Cotton Fitzsimmons

Cotton Fitzsimmons
Personal information
Born (1931-10-07)October 7, 1931
Hannibal, Missouri
Died July 24, 2004(2004-07-24) (aged 72)
Phoenix, Arizona
Nationality American
Career information
High school Bowling Green
(Bowling Green, Missouri)
Position Shooting guard
Coaching career 1958–1996
Career history
As coach:
1958–1967 Moberly Area CC
1968–1970 Kansas State
19701972 Phoenix Suns
19721976 Atlanta Hawks
1977–1978 Buffalo Braves
19781984 Kansas City Kings
19841986 San Antonio Spurs
19881992 Phoenix Suns
1996 Phoenix Suns
Career highlights and awards

Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons (October 7, 1931 July 24, 2004) was an American college and NBA basketball coach. A native of Bowling Green, Missouri, he attended and played basketball at Hannibal-LaGrange Junior College in Hannibal and Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. He coached the Phoenix Suns three times, was named the NBA Coach of the Year twice, and is often credited as the architect of the Suns' success of the late 1980s and early to middle 1990s.

Early life and career

Fitzsimmons played college basketball at Hannibal-LaGrange, where his jersey is now retired. He got his first coaching job at Moberly Junior College in Moberly, Missouri in 1956. He coached there eleven years, capping his tenure with two national junior college championships (NJCAA), in 1966 and 1967. In 1968, Fitzsimmons was hired by Kansas State University, where he served as head basketball coach for only two seasons before going into the NBA.

College coaching record

Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason
Kansas State (Big Eight Conference) (1968–1970)
1968–69 Kansas State 14–12 9–5 T–2nd
1969–70 Kansas State 20–8 10–4 1st NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Kansas State: 34–20 (.630) 19–9 (.679)
Total: 34–20 (.630)

      National champion         Postseason invitational champion  
      Conference regular season champion         Conference regular season and conference tournament champion
      Division regular season champion       Division regular season and conference tournament champion
      Conference tournament champion

NBA coaching career

In 1970, Fitzsimmons replaced Jerry Colangelo as Suns coach. He took the team to their first winning season, going 48–34 that season.

In 1972, Fitzsimmons went on to coach the Atlanta Hawks. He would return to Phoenix in 1975, to become a permanent resident, although he still coached the Hawks. According to Fitzsimmons, one of the main reasons he accepted a job as Hawks coach was the opportunity to coach Pete Maravich. In 1976, he became the player personnel director for the 1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

In 1977, Cotton Fitzsimmons was hired as head coach by the Buffalo Braves. He lasted there one season, the team's last before relocating to San Diego. Fitzsimmons was then hired by the Kansas City Kings to be their head coach for the next season. With the Kings, he won the NBA "Coach of the Year" award in 1979.

In 1984, his profession took him to San Antonio, Texas, where he was head coach of the Spurs. One year later, in 1985, he was inducted into the National Junior College Hall of Fame.

Second stint with the Suns

Further honors came in 1988, when he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He also returned to the Suns organization that year, becoming one of the driving forces behind the trade that sent Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, Mark West and a future first-round draft pick.

Cotton Fitzsimmons was criticized both by Suns fans and basketball critics after the trade; Nance was very popular in Phoenix. But the Suns had come off a chaotic 19871988 season in which they only won 28 games and lost 54, and the team had been shaken by a drug scandal. With the first round draft pick of 1988, the Suns chose Dan Majerle, and the franchise had a turn-around season, winning 55 games and losing 27 before advancing all the way to the Western Conference's Finals that season, where they were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the 1988 Draft when Majerle was booed by the fans, Fitzsimmons publicly chastised them by saying, "you'll be sorry that you booed this young man."

In 1989, he won his second NBA Coach of the Year Award.

After another successful season, the Suns returned to the NBA Playoffs in 1990. This time around, they returned the favor on the Lakers, beating them 4 games to 1 at the Western Conference's Semi-Finals, but once again, Fitzsimmons' team fell short at the NBA's Western Conference Finals, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers, 4 games to 2.

In 1991, the Suns lost to the Utah Jazz at the Western Conference Playoffs' first round, 3 games to 1. During the rest of the playoffs, Fitzsimmons served briefly as a color commentator for NBC, most notably, alongside Marv Albert for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. In 1992, Cotton Fitzsimmