Born in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, it is no wonder Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons had a knack for storytelling. He used that talent to help author one of the NBA’s most prestigious coaching careers.
A few months after the announcement of his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2021 class, Cotton’s legacy was properly immortalized Saturday during a ceremony that recognized him as a peer to the game’s outstanding mentors and leaders. Elected by the Contributor Committee, Cotton’s impact as a player, coach, executive, and broadcaster enriched the game of basketball throughout the back half of the 20th century.
A charming optimist blessed with the gift of gab, Cotton lived his life with contagious positivity. ”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.” His players loved him, even though he had no qualms about challenging them. Maybe that love stemmed from the relationships Fitzsimmons built with his players, ones that transcended basketball. Speaking about Cotton and his wife JoAnn, Eddie Johnson said, “he became my coach, obviously, but a father figure. I grew up in a single-parent household, so I never had a father growing up and she became like my mother away from home.” In his 2004 eulogy of Fitzsimmons, Kevin Johnson echoed a similar sentiment, “he taught me more about life than anybody with the exception of my grandfather.”
Cotton’s boundless enthusiasm and fiery competitiveness endeared him to many. However, combined with his penchant as a wordsmith- former Nuggets coach Doug Moe once quipped, “the Suns could go 82-0 and his coaching could never catch up to his mouth”- Cotton initially had a propensity for rousing referees. True to form, though, he figured out the solution with a bit of clever humor. “In my second year with the Phoenix Suns, I had 37 technical fouls... I had to figure a way to control myself. By getting down on a knee, it took me a little longer to get up. By that time, the play would be gone, I’d cool down and wouldn’t get the technical, at least not in those numbers. Some people might consider that to be style, but I consider it a financial necessity.”
A Distinguished Career
If not for an answer given to a local Missourian sportswriter, Fitzsimmons could have likely started his NBA journey a bit sooner. Upon taking the head job at Moberly Junior College in 1958, Cotton stated he would be at the school until they won two straight national championships. It took him nine years to follow through, but Moberly won titles in ‘66 and ‘67. The following year Cotton joined triangle-architect Tex Winter’s staff at Kansas State, where he spent three seasons (two as the K-State head coach) before he was hired by Jerry Colangelo to helm the Suns.
Through parts of eight seasons across three separate tenures (‘70-’72, ‘88-’92, ‘95-’96), Fitzsimmons would amass the most wins (341) of any Suns coach not named John McLeod. Twice he was named NBA Coach of the Year, earning one apiece with the Kings in ‘78-’79 and Suns in ‘88-’89, and he is one of 10 coaches to win the award multiple times. The latter award came during the first year of his second stint with the team, a season that saw the Suns jump from 28 to 55 wins and earn a conference finals appearance. Cotton led the team back to the conference finals the following season, ultimately bowing out to the Blazers in six games. Fitzsimmons also coached the Hawks, Braves/Clippers, Kings, and Spurs throughout his 21-year career, winning 35 postseason contests in 12 total playoff appearances (including five with the Suns). When he resigned eight games through the ‘96-’97 season, his 832 total wins were sixth in NBA history.
Fitzsimmons served as a Suns executive- he deprecatingly referred to himself as the “Vice President of Nothing”- both before and after his second stint coaching the team. As a front office member, Cotton had a hand in three shrewd deals that set the stage for the franchise’s second finals appearance: 1) acquiring Kevin Johnson from the Cavs, 2) drafting Dan Majerle, and 3) trading for Sir Charles.
Unsurprisingly, Fitzsimmons also thrived within the television booth. As a color commentator, Cotton’s gravelly voice paired with satin-toned legend Al McCoy to form a broadcasting super team. Here they are signing off after a Charles mega-performance in ‘94:
The Induction Ceremony
Within Cotton’s segment of the ceremony, JoAnn Fitzsimmons delivered a wonderful tribute to honor her husband’s legacy. She closes with an excerpt of a letter Bob Costas gave to her after Cotton passed away. Costas wrote, “he treated me like a somebody, when I was a nobody.” That was the magic of Cotton Fitzsimmons, a special person for both the Suns franchise and the local community, and a deserving member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
If you would like to view Cotton’s portion of the induction ceremony in its entirety, the 5:30 clip is displayed below.