By Tom Leander
It was just minutes before the open to a 1994 Phoenix Suns preseason broadcast at America West Arena and my nerves were on high alert. Hired as a studio host the previous season, the team now asked me to fill-in and call the play-by-play on Cox Cable. Growing up in Phoenix as a young Suns ballboy and lifelong fan, I had all my friends and family tuned in.
I was a mental wreck.
"You're gonna be juss fine, juss fine. I'll be righ next ta you. Just relax 'n have fun,” Cotton Fitzsimmons said in his familiar, raspy and unforgettable voice.
Those encouraging words from the Hall-of-Fame coach brought my anxiety level down to a much more manageable level. Cotton became my broadcasting GPS and helped steer me away from television disaster.
Needless to say, Cotton once again took one for the team. The former Suns head coach and longtime color analyst was working with an overzealous play-by-play youngster who was pinch hitting for his usual sidekick and Phoenix legend, Al McCoy.
But that was Cotton. He filled any and every role for the Suns. Heck, when you walked into his office, his nameplate read, "Cotton Fitzsimmons, Vice President of Nothing." Yet, it should have said "Everything."
Cotton provided the Suns a coach, a broadcaster, a mentor, a father figure, a shrewdly-expert “talent scout” and the best public relations representative in franchise history, outside of perhaps The Gorilla. This Saturday, he will be enshrined and honored posthumously in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his 21 years as an NBA head coach, including three tenures with the Suns, and all he did to impact the game of basketball through his decades of dedication to the game.
“His relationships played a signature role in how we restructured our team, and acquired talent through trades and the draft,” Suns founder Jerry Colangelo said. “His contributions over such a long period of time were an enormous part of the success of the Phoenix Suns franchise and this honor of being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is a just reward for a lifetime of contributing to the wonderful game of basketball.”
Beyond all he accomplished from the sidelines, Cotton was a friend to anyone and everyone.
“He had an outstanding personality because, as he would tell you, he never had a bad day in his life,” McCoy said. “His line used to be, 'I get up in the morning and if I'm on the right side of the grass, that's a good day.' He was such a positive person. He expressed that to everybody that knew him personally or even accidentally.”
His relationship with Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight dates back nearly a half-century. To this day, Knight reflects on memories of going out to dinner with Cotton and his wife, JoAnn Fitzsimmons, following Suns games saying it was, “One of life’s greatest pleasures.”
“As a fan, I would ask a question about what I had just seen,” Knight said. “And then there on the tablecloth, the Diet Coke can was screening the water glass, to get the butter dish open for a jumper. And, I, like his players would understand.”
Because with Cotton, his love of the game shone through his constant appetite to breakdown the action, as well as share his passion with those around him.
“Of all the hundreds of basketball coaches I have known, he was my best friend,” Knight said. “Outgoing and gregarious, he was the opposite of my loner style common in long distance runners.”
Along with all the other hats that he wore for the organization, Cotton even became the team's Uber driver. After helping facilitate the “Greatest Deal in Suns History,” Cotton met Charles Barkley at the Sky Harbor Airport gate in the summer of 1992. Weaving through the media traffic in the terminal (yes, I was one of the human roadblocks trying to get a soundbite), Cotton escorted Barkley into his convertible.
Keep in mind, it was June in Phoenix, AZ! But top down in the blazing heat, the two drove off toward the most memorable and remarkable chapter in Suns history.
"It was a perfect match," Barkley said. "He was a great guy. He loved to have fun. We played a lot of golf together. But man, he could talk trash with the best of them. Cotton was a basketball lifer. When he had got to me, he had been in the game probably for 100 years. So it was easy to mess around with me."
Cotton and Sir Charles were, and still are, two of the most colorful characters in Suns’ lore. Their bond grew from shared, dynamic personalities and Cotton's genuine approach to relationships.
Cotton and JoAnn grabbed the baton from The Colangelos and The MacLeods to accentuate the family-focused culture in Phoenix. They helped humanize the NBA by inviting not only the Suns players, but their spouses and children into the Suns family through respect, integrity and acceptance.
Even players that Cotton traded away didn’t confuse the business of basketball with the heart of their coach. Eddie Johnson won 6th Man of the Year with the Suns in 1989, but was dealt to Seattle just a year and a half later.
