and load these bags, because the bus driver was union and wouldn't touch the bags. This is like 30 years ago and I'm thinking, 'This guy is my coach. His (butt) should be sitting inside the warm bus, but instead he's out there hustling the bags."
(On friendship with Cotton)
"I was fortunate to know him since I guess 1970 and we were friends no matter where he went. When he was in Atlanta, we got together all the time. When he was in Kansas City, Al McCoy and his wife, and Jan (Proski) and I, we'd all spend time together with him and JoAnn. You know, for me, you couldn't have worked for a better guy. He was upbeat all the time. I don't think the guy ever had a negative day in his life. He would get (ticked) at different times, but he always looked at the bright side.
"He was an unbelievable human being. He was great to work for and he was fun to hang out with. I don't know what else to say. It's rough."
"You know, he was my former coach (Buffalo Braves, 1977-78) and, of course, I've worked with him here the last few years. He was always a man with tremendous wit, a quick wit. He was the type of person who, I don’t know if he ever knew a negative situation. Every situation to him was always positive. He was a person who truly always found the glass half full. I remember playing for him, it was always that way. It was always about how we’re going to win this game. He was always well prepared, but he always had the ability to add a twist of positive and humor. It always made the situation seem a little lighter, and not quite as intense and heavy. But he always expected the most and the best. So I have nothing but the utmost respect for him."
(On playing for Cotton)
"I remember we had Bill Willoughby in Buffalo and we passed a department store and Cotton said, ‘Hey, there’s a store for all you tall freaks.’ And Bill said, ‘Maybe we’ll pass a store for you munchkins.’ He laughed. I couldn’t believe it. Coming out of Notre Dame, you didn’t make that kind of comment to a coach. That’s when I realized that the NBA was a little different and a coach could come at you, and in a respectful way you could make comments back. But you still knew where the line was and you would never cross that line.
"I know that when (Braves owner) John Y. Brown traded me... we had gotten on a role, and he wanted to make a trade, Marvin Barnes for John Shumate. Cotton said, 'Well, Marvin might be the better player, but this guy brings chemistry and leadership.’ But Brown still made the trade and Cotton said they lost 19 of their next 21 games because Marvin disrupted the team. He said to me, ‘Shue, I tried to stop that deal, because I knew what it was going to mean to our team.’ And I always felt good. He always had a way of making you feel good about yourself. Every time I would see him after that, he would always tell me and other people about that story, and how that ended his stint in Buffalo."
(On life without Cotton)
"You always looked forward to Cotton coming around and to hear his little comments that he always had to make, and his stories. It’s just different not having Cotton around and hearing him, hearing his humor and just his voice, because he’s got that unique voice. No one can duplicate that voice."
"He was very special to a lot of people. He helped a lot of people and was certainly special to me. I had my most success as a player with Cotton and really patterened my coaching philosophy after him, because he gave players extreme confidence, me in particular. That's the way I coach, giving players confidence that they can do, so I really appreciated him for that, as well as just being a good person. He was just a good guy, funny, demanding and he really knew his profession. He really understood what it took to be a good coach. And then he made some good deals, as well, bringing KJ in and so forth. You know, he was just a real good basketball man."
(On growing as a player under Cotton's guidance)
"You know, I was not a good shooter and he told me that if I was open I had to take open shots. I worked so hard on my shooting to become more competant, because he had the confidence in me that I should be able to make those open shots. As a result, I became a better player, a more confident player and had my best years under Cotton."
(On serving as an assistant coach under Cotton in 1995-96)
"I was an assistant under Cotton when he took over for Paul Westphal (Jan. 16, 1996). I was Paul Westphal's assistant and then became Cotton's assistant. He just had a philosophy of the game. He understood the game cold and totally. He certainly influenced me in my coaching career.
"The most difficult thing to do is to come in at midseason and take over, and be successful. But he just calmly went about getting the fundamentals back to the guys. He worked on the mentals, instituded changes, but changed it slowly, and as a result players really learned what it took to win again. Then we went to the playoffs that year.
