The resume of Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons is extensive and spans 21 professional and 12 collegiate coaching years. The statistics he posted are impressive but are morphed by the character of the man who earned them.
As Mike Tulumello of East Valley Tribune described, “as a coach, he was known less as a master strategist than a motivator and fixer of teams that had broken down. He applied a lighter touch on veteran players who knew the game’s ropes than young players who were feeling their way along”.
On Sunday it was announced that Fitzsimmons would posthumously be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He will be the 12th former member of the Phoenix Suns to join the Hall and will do so on Saturday, September 11, 2021.
Cotton came to Phoenix in 1970 from the Kansas State Wildcats — where he had coached over famed innovator of the triangle offense Tex winters — and led the Suns to their first ever winning season in ’70-’71. Following two seasons in which he won 98 games, Fitzsimmons left for the Atlanta Hawks. It wasn’t, “good-bye”, it was “see you later”, as he would make numerous trips back to the Valley, assisting the Suns and Jerry Colangelo in numerous capacities.
Following a scathing drug scandal that rocked the Suns organization, Cotton would return in 1986 in a front office capacity to help rebuild the team and move past the unfortunate period in Phoenix history. He was a key player in the 1988 Kevin Johnson trade.
When the Suns drafted Dan Majerle with the 14th pick of the 1988 NBA Draft, a pick Suns fans were against, he famously said, “you’ll be sorry that you booed this young man.”
The following season he took the reigns of the team as head coach and took the team from 28 wins to 55 wins. The effort earned him Coach of the Year honors and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, where the Suns lost to the Showtime Lakers in 4.
Fitzsimmons retied from coaching in 1992 but stayed on as the Suns senior executive vice-president, making way for former Phoenix player Paul Westphal to take the coaching helm. He soon joined the Suns telecast as the color commentator with with Al McCoy and had “Cotton’s Corner” on the Phoenix Suns Jam Session Show.
Cotton was known for his “broadcasting insights and sense of humor on playoff telecasts”.
He returned to coach the Phoenix Suns once again in 1996 following Westphal’s departure, posting a record of 27-22 and leading the Suns to the playoffs. He started the 1996-97 season 0-8 and coached his final NBA game on November 14, 1996 in Vancouver against the Grizzlies.
When he retied, Cotton was the eighth winningest coach in NBA history. He has since slipped to tenth in the all-time winning list as an NBA coach.
Fitzsimmons passed away at the age of 72 years-old of lung cancer in 2004. As stated in his obituary, “While remaining dedicated to his role as coach, Cotton also carefully nurtured his relationships with his family and friends...Using his personal approach and positive outlook, he built a reputation for taking over struggling teams and turning them into instant contenders”.
He earned the following during his coaching career:
- Big 8 Coach of the Year in 1970.
- NBA Coach of the Year in 1979 (Kansas City Kings) and 1989 (Phoenix Suns).
- 832 career NBA coaching wins, 311 with the Suns.
- 1,607 games coached, 549 of which came with the Phoenix Suns (2nd behind John MacLeod).
- 2005 Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor inductee.
- And now, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Class of 2021.
Congratulations to Coach Cotton and his wife JoAnn, and thank you for what you have meant to the city of Phoenix and to the Suns organization.