Suns Mourn Loss of Coaching Legend, Cotton Fitzsimmons
Posted: July 24, 2004
Phoenix Suns icon Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons, one of the NBA's most respected teachers and colorful personalities, passed away this evening at the age of 72 due to complications of lung cancer.
"The entire Phoenix Suns family is deeply saddened by Cotton's passing,” said Suns Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo. “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."
During his storied 21-year NBA coaching career that began in 1970, Cotton compiled a record of 832-775 (.518), finishing his career sixth on the NBA all-time victory list. He currently is tied for 10th on the chart along with Phil Jackson (832-316) behind Jack Ramsay (864-783), Jerry Sloan (917-561), Larry Brown (933-713), Dick Motta (935-1,017), Red Auerbach (938-479), Bill Fitch (944-1,106), Pat Riley (1,110-569), Don Nelson (1,148-858) and Lenny Wilkens (1,315-1,133). In eight seasons as head coach of the Suns (1970-72, 1988-92, 1996), Cotton registered an overall record of 341-208 (.621), the second-highest winning percentage of any coach in team history.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Cotton 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 Fitzsimmons’ first season. The Atlanta Hawks went from 36 to 46 wins in 1972-73. 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.
Most recently, he served as senior executive vice president, a position he held since 1992, as a consultant in overall team operations. He was color analyst on KTAR Radio and KUTP-TV broadcasts alongside voice of the Suns’ Al McCoy starting in 1992 until returning to the bench in January 1996. After turning over the coaching duties to Danny Ainge in November 1996, he returned to the broadcast booth. Cotton also worked on national television where fans across the country have enjoyed his broadcasting insights on playoff telecasts (TNT and NBC).
A two-time NBA Coach of the Year (1979 with Kansas City and 1989 with Phoenix), Cotton left the sidelines following the 1991-92 season after guiding Phoenix to four straight 50-plus win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals (1989, '90). From 1988-92, Phoenix's 217-111 (.662) record trailed only the L.A. Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons.
In 1991-92, the Suns, known as "the Cotton Express" for their high-octane offense during his four-year tenure, finished 53-29. He was selected Coach of the Month for December following an 11-1 mark. He recorded his 800th career victory on March 31, 1992 versus Portland, becoming the sixth coach in NBA history to reach that milestone.
In 1989-90, the Suns, 54-28, advanced to the Western Conference Finals after defeating the Lakers for the first time in a playoff series. The season included a stretch of 19-straight wins at home and 10-straight in January.
The 1988-89 season was magical as the Suns won 27 more games than the previous season (55-27), which at the time was the third-biggest turnaround in NBA history. The Suns made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and earned a berth in the Western Conference Finals. He was named Coach of the Month for April and was ultimately honored as Coach of the Year by the NBA, The Sporting News and Basketball Weekly.
Cotton was named head coach of the Suns for the second time on May 10, 1988, a year after being named the club's first director of player personnel. On February 25, 1988, he helped orchestrate the trade that sent All-Star Larry Nance, Mike Sanders, and a first-round pick ('88) to Cleveland for eventual All-Star Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, and first and second-round picks. Dan Majerle was tabbed with that first-round pick in the 1988 NBA Draft.
Fresh from the college coaching ranks at Kansas State, Cotton began his NBA career with Phoenix in 1970 and finished 97-67 during two seasons. He coached the San Antonio Spurs from 1984-86 and led them to the playoffs in each of those seasons. From 1978-84 he coached the Kansas City Kings and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1979 after a first-place finish in the Midwest Division. Prior to joining the Kings, he coached the Buffalo Braves for one season (1977-78) and Atlanta for four seasons (1972-76). During 1976-77, he served as director of player personnel for the Golden State Warriors.
Cotton began his coaching career in 1958 at Moberly Junior College (Mo.). In nine seasons, he amassed a 223-59 (.791) record, including a 31-2 mark in 1966-67. His teams won JUCO titles in 1966 and 1967 and he was named Coach of the Year following each of those seasons. He then moved to Kansas State as an assistant to Fred "Tex" Winter and took over as head coach in 1968. Named Big Eight Coach of the Year in 1970, he led the Wildcats to the Big Eight Championship and into the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals.
His playing days began at Bowling Green High (Mo.) where he was named All-State at guard as a junior and senior. He then played at Hannibal-LaGrange Junior College (Mo.), averaging 25.5 points in 1952-53 on his way to JUCO All-American honors. He played the next three seasons at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, averaging 13.3 points.
Cotton was inducted into the Missouri Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988, the National Junior College Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1995 he was named NAIA Alumnus of the Year.
He is survived by his wife JoAnn, whom he was married to for nearly 26 years; son Gary, a longtime NBA player personnel executive; grandchildren Tim and Kelley; brother Orland Fitzsimmons and sisters Joanne Johnson and Carol Lovel. He is also survived by many nieces and nephews.
The family of Cotton Fitzsimmons requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory be made to Cotton’s Memorial c/o Phoenix Suns Charities, 201 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, AZ 85004.
A mass will be held at St. Timothy Catholic Community at 1730 W. Guadalupe in Mesa, Ariz. at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 26. The burial will be private.