"You know, I remembered that when I took over as an interim coach with the Charlotte Hornets. It wasn't midseason, but we were like 4-11, and I remembered what Cotton did. He slowly changed things. It wasn't an abrupt change. And I didn't change things abruptly either. I just methodically went about subtle changes and then eventually they took hold, the players grasped it and we had success. So a lot, I thought back to what he did and instituted that into my coaching philosophy."
“I was shocked he passed away so quickly. I had tremendous good feelings for Cotton. He was a great guy to me over the years both as a coach and as a player.”
(Early memories of Cotton) “His enthusiasm for basketball. He was a great ambassador for basketball, all the way through. He just loved NBA basketball. He was a very positive guy always when I was around him. He was just a really upbeat person. This was for a very long period of time. You don’t find many people like that.”
(Cotton as a coach) “I thought he was a very sound coach. His teams were very fundamentally sound. They just played pretty much the right way. They executed the offense. He made do with a lot of players that a lot of people didn’t think were very good. He got a lot out of them. He was a great guy to coach players.”
(On facing Cotton’s teams) “We had some tough series. I had a tough series with him when (I played) in Chicago when he was just getting started. We had some tough games there, because he was a young coach and (Bulls coach) Dick Motta was a young coach. They were really enthusiastic and going at each other pretty hard. He did very well. He could get a team to win, someway somehow.”
(On the Suns vs. Jazz matchups of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s) “They were really close, very evenly matched. I was a young coach. I had to fight for my life all the time. That was the thing that was so difficult. I never had time to say ‘hello’ to anybody because I was afraid I was going to be fired the next day. Cotton obviously had a lot more experience. He knew the right way to handle it and it was kind of interesting to see how he handled those situations. He could handle a loss; he could handle a win. That was the great thing about him. He handled those things they way they should be”.
(On Cotton personally) “The thing I will always remember about Cotton is his enthusiasm for the game of basketball and his love for the game. Whenever he got a chance to talk about it, he was just so upbeat.”
"Cotton Fitzsimmons will be remembered for the positive energy that followed him and his uncanny ability to influence others. He was a unique character that brought more to our game than it could have possibly brought to him. Not only was Cotton one of the best basketball minds, he was truly one of our best eople. Everyone in the NBA family grieves with his passing, but we'll all remember that distinct voice and know that we were fortunate to have known him."
"I started out in media relations as a game-night stats runner, so my initial experience with Cotton was running him half-time and post-game box scores... I was a 19-year-old intern, game-night person, but it didn't matter to him. If you were around or in his path, he treated you just like he treated Bryan (Colangelo). He made no differentiation between who you were. If you were there, you were part of the organization and you were working to help the organization. He didn't 'big time' you. That was the reason he became so special to me."
(On learning from Cotton)
"His desire to help and to teach what he knew was unqualified. It didn't matter who I was in the big scheme of things, he always would take the time to sit down and impart some wisdom, teach a lesson or get across one of his saying or philosophies.
"For me right now, to this date there is still no one who has helped me as much throughout the whole process as I've evolved from a media relations assistant to a general manager running a team. Maybe he didn't know all the nuances or specifics of women's basketball, but on the bigger scale, he was there for every road bump over the last seven or eight years. Through the trials and tribulations of all of our coaches and players, he was there for me."
(On Cotton, the football fan and company man) "In the early years with the (Arizona) Rattlers, he was the consumate company guy. He had no personal interest in the Rattlers from a coaching standpoint, but he came to every game in those first few years. He'd be up in the suite and watching the game. Scott Brubaker, Bryan and I would sometimes be wondering what Danny (White) was doing and Cotton would be up there as the protector of all coaches. 'You guys think you could coach. Here he is out on the field, making the decisions and winning games for you guys. Legendary Danny White and you guys are up here talking. You guys are all the same. Us coaches can never win.' He was protecting a fellow coach. It didn't matter that it was a different sport. He was respectful of the coaching profession. Coaching was in him. His committment to coaching in general always struck me."
(On Cotton's rookie treatment)
"One of the things that amazed me when I was really young in this business was his ability to ride certain rookies and be intensly on top of certain rookies. You almost felt bad for the rookie because of how hard Cotton would ride him sometimes, but it was always amazing because after practice, those rookies' favorite person was Cotton. Tim Perry and Andrew Lang, who were very big prospects at the time and big contributors as the Suns were trying to turn it around back then, and Cotton rode them hard every day in practice. Yet after practice, on the bus, in the locker room, they couldn't get enough of him because they knew that all he was trying to do was make them great basketball players and great professionals."
