Fitzsimmons to Enter Suns Ring of Honor

by Jeramie McPeek
VP, Digital
By Mike Tulumello
East Valley Tribune
March 18, 2005

It all started with a captivating smile and a leather coat that was a gift for Pete Maravich’s wife.

As she prepared for tonight’s halftime ceremonies, when her late husband Cotton Fitzsimmons will be enshrined in the Suns Ring of Honor, JoAnn Fitzsimmons sorted through decades of memorabilia.

In so doing, she was able to put their lives in perspective.

To think about how she never would have been a part of his vagabond, 800-win NBA coaching career, how the two of them wouldn’t have helped create the Suns’ national reputation for being a playerfriendly club, had not Cotton decided to go shopping with Maravich in New York City in 1974.

"Pistol Pete" was a great sharpshooter for the Atlanta Hawks. Cotton was his coach; he agreed to help Maravich shop for the coat.

JoAnn was a buyer for Sears in the Big Apple’s garment district. Through a friend who knew a Hawks’ official, they all met for lunch.

Maravich got the coat. JoAnn got a three-decade tour of the NBA after deciding she liked "that expressive smile."

Cotton died in July at age 72 as a result of lung cancer (though he never smoked), a stroke and resulting heart problems.

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He was one of the Suns’ most significant figures ever.

He coached the club three times. He also worked the huge 1988 trade for Kevin Johnson, a deal that turned the Suns from a franchise scarred by a drug scandal into Arizona’s most consistently popular and successful team.

But relatives, friends and former players, without exception, mention the personal stories, talking about basketball almost casually when remembering him.

"More than a coach," says Dan Majerle, reciting the theme most often recited by his ex-players — the talks of how he continually asked about how they were faring in life off the court.

Mike Woodson, who played for Cotton in Kansas City in 1981-82, says, "Every player on that team had a relationship with him up until the day he died."

That’s why Cotton had a remarkable string of visitors to his home in his final days, when his heart was giving out.

"A wonderful eight days," JoAnn says. "Just incredible. A beautiful good-bye."

Four decades of players attended his funeral, said Woodson, now the Atlanta Hawks coach.

Tonight’s ceremonies surely will pay tribute to his coaching abilities.

He was known as a motivator who, after a bad loss, would find a locker-room toilet and flush it as he instructed his players to "flush this game down," Majerle recalls.

But what will be most remembered about Cotton will be the idiosyncracies that made him one of the NBA’s best-known characters.

Cotton could talk like a marathon runner can breathe. His constant chatter, directed at referees, players or sportswriters, was probably his most memorable characteristic.

The talking didn’t stop on the golf course or at the racetrack (Cotton loved to bet on the ponies), where Cotton continued to coach, say those who knew him best.

Jerry Colangelo, the Suns chairman who was one of his closest friends, recalled the time the two and John Teets, a prominent Valley businessman, were playing a round of golf in Hawaii, in a setting that might have been perfect, had Cotton come up for air a time or two.

Finally, Teets couldn’t take it any more, turning to the chattering coach and saying, "Cotton, don’t you ever shut up? I can’t handle it."

Colangelo thought this was hilarious, but no less funny than the next day. Cotton had left the islands, leaving the two of them to play another round at a beautiful course on a perfect morning.

Teets turns to Colangelo and says, "Do you notice how quiet it is? You know why? Because Cotton isn’t here!"

"The thing that was so funny," said JoAnn, was that, "At home, I was probably more talkative than him.

"And as social as he was, we loved being hermits, being alone at home."

But in dealing with players, coaches and sportswriters, "He loved the exchange and conversations."

He also had a maddening tendency to refuse to admit he was wrong about anything, as in a story reconstructed by JoAnn and ex-Sun Jeff Hornacek.

Cotton used to call Hornacek, a great shooter for the Suns in the late 1980s and early ’90s, "The Paperboy," because — with his nonathletic build — he looked more like a kid on a bike than a pro athlete.

So to jab him back, Hornacek boarded a team bus wearing a fake earring. This was about 1990, when earrings weren’t such a mainstream staple for players, and Hornacek knew he would get a rise out of his coach.

Cotton told the player to get rid of the earring.

Hornacek replied that, "I’m sick of being called ‘The Paperboy,’ ’’ that he needed a new image. Moreover, other players were going to get earrings, too.

As steam rose from Cotton’s ears, Hornacek pulled off the earring and said, "It’s a joke."

Replied Cotton, "I knew that."

Replied Hornacek, "No, you didn’t. Or you wouldn’t have gotten so mad."

Cotton dug himself in even deeper when he said, "The reason I knew it was a joke is that I know that Stacy (Hornacek’s wife) wouldn’t allow you to wear it."

Actually, Stacy was one of the people behind the prank.

Says Hornacek today, "He was always the character that kept things loose. That was my way of keeping things loose and pushing it back on him."

This was a time when the players, coaches and wives were extremely close, with JoAnn and Cotton serving as the social centers of the franchise. Ex-players credit the pair for creating much of the family atmosphere that is associated with the Suns.

"We used to have parties for every possible reason," JoAnn says. Pre-training camp parties, surprise birthday parties, end-of-season parties, pre-draft parties, etc.

Through the years, just about everyone has come up with a Cotton story or two, points out his son Gary. Yet there was much more to him than his colorful persona and coaching success.

"His greatest asset was that he knew how to deal with people," Gary says. And that’s how he was able to move from team to team and coach successfully.

Gary, now a scout for the Hawks, points out his dad was a teacher as well as a coach in the junior college and university ranks in the 1960s, a big believer in education who was demanding both in school and on the basketball floor.

"He wanted his players to be successful as people. He emphasized how important it was to maximize your abilities so you could succeed in life," Gary says.

Tonight, the legacy of Gary’s father and JoAnn’s husband — thanks to the smile and the coat — will be celebrated as he enters the circle of Suns’ immortals.

COPYRIGHT 2005, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.


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