Brightest Sun Fitzsimmons dies

by Jeramie McPeek
VP, Digital
Norm Frauenheim
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 25, 2004

He wore purple boots to town 34 years ago. The boots changed and so did the jobs. But Cotton Fitzsimmons' favorite color was always a deep shade of Suns purple.

He wore it in the beginning.

He was identified by it in the end.

Fitzsimmons, 72, died Saturday night of complications from lung cancer.

Survivors include wife JoAnn, son Gary, two grandsons, Tim and Kelley, and a franchise that relied on him as a coach, executive, commentator and deal maker throughout its history as Phoenix's first major league sports franchise.

He was the Suns coach in three different decades and the team's senior executive vice president for the past 12 years.

"The entire Phoenix Suns family is deeply saddened by Cotton's passing," Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo said. "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 way."

The fast-talking Fitzsimmons, who grew up in Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Mo., helped jump-start the franchise in 1970. He left Kansas State, but kept the colorful boots that were the first thing anybody saw when he stepped off a plane at Sky Harbor International Airport. As it turned out, he also was the franchise's first winner.

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After stumbling to a 16-66 record in an expansion season and 39-43 the following year, Fitzsimmons posted the Suns' first winning record (48-34) in 1970-71. They would go 49-33 the next year. Fitzsimmons would move on and coach in Atlanta, Buffalo, Kansas City and San Antonio.

But he had started something in Phoenix. There would be 18 more winning seasons. Fitzsimmons was responsible for the first two of 20. The roots of a winning tradition were his roots. It was inevitable that he would return.

He did, in large part because of the friendship he had forged with Colangelo, whom he relieved as coach in his first stop with the Suns.

Fifteen years after he left in 1972 for the chance to coach Pete Maravich in Atlanta, Colangelo called on him in 1987 to drag the franchise out of its darkest period. Two years earlier, Fitzsimmons had returned to the Valley to live after he had been let go by the Spurs.

For two straight seasons, the Suns had struggled through sub-.500 seasons. Then, scandal hit. Players on the 1987 roster were linked to drug allegations. They were hauled in front of a grand jury. Charges were filed. Not a single player spent any time in jail, but the franchise was clearly in trouble.

With rampant speculation about plans to move the franchise to Columbus, Ohio, Colangelo turned to Fitzsimmons and hired him as his player personnel director. One of his first moves was a stunner. In February 1988, Fitzsimmons engineered a deal that reversed franchise fortunes. He sent high-flying forward Larry Nance, Mike Sanders and a first-round draft pick to Cleveland for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, a first-round pick and second-round pick.

The trade wasn't popular, because Nance was. When Fitzsimmons announced it in a tiny room at old Veterans Memorial Coliseum, he could hear the grumbling from discontented patrons in the seats above during a game between the Suns and - of all teams - the Cavaliers.

But Fitzsimmons was never afraid to make an unpopular move. The acquisition of KJ, an explosive playmaker and eventual All-Star, was the first step in a Suns revival.

Four months later, a draft crowd at Phoenix Civic Plaza booed Fitzsimmons for the way he used the first-round pick acquired from Cleveland. He took a little-known player from Central Michigan.

That player was Dan Majerle, who emerged as one of the franchise's most popular players ever as he joined KJ and later Charles Barkley during a prosperous era when the Suns moved into America West Arena and lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals.

But Fitzsimmons did more than make a deal that set the stage for a resurrection appropriate for a team in a town named after a mythic bird springing from the ashes. He also did some of the coaching.

Fitzsimmons was back on the bench in 1988-89, one of most memorable seasons in franchise history. A year after going 28-54, the Suns went 55-27 and reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, the league's eventual champion. Then, the 27-win turnaround from the prior season was the third-biggest in league history. Fitzsimmons was NBA Coach of the Year for the second time in his career. The first was in 1979 at Kansas City.

More important, credibility and fans were back. Fitzsimmons would coach three more seasons, winning at least 50 games in each (54-28 in 1989-90, 55-27 in 1990-91 and 53-29 in 1991-92).

The next season, the Suns moved into America West Arena with Paul Westphal as the coach and Barkley leading the way. But there wouldn't have been a Finals appearance that following June if Fitzsimmons had not been around to plan it.

He moved into the front office and onto press row alongside longtime Suns broadcaster Al McCoy in 1992. But there would be one more time that Colangelo would ask him to coach.

Fitzsimmons took over for Westphal, his former assistant, in January 1996, when Westphal was dismissed.

Fitzsimmons hung on for the first eight games, all losses, in the following season before he quit coaching for good.

"It's a lousy job, but it's all yours," Fitzsimmons told his successor, Danny Ainge.

By then, there wasn't a job Fitzsimmons hadn't done in boots that will be very hard to fill.

Remembering a Coaching Legend

What's a Lowell?

Lowell Fitzsimmons was given the nickname Cotton when he went to a new school after the term had begun. The kids didn't cotton to the name Lowell, he said in response to a fan's e-mail.

"At that time, I had a lot more hair than I have now, and it was solid white and very fluffy and wavy. Someway, somehow, it came out Cotton. The way it turned out, with me coaching in the NBA, I'm glad I'm not called Whitey. I'd rather be Cotton."

"You're not going to make me have a bad day. If there's oxygen on earth and I'm breathing, it's going to be a good day.

Ice Man goeth

Fitzsimmons' arrival for 1984-85 season in San Antonio marked the end of George Gervin's 12-year career with the organization. The two never hit it off, according to, with Fitzsimmons believing the Ice Man was weak on defense. Gervin left the Spurs with more than 23,600 points and more than 60 team records.

"I have a basic philosophy that I've tried to follow during my coaching career. Whether you're winning or losing, it's important to always be yourself. You can't change because of the circumstances around you.

Burn this shirt

He won 832 games as a head coach in the NBA, and he said defeating the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals in 1990 was the highlight - but not for the reason you might think. He was sick and tired of wearing a borrowed shirt that he considered a bit drab. Fitzsimmons forgot his shirt and tie in his hotel room, and when he got to the arena, he borrowed a golf shirt from trainer Joe Proski and tried to stick a tie on it without any luck.

"I left it on," he remembered, "and sure enough we win the game. Now, I'm a little superstitious, so lo and behold the second game of the series I had to wear the shirt again, and we lost that game, thank goodness, so I got to take it off."

The Suns went on to win the series, 4-1.

"You'll hear this, no matter how successful you are: 'We're going a different direction. We're looking for a different sound. Son, you ain't lived until you've been fired'".


Al McCoy and Fitzsimmons worked together for a few years, and it was a knowledgeable and humorous partnership. Neither was ever at a loss for words, and when asked about his partner, Fitzsimmons said, "Al is so great, that he makes his partners look super. I loved working with him."

"He (Charles Barkley) gets rebounds that no one ever has gotten here. Someone his size, how does he do it?

Cottoning to life

Fitzsimmons, whose last role with the Suns was as senior executive vice president, was a man who truly enjoyed his life's work - and he wasn't trying to fool anyone: "Compared to coaching, what I do now is like stealing. Coaching is very difficult and what I do now, I love to do the games whether radio or television and I do whatever the club needs."

"Jerry Colangelo and I were the two guys who took him (Dan Majerle) up in the little classroom up in Northern Arizona during training camp when the deal (to trade him) was made, and the three of us ended up crying together.

- Compiled by Jim Gintonio

COPYRIGHT 2004, AZCENTRAL.COM. Used with permission.


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