(On Cotton's wife, JoAnn)
"It was always Cotton and JoAnn. He just made her a part of everything he did... Every game, whether we were on a 10-game winning streak or a 10-game losing streak, JoAnn was always there. Before the game, in the press room, halftime, after the game and the interactions were always the same. She was always the buffer. He would come and she'd be there holding court. They were a team. It was Cotton and JoAnn."
(On Cotton's impact on the Suns' organization)
"The testament to me is that it wasn't even a continuous 35 years. He went out, coached other teams and stayed in the league, and still had an everlasting impact in the organization. He's Cotton. He was a significant part of the beginning of this franchise, he came back and was a significant part of the rebirth of the franchise, and a significant part of the franshise's best years.
"I was born in '68, the year the Suns started. My dad had season tickets and the first 17 years we never missed a game. So, to me, if you're a Phoenician and you think of the Phoenix Suns, you think of Jerry, Cotton, Al (McCoy), Joe (Proski), that's where it starts."
(On initial reaction to Cotton’s passing)
“I was very upset because I’ve been so close to Cotton. I’ve known him for so long and he coached me. I’d seen him in the hospital, so I knew he was not in very good shape. I’m happy he’s not suffering anymore, because I knew he was in really bad shape in the end. I really feel sorry for JoAnn and Gary.
“I remember him as being so outgoing and he never met a stranger. He was a very inspirational guy to me. I always told him he should have been an evangelist. He could have made a lot of money. A lot more than coaching (laughs).”
(On early memories of Cotton)
“First of all, he was a great coach. He came from Kansas State with his purple suits and he was very flamboyant, but above all that he was an excellent coach. Two of the best years I ever had were with Cotton. We won 48 and 49 games (in 1970-71 and ’71-72), and he brought the triple-post offense to Phoenix, and we used that very successfully. He was a great teacher.
“One of my greatest memories of Cotton was when we played a game in Milwaukee. They had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar (Robertson). At the end of the game, we were down by one. The Bucks took the ball inbounds, (Paul) Silas deflected it at mid-court and I intercepted it. I was going down the court for a lay-up and Oscar fouled me. So, time expired and we’re down by one. I go to the free throw line for two shots. Instead of lining our players up on the free throw line, Cotton left the bench and took all the players, and walked them into the locker room and left me there by myself. I made both free throws and we won the game by one point. So, I came in and said, ‘Cotton, what the heck are you doing?’ He said, ‘I knew you were going to make them. I just wanted to take the guys in a little early.’
(On Cotton legacy)
“Before he got sick, we were talking about the Hall of Fame and there are some coaches in the Hall that I thought Cotton should have gone in before they did. He won a lot of games, he coached a lot of games. Granted, he didn’t win a championship, but he took over some pretty poor situations and improved them greatly, so as far as I’m concerned he ranks right up in the upper tier of the guys who have coached in the NBA over the decades.”
(On honoring Cotton)
“Something needs to be done, whether it’s the Ring of Honor or something else. He needs to be honored in some way because he’s been such a big part of the organization. I’m sure Jerry and Robert Sarver will think of some nice way to honor his memory and do something for him at the arena. The Ring of Honor would be fine with me. I’d love to have him up there.”
(On missing Cotton)
“I’ll just miss seeing the guy. When he entered a room, he just made it brighter. I’ll miss his friendship. We talked a lot over the years about how lucky we’d been. We always would say that if we had to leave the game today, it’s been a great ride. Cotton’s quote was always, ‘If Jerry comes in tomorrow and tells me I no longer have a job, it’s okay with me, because I’ve had a great ride.’