Johnson acknowledges that trade was a difficult circumstance for both he and Cotton due to their close-bonded relationship, but admits that it was needed because, “Like a father and son, we bumped heads.”
“When I returned in the offseason, JoAnn and my wife, Joy, got us together and we cried and made up. I loved that man,” Johnson said.
Growing up in Chicago, EJ was raised by a single mother and looked to his high school and college coaches to fill that father figure role in helping motivate him in both life and basketball. When he ultimately reached the NBA, Cotton not only embraced that role, but took it to a new level.
“His patience and belief in me combined with his love for my family was simply amazing,” Johnson said.
EJ wasn’t the only player that Cotton embraced as a member of his own family, as Kevin Johnson grew up in a similar situation in Sacramento. Make no mistake, Cotton was a demanding coach, but also dedicated the time to connecting deeply with his players.
“Cotton was as authentic as they come and his positive, upbeat approach to basketball and life should be a blueprint for all to follow,” KJ said. “He always had a way of simplifying things and his motto of ‘play hard, play together, and have fun’ applies to so many aspects of life. I fully bought into his vision and leaned on it throughout my career to help drive me through the ups and downs.”
His special bond with KJ went even deeper in later years. Just recently, JoAnn revealed that in the final month of Cotton’s life as he was battling lung cancer, he needed 24-hour care. That care was provided by a professional nurse by the name of Georgia West, who moved in with the Fitzsimmons. She is also Kevin Johnson’s mother.
“I was honored to help take care of Cotton during his last days,” West said. “He deserved the best and I wanted to do whatever I could to make that difficult time easier. Cotton was loved and adored by everyone. Players, coaches and friends came to see him from all over the country. It was amazing. I will never forget the wonderful experience we shared together. It is ingrained on my heart.”
For KJ, it was tremendously comforting to know that his mother was by Cotton’s side, assisting both him and JoAnn throughout the most challenging of days.
“Cotton and JoAnn were part of our family and to know my mom, a nurse by trade and a very nurturing person, was there to provide compassion, understanding, and love to two people we loved dearly meant the world to me,” KJ said. “Just as Cotton had helped nurture me, my mom was able to do the same in Cotton and JoAnn's time of need. We would have it no other way."
Cotton had a one-of-a-kind way of expressing his positive outlook through his passion for his job, his team and his community. When it came to caring about others, Cotton’s affectionate personality went far and beyond just his team, staff and close acquittances, but to nearly any stranger who crossed his path.
But that’s because to Cotton, no one was truly a stranger.
“That's who he was,” JoAnn said. “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.”
Cotton cared about his connection to the players and The Valley. I never saw him turn down an autograph request or pass up a chance to chat with a fan. Once, to help raise money for Suns Charities, I joined Cotton and JoAnn as they babysat for a young girl, the daughter of well-known concert promoter Danny Zelisko. The renowned coach and his wife played make-believe with the 4 year-old girl and her army of stuffed animals along with numerous other childishly fun activities.
“Whether it was babysitting or any of the innumerable appearances, Cotton was willing to do anything to help raise money,” JoAnn said. “He would have been happy to babysit alone, but I said ‘Why don’t I come along with you.’ It just shows how comfortable Cotton was in any situation. He was just as comfortable with a 4-year-old as he was with a player or a parent or any adult. He could relate to anybody.”
Watching Cotton coach the sidelines was nearly as entertaining as the game itself. The facial contortions, the hops and mini leg-kicks along the sidelines, the non-stop banter with the referees, the exhilaration mixed with exasperation, and the positively passionate approach to each play while kneeling, then standing, then looking for his Diet Coke on the scorer’s table. It was wonderfully exhausting to watch him manage each game.
“Cotton’s antics were hilarious,” Tom Chambers said. “I had to look away sometimes to keep from laughing. One time when he kicked his leg, he almost fell into the scorer’s table. But his message was always to go fast and faster. Just go, go, go! Run, play hard and have fun. He was so optimistic.”
Cotton's coaching career with the Suns has three chapters. He was initially hired by Colangelo in 1970 and had great success in his first two seasons in Phoenix before leaving for Atlanta. He then returned to the Suns as Director of Player Personnel in the late '80s when he constructed the deal that completely transformed and revived the franchise, acquiring Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin.
