Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor member Cotton Fitzsimmons is one of the most iconic coaches and well-respected figures in franchise history and will be enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. The two-time NBA Coach of the year, who passed away in July of 2004, left behind a historic legacy that is continuing to be carried out by his wife, JoAnn Fitzsimmons, and her forever dedication to her husband.
“I don't know if I know a more devoted wife, especially for somebody like Cotton who is not with us now,” Suns broadcaster Tom Leander said. “Her life, ever since he passed away, has still been a dedication to Cotton. It's one of the most beautiful things in terms of love and marriage and loyalty that I have ever witnessed in my life.”
Cotton was beloved by players, fans and basically any stranger that may have crossed his path. While not exactly the most common characteristic for a celebrity, it took time for JoAnn to get used to Cotton’s consistent effort to reach out and build great relationships with everyone he came in contact with.
“That's who he was,” JoAnn said. “He never met a stranger. When I first met him, everywhere we went, he would stop and talk to people and I'd say, 'Who was that?' He'd say, 'I don't know.' He just was the friendliest person. He loved engaging.”
JoAnn and Cotton’s reputations grew throughout the years as whether they were in Kansas City or Phoenix, on the court or off it, they were always building new relationships. No matter where they were the focus was always on hospitality and for the betterment of others.
One of the first instances was just after the couple got married in 1978 and moved to Kansas City for Cotton to coach the Kings. In an effort to provide a relaxing and comfortable environment for the players, JoAnn and Cotton planned a New Year’s Eve party just for the team.
“We wanted it to be their party,” JoAnn said. “So, there was no one, no outsiders, no people that would make them feel uncomfortable, where they couldn't just have a good time. Initially we thought, I don't know if this is going to work, but it became a tradition. We just had the best time and it worked out great. Not only did it build camaraderie with the players and their wives and girlfriends, but it also kept them safe. We knew exactly where they were and it was just the best. That was the beginning of building those family relationships and having a relationship off the court. It also allowed players to feel that he was their coach, but they could talk to him about anything. It went on for many years.”
One of the players in Kansas City was future Sun and Phoenix broadcaster, Eddie Johnson who saw firsthand the love and affection that JoAnn and Cotton shared with each other.
“I mean you never saw one without the other,” Johnson said. “That's truly her man and she has carried on his legacy without a hitch. She's at these games supporting the Suns because that's what he would be doing.”
Cotton and JoAnn became more than just a coach and his wife for Johnson, but true family.
“They got me as a 22-year-old in Kansas City,” Johnson said. “They mean the world to me. If it wasn't for them, I don't know if I would have lasted in this league as long as I did. He became my coach, obviously, but a father figure. I grew up in a single parent household, so I never had a father growing up and she became like my mother away from home. It was just an excellent relationship that they had beyond the basketball court and JoAnn played her role in it all at all times.”
Johnson wasn’t the only one to build this type of bond as almost every player that had the honor to play for Cotton, was also able to grow close to JoAnn as she seemingly became the mother of the Suns franchise.
“She's tremendous,” Suns Ring of Honor Member Tom Chambers said. “The first person that ever said that was Cotton. She became a mother figure to all of us players and wives and families and everybody's picture was on her refrigerator. She is a very special person.”
JoAnn wasn’t just the wife of the coach, but instead an integral part of the Suns organization.
“She's been the mom for so many years,” Leander said. “Looking after the players, protecting the players and coaches and just treating this entire organization as a family. They really helped instill that. I don't want to dismiss what happened before Cotton because that family atmosphere has been around the Suns organization for a long time, but I think she took it to a totally different level.”
Leander may never had actually played for Cotton, but he still saw first-hand the dedication that Cotton and JoAnn had for the organization and the entire city of Phoenix.
“When I first started working for the Suns, one of my first assignments was a video shoot following JoAnn and Cotton. For an auction item, they auctioned off themselves as babysitters. So, they were basically taken by limousine to the home of the family that bid on it and paid the most for this auction. They dropped them off, Joanne and Cotton, at this house and they babysat for their kids. It was awesome. They're playing with their stuffed animals and they're in their room on the bunk beds and the whole thing. The parents went off in the limo for dinner and then came back and it was just one of my first memories of JoAnn and Cotton and seeing them in that element and around kids. It just speaks to their love of family and their care for not just the players, but the reputation of the organization and what they wanted to develop. The fact that they are willing to give up an entire night out during the season and babysit little kids in the name of Suns Charities is spectacular.”
JoAnn’s commitment to the Suns organization is still as strong as ever as she is a regular at games and forever supporting the orange and purple.
“Initially after he passed away, I thought, 'I don't think I could ever go to another game,” JoAnn said. “It did take me a while, but then I came and looked up and saw his picture up there. I'm just so grateful that I still feel a part of the organization, a part of this family atmosphere. I went from being the motherly part of the family to now I'm the grandmother.”
Just as she strives to do each and every day, JoAnn is continuing to keep Cotton’s legacy going as she keeps his spirit alive with the annual Spirit of Cotton Award.
“It's just so great,” Fitzsimmons said. “Initially, whenever someone goes into the Ring of Honor they get gifts and stuff. The fact that Cotton had passed away, Jerry Colangelo, Tom Ambrose and Jim Brewer came up with the idea of doing something in his memory, creating this Spirit of Cotton Coach's Award. Then it just took off after that.”
JoAnn and Phoenix Suns Charities recognize an outstanding Arizona high school basketball coach for their leadership, dedication and service to the community in helping guide mentor student-athletes. The winning coach received a $10,000 grant for use in their high school’s athletic program.
“The honor that his foundation gives to high school coaches, she's on top of that and she really takes that to heart,” Johnson said. “She keeps him alive and that's what anyone would want from their other half.”
“It's a beautiful way to constantly remind the rest of us how much Cotton has meant to us, to the organization and, obviously, to JoAnn,” Leander said.