“He was just a great guy to be around. My brother, Tom, played for him, too, and Cotton was such a stinker. Any time I was around he’d say, ‘I’ve coached both of you and Tom was a better player than you.’ Then he’d see Tom and he’d say, ‘Tom, you know what? Your brother was a heck of a lot better player than you were.’ He was just a joker; he liked to have fun. I’ll just miss him a lot and I think a lot of people are going to miss him around here.” Return to Top
“As far as basketball is concerned, Cotton’s always been an inspiring person. You know how much energy he had, but the first month he started coaching here in 1988, we had something like an 11-5 record. He’d say, `You guys think you did pretty good, huh?’ We had a terrible year the season before. He says, `The truth is you guys should have been 14-2.’ He went into this long explanation of how many games we should have won. In retrospect, he made us know that we were better than we even thought we were. After that day, we had one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history. If he believed in something, that made you believe in it. He had that vision.”
(On Cotton bringing him here)
“Myself and KJ. When I first got traded here, I thought it was the worst thing on the planet. I had already been with Cleveland, a franchise that had struggled to one that had a change. And then came Phoenix and I go, `I’ve got to start this all over again.’ After the initial trade, we got pounded. Cotton took over the next year. Jerry went and told him, `You brought them here. You coach them.’ We got Tom and drafted Majerle and Tim Perry. In comes Cedric Ceballos, and it was pretty much a bunch of misfits together and we got it done.”
(On the immediate change when Cotton took over as coach)
“The biggest thing was how much he believed in us. That was the thing. He had so much energy. He’s this little guy who’s half the size of everybody else on the court, and he went to bat for any one of us. That was the first thing you noticed. He just had that belief, `I don’t care who shows up. It’s five-on-five. Let’s mix it up and see what happens.’ And he believed we could win. Particularly if we were at home. He thought we could beat anybody.”
(On Cotton’s success in Phoenix)
“His biggest strength was he was an X’s and O’s guy. He understood the game. His ability to take you wherever you were in terms of your career, take whatever abilities you had and get more out of it than what you probably thought you could. I don’t know if I would have been as good as I was if I played anywhere else. Just the way he believed in myself and my teammates, that was a big part of all our success.”
(What Cotton quality are you most envious of)
“If I could do one thing like Cotton, it would be to make someone believe in themselves and overcome any odds. That’s the one quality of his I would want, because that’s what he did for everyone he knew.”
(On the Suns honoring Cotton’s legacy)
"I don’t know if they can do enough. You’re talking about a guy that pretty much changed the franchise around. The team had just traded their best player at the time; Alvan Adams had retired… It wasn’t a total disaster, but it was pretty close. What do you give to a guy who changed the face of the organization when it needed a change? That’s a tough one, but I don’t know if there is an honor that’s big enough."
"My first time coaching against Cotton was when I was with the Lakers in 1980, and he was with Kansas City then. I had the best team in basketball with Kareem and Magic, and we went into Kansas City and they beat us. And he just put his arm around me and said, 'Well, you're still a rookie son, you've got a long way to go but you'll be okay.' Many years later Cotton was in Phoenix doing TV work and I was with PJ Carlesimo with the Warriors and we had a couple of bad games and he'd come in the lockerroom and put his arm around us and say 'Well, you're not a rookie anymore, but you'll be okay.' He was always such an upbeat guy. He was an intense competitor but he always saw the humor in things and was a fun guy to be around."
"Cotton was a coach's guy. Coaches identified with Cotton more. At our last NBA Coaches meeting in Chicago in June we had a gigantic card that all the coaches signed. In the Coaches Association, Cotton was very high on our list."
“I was saddened by the news of Cotton’s passing. He’s just one of the great people to have impacted our game. I met Cotton many years ago. I was a player and he had come down to visit the Hawks. Our coach was ill and I had to run our practice. Cotton was there and he was amused, and we hit it off and became friends ever since then.
“My heart goes out to his family, to both JoAnn and Gary. It has to be a tough time for them.”
(On relationship over the years)
“We’ve had fun. We always had some great coaching experiences against each other. My wife was always one of the nervous people in the game and Cotton was very philosophical about everything. He used to always tell her, ‘Just as long as they have the correct address and know where to send the check, don’t even give it a thought.’
(On Cotton on the sidelines)
“He was animated and a tough competitor. He wanted to win all the time, like all of us do. But also, he had a sense of humor and you don’t see that in a lot of us (coaches) because in intense situation we make a comment to the ref and no one hears it. Cotton was liable to say something to the referee asking about his flight in, ‘Was it a bad flight, because that’s the way you’re reffing.’ He was quite a character.”