Cotton reclaimed his former spot on the Suns sidelines as head coach in 1988 spearheading the uber-popular and entertaining “Cotton Express” teams and eventually becoming the sixth coach in NBA history to reach 800 wins. He once again retired from coaching in 1992, transitioning into a senior executive vice president for the organization.
His third and final run as head coach of the Suns was typical Cotton. With the team struggling, he answered the S.O.S. call, setting aside the headset and microphone to bridge the coaching gap between Paul Westphal and Danny Ainge.
For a number of years, Cotton teamed-up with one of his players, Kurt Rambis, to host a five-day fantasy basketball camp for adults. It took place in the majestic setting of Lake Tahoe complete with referees, professional coaching from not only Cotton and Rambis, but also Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins and former Suns assistant coach Lionel Hollins.
Longtime NBA broadcaster Neil Funk provided play-by-play in the Championship game, while videographer Dave Grapentine and I documented this unforgettable experience as part of the best trade-out: five days in Tahoe in return for coverage of the activities and a professionally edited videotape for each of the campers. Done Deal!
While we may have been hired hands, Cotton and JoAnn made us feel like family (there's that term again) and also invited us to enjoy Tahoe with our significant others. We valued the opportunity as much as the campers. There were lakeside buffets, hikes into the beautiful forest overlooking Lake Tahoe and, of course, excursions to the casinos.
But truly the campers were who really cashed in with their Tahoe experience. One of my good friends, a self-proclaimed basketball junkie, attended the fantasy camp and said he still benefits from the lessons he learned from Cotton, applying those lessons of teaching and the power of positivity all these years later as a volunteer coach for kids.
“Cotton was always such a great communicator,” Rambis said. “His points of emphasis were family, togetherness and building bonds. That’s how he was with his NBA players and that carried over to the fantasy camps. He wanted everyone to bring their families and kids and make a vacation out of the camp. He was just always upbeat, positive and full of energy in everything he did. He loved coaching and teaching whether it was for the pros or the players at the camps.
Apparently Rambis also received extra coaching during his playing days from Cotton as well. And while this had nothing to do with basketball, it had everything to do with Cotton’s forever desire to go above and beyond to help his players in any way possible.
“Kurt was losing his hair and Cotton told him to use a brush instead of a comb to keep his hair from falling out,” Chambers said. “Cotton literally grabbed a brush in the locker room and showed Kurt how to use it to prevent hair loss! What coach does that?!”
Cotton had his own TV show, “The Cotton Express”, where he hosted, interviewed and entertained, any of which were taped at Max’s Sports Bar in Glendale.
He didn't need a co-host. There was no teleprompter. Cotton was in charge and in his element.
And of course, he was also the show’s booking agent. Because why not? He had access to all the players. I mean, who’s going to tell their head coach “No” if he asked them to appear on his show.
In one memorable segment of The Cotton Express, Dan Majerle joined his coach. Unfortunately for Thunder Dan the lights of the set combined with a warm gymnasium turned the stage into a steam room. The sweat came pouring off Majerle’s movie star face and his coach had to literally throw in the towel, tossing a sweat rag to his perspiring young star.
There was also another regular segment on a weekly Suns show called Cotton’s Corner. His favorite guest was... you guessed it… Sir Charles. And they made TV magic. Cotton and Charles spent most of the interview trading light-hearted insults. Every once in a while, they even talked about basketball.
The key to this relationship was genuine admiration and respect for each other. Cotton could always be incredibly honest with Barkley and vice versa. It made for great TV and pure comedy. Viewers ate it up and so did the small studio audience. Most of the tapings occurred after games with JoAnn and Maureen Barkley watching and likely adding their own commentary from behind the cameras.
As a member of Cotton and McCoy's broadcast team, it was fascinating to watch how Cotton quickly transformed from the loquacious and lovable broadcaster to a still lovable, but more serious NBA head coach who needed to quickly gain the trust of his team in the locker room and on the court.
“When he put on the coaching hat, he became that individual, someone that was in charge of his team and of his players,” McCoy said. “When he put on the hat to be an analyst on a radio or telecast, he was there to express the game to the viewers or the listeners. It required two different approaches, but he had that ability to make the transition, to be a coach, be in charge, run the team, be strong, be succinct. And he also had the ability to come back and express himself about the game and encourage the interests to the listeners or the viewers.”
