Former Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons is among the members of the Class of 2021 to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. this Saturday, Sept. 11.
Fitzsimmons, who was elected as a contributor and will be honored posthumously, totaled 832 wins over 21 seasons as an NBA head coach with five teams. He still ranks 16th in NBA history in coaching wins and ranked sixth at the time of his final game as a coach in 1996. Fitzsimmons led his teams to 12 NBA playoff appearances, including three trips to the Western Conference Finals.
“Cotton’s memory will live with this organization forever,” Suns Managing Partner Robert Sarver said. “He’s a Ring of Honor member but more importantly he left a lasting impression on this franchise. JoAnn keeps Cotton’s passion for basketball and this franchise front of mind as a cherished member of this family.”
In eight seasons over three tenures as head coach of the Suns (1970-1972, 1988-1992, 1996), Fitzsimmons registered an overall record of 341-208 (.621) with five playoff appearances. A member of the Suns Ring of Honor, Fitzsimmons guided Phoenix to four straight 50-plus win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals from 1988-1992 with those Suns teams known as “the Cotton Express” for their high-octane offense. Before taking over as head coach in 1988, he served as the team’s director of player personnel and helped orchestrate the trade with Cleveland that brought Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and the draft pick that became Dan Majerle to the Valley.
Fitzsimmons is remembered for his father-like demeanor of tough love from the sidelines, while always welcoming his players with open arms off of the court. Survived by his wife, JoAnn Fitzsimmons has vowed to keep his legacy alive through the annual Spirit of Cotton Award, recognizing outstanding Arizona high school basketball coaches for their leadership, dedication and service to the community in helping guide mentor student-athletes.
Through this induction into the Hall of Fame, JoAnn is able to see his spirit shine on an even broader scale.
“It's so heartwarming and yet heartbreaking all at the same time because I wish he was here,” said JoAnn, who recently took in a Suns game with Sarver, courtside. “I wish (we were) jumping up and down, hugging each other and celebrating. It just makes it hard. Yet, when I stop thinking in those terms, I'm just thrilled and I'm so happy. Especially after all these years, I never thought anything like that would happen because as the years go by, people move on. It just makes me feel wonderful that people still remember him.”
“I love that it keeps his memory and his legacy alive.”
A two-time NBA Coach of the Year (1979 with Kansas City and 1989 with Phoenix), Fitzsimmons built a reputation for taking over struggling teams and turning them into instant contenders. In 1970-71, Phoenix jumped from 39 to 48 wins in his first season. The Atlanta Hawks went from 36 to 46 wins in 1972-73, and the Kansas City Kings raised their win total from 31 to 48 in 1978-79. The 1988-89 Suns made the most dramatic turnaround, soaring from 28 wins to 55 wins, then the third-largest single-season turnaround in NBA history.
Prior to the NBA, Fitzsimmons was named Big 8 Coach of the Year, leading Kansas State to the Sweet Sixteen in 1970. He also guided Moberly Junior College to two junior college national championships in 1966 and 1967. Fitzsimmons is an enshrinee of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame (1981) and National Junior College Hall of Fame (1985).
With the election of Fitzsimmons, the Suns will total three contributors inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Former Suns owner, general manager, executive and coach Jerry Colangelo was enshrined as a contributor in the Class of 2004 and former Suns president and chief executive officer Rick Welts was enshrined as a contributor in the Class of 2018. Eleven former Suns have been enshrined as players: Connie Hawkins (1969-1973 with Suns; Class of 1992), Gail Goodrich (1968-1970 with Suns; Class of 1996), Charles Barkley (1992-1996 with Suns; Class of 2006), Dennis Johnson (1980-1983 with Suns; Class of 2010), Gus Johnson (1972 with Suns; Class of 2010), Shaquille O’Neal (2008-2009 with Suns; Class of 2016), Steve Nash (1996-1998, 2004-2012 with Suns; Class of 2018), Jason Kidd (1996-2001 with Suns; Class of 2018), Grant Hill (2007-2012 with Suns; Class of 2018), Charlie Scott (1972-1975 with Suns; Class of 2018) and Paul Westphal (1975-1980, 1983-84 with Suns; Class of 2019). In addition, current Suns Vice President Ann Meyers Drysdale was enshrined as a player in the Class of 1993 and “The Voice of the Suns” Al McCoy received the Curt Gowdy Media Award in 2007.
Joining Fitzsimmons to be elected into the Class of 2021 by the Contributor Committee are Val Ackerman and Howard Garfinkel. Rick Adelman, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Bill Russell (coach), Ben Wallace, Chris Webber, Jay Wright, Yolanda Griffith and Lauren Jackson were elected from the North American and Women’s committees. Clarence “Fats” Jenkins was elected from the Early African American Pioneers Committee, Toni Kukoc from the International Committee, Bob Dandridge from the Veterans Committee and Pearl Moore from the Women’s Veterans Committee.
The Class of 2021 Enshrinement festivities will begin at Mohegan Sun on Friday, September 10 with the Enshrinement Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala. The Class of 2021 and returning Hall of Famers will then journey to Springfield, Mass. for the annual celebratory events taking place at the newly renovated Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and MassMutual Center on September 11. Tickets for the various Enshrinement events are on sale at www.hoophall.com.