By Scott Bordow
Kevin Johnson asked his coach for instructions one last time.
Cotton Fitzsimmons was dying, and Johnson wanted to know what he should say at his service, if he was asked to speak.
"The first thing," Fitzsimmons told Johnson, "is let everyone know that I didn’t lose my voice at the end. Don’t feel sorry for me because I couldn’t speak.
"I was one of those rare individuals who in the course of their 72 years got everything out I needed to say."
Fitzsimmons’ life — and his love of words — was celebrated Monday night in a Mass at St. Timothy Catholic Community Church in Mesa. He died last Saturday of complications from lung cancer.
The foyer of the church was decorated with mementos celebrating Fitzsimmons’ career. The basketballs commemorating his 600th and 700th wins as an NBA coach. His two NBA Coach of the Year trophies. Pictures of him as a player and coach.
And, of course, the nameplate describing his job with the Suns after his coaching career ended: Cotton Fitzsimmons. V.P. of Nothing.
Several former Suns and NBA players were in attendance, including Johnson, Rex Chapman, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, Frank Johnson, Tom Gugliotta, Phil Ford, Bob Lanier and Connie Hawkins.
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They came not to praise Fitzsimmons the coach but to honor the man.
Chambers said Fitzsimmons was always so alive that he "was one of those rare individuals who you never thought would die. It’s hard for me to imagine."
Monsignor Dale Fushek, who conducted the service, told guests that Fitzsimmons may never have won an NBA championship as a coach, but the "ring of people who surrounded his bedside this past week was worth more than any ring you can put on your finger."
Fitzsimmons, whose individuality and love of great music was honored by the playing of his favorite song, Frank Sinatra’s "My Way," was eulogized by Johnson, Chapman and Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo.
Colangelo, his voice cracking, spoke of a relationship that began in 1968, when the two men met at the NCAA basketball tournament.
"It was a good marriage right from the beginning," he said. "His pitter-patter, his non-stop verbalizing, his enthusiasm, his presence brought an awful lot to the (Suns)."
Colangelo read a letter he penned to Fitzsimmons while flying back from Italy on Sunday.
"Cotton, if there was anyone ever born to coach, it was you," Colangelo said. "You are a great ambassador for the game of basketball that you loved so dearly."
Chapman described Fitzsimmons’ love affair with another sport — horse racing. But it wasn’t the money that lured Fitzsimmons to the track, Chapman said. It was the camaraderie and conversation.
"He wasn’t a handicapper who studied the Daily Racing Form," Chapman said. "He’d follow one of us up to the window and bet what we bet, or he’d bet every horse in the race so he’d have a winner. He just liked being there and talking to people."
Johnson, the last to speak, said Fitzsimmons was more than a coach to him. He was a "father figure. . . . He taught me more about life than anybody with the exception of my grandfather."
"Very rarely is there an individual who improves all of our lives just by their existence," Johnson said. "That’s what Cotton did for each and every one of us."
And to the end, he did it his way.
The hospice nurse gathered Fitzsimmons’ family and friends around his bedside last Saturday night at 6:30 and told them he was about to take his last breath.
Fitzsimmons wasn’t ready to go yet.
He died at 7:07 p.m. — the tip-off time for Suns games at America West Arena.
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