The two now-Hall of Fame legends first met when Cotton brought his Moberly Junior College team to Des Moines, Iowa, where McCoy was a student at Drake University. The duo never dreamed that their paths would cross again at the NBA level in Phoenix, but the broadcasting partners eventually became very close friends.
“Just a couple of farm guys from the Midwest,” Cotton and McCoy formed the Suns Dream Team. To this day, Suns fans still sing the praises of that legendary combination. As an eyewitness, it was obvious that one of the major reasons for their success was Cotton's utter esteem for McCoy. The coach who won over 800 games was willing to be a role player on the broadcast, never stepping on McCoy during a call or contradicting the Hall of Fame broadcaster, while still adding his own colorful commentary.
“It never ceases to amaze me how terrific he was,” McCoy said. “Obviously, he loved basketball. He loved the NBA. He was a coach. But he wasn't what you'd call a professional broadcaster, but he certainly acted like one. He had that tremendous ability as an analyst, in a fast-moving game like NBA basketball, to be able to come in, say what he had to say in a hurry and get out.”
Cotton’s spirit is certainly still alive today. Every year since his passing, JoAnn has hosted an event at Cotton’s beloved hangout, Turf Paradise, a horseracing track in north Phoenix.
The Cotton Mile has become a featured race with many of his closest friends gathering to share stories and continue that circle of support around JoAnn.
The spirit of Cotton is also celebrated annually with an award by that name. Each season, Phoenix Suns Charities honors a local high school basketball coach for their leadership, dedication and service to the community in helping guide and mentor student-athletes. The ceremony is held at mid-court during a Suns pregame and has taken place underneath Cotton’s image in the Suns Ring of Honor. The Spirit of Cotton Award is a tradition that provides strength and solace for JoAnn while keeping Cotton alive in our hearts.
“The Spirit of Cotton Award is so heart-warming to me,” JoAnn said. “Reading all the nomination forms and all the examples they use to highlight the high school coaches in Arizona is incredibly uplifting. They really do reflect Cotton and his values. It’s all about how these coaches, men and women, are molding their young players. They are not just teaching them about basketball and winning games but teaching them about life.”
And now, finally and deservedly, Cotton claims his forever place in basketball history as he is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Just as they were during my first broadcast with Cotton by my side, my emotions were on high alert after finding out that Cotton would be inducted. My mind immediately drifted back to that first play-by-play game, the numerous shows we eventually did together, the nightly pre-production meetings in the Al McCoy Media Center where Cotton would hold court on everything from that night’s opponent to his cabbage soup diet, and the memory of the day of his funeral where so many former players flew in from around the country.
His pallbearers looked like an NBA All-Star team. That evening at sunset, in a moment that is seared into my memory, I went for my usual run on the Arizona Biltmore golf course. Only this time I was being followed along the course. Above me for at least two to three minutes flew a gorgeous gray hawk. Symbolic and powerful because Cotton lived and eventually passed in the Grayhawk community of north Scottsdale.
“He has been gone for 17 years and I still find myself in a difficult situation and asking myself, ‘What would Cotton do?’ Knight said.
So here we are in Springfield, 17 years since his passing. Again, a large group of Cotton’s admirers gather, this time celebrating the ultimate professional compliment, enshrined forever with a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. JoAnn asked Jerry Colangelo, Charles Barkley and Phil Knight, who is unable to attend, to lead her up the steps to the stage.
“As Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, I was touched deeply when the honors committee voted Cotton into the Hall of Fame family,” Colangelo said. “It warmed my heart because of our intimate relationship that he could be immortalized in this fashion. I am deeply honored to be one of the presenters at Cotton’s induction, chosen by his wife JoAnn, who was an integral part of Cotton’s life, an inseparable twosome.”
And watching from the birthplace of basketball, I’m sure I will hear Cotton’s gravelly voice, above the fluttering of wings and sounds of a dribbling basketball:
"Time Out!! Time Out!! Okay, C'mon....Geddon with it! We gotta game to play up here. Westy!!! Ya gotta fight through that pick....Box out, Hawk!!"