(On Cotton’s legacy)
“He’ll me missed because he had a huge impact on this league. He was a guy who loved what he did. There are a lot of players’ lives he’s touched, there’s no question about that. Cotton was one of the early teachers in the game. When I was a player, I didn’t think they taught very much at the pro level. You could see that this guy knew the game, understood it, loved it and always wanted to talk about. I would say he’s one of the first great teachers at the pro level.”
(On missing Cotton)
“I’m going to miss that smile and encouragement. Cotton found a way to smile all the time. Whenever we’d come in, we’d always do an interview and talk, and he was the most encouraging person that I’ve ever met. We talked about the league and my situation, and he was always the first person to say, ‘Hang in there, keep doing it, you’re doing a great job.’”
"I was really sorry to hear of his passing. I was alerted for it, though. We knew that he might have a tough time making it, the way it sounded the last couple weeks. But it's still a shock. I tried to get in touch with him a few weeks ago, but I got his message machine, so I left a message. I tried to get in touch with JoAnn, and he returned the message. He was still Cotton. He was very upbeat. He was very funny on the message he left me. He talked about our (Laker) playoff games and how he didn't see much of the triangle offense run (laughs). So he was still positive and really upbeat, which encouraged me. But I had seen him late in the season and I was concerned about him. I really felt like, 'Boy, Cotton doesn't look good to me.' So it was a very sad moment. I thought an awful lot of Cotton."
(On how his friendship began with Cotton)
"It started when he was a youngster playing for Midwestern College in Wichita, Texas. And even before that he was at one of the junior colleges and I saw him play at the National Junior College Tournament. I think it was Lagrange Junior College. I was coaching K State at that time, so that was my first acquaintance with Cotton. I talked to him about the possibility of recruiting him to K State, but I decided against it because I didn't really need small guards at that time. So I didn't recruit him and I think that was something that always disappointed him, because I think he felt like he would have liked to have played in the Big Eight at the time. But he was the same type of player that he was a coach. He was a fiesty little guy, smart, had a lot of basketball savvy, but not very big.
"After he finished his (playing) career, then he was coaching Moberly Junior College and always had great teams there, and really good players. A lot of people recruited a lot of his players out of Moberly, including me. I was interested in a couple, three of his players over a period of time. Anyway, I flew out there one day to visit with a couple of his players and made contact with Cotton that I was coming. I went over to the high school in Moberly, which is where their gym was, and it was just a terrible facility. It was upstairs, this little old court, and I looked around and said, 'Holy smokes. Is this where you practice? And you're recruiting these kind of players?' I said to myself at the time, 'Boy if he can recruit these kind of players to this place, I need him to come with me and recruit for me at Kansas State. He wouldn't have any difficulty selling K State if he could sell this place.' So before I left, I asked Cotton if he would be interested in coming to K State as my assistant. He was very popular in Moberly, so I think he was hesitant about leaving, but he liked the idea of the opportunity and eventually came with me. He was with me for two years and we won the championship my second year with Cotton.
"I'd been at K State for 19 years and I felt like I really needed to be rejunivated and needed a change, and I had an opportunity to go to the University of Washington. I remember when I announced to Cotton that I was leaving K State, he was in a state of shock. To make a long story short, I told him that he had a chance to get the head job and I was certainly going to recommend him for it. I felt like he would be a good man for it and the transition would be very easy. In fact, I think it was one of easiest transitions that's ever been made. When I left, they immediately announced that Cotton would get the job and he was there two years. I think his second year he won the Big Eight title and then from there, of course, he wen to the Suns."
(On recommending Cotton to the Suns)
"I had been down (in Phoenix) and interviewed for the Suns' job myself (in 1970). But I'd only been coaching in Washington for two years and I had a three year contract. And also, leaving all the greenery in Seattle and seeing that desert the way it was in Phoenix, I wasn't overly impressed. So I didn't give much second thought to it and I went back to Seattle. But while I was there with Colangelo, I brought up Cotton's name as someone they should look into. About a week or so later I got a call from Colangelo that said he'd hired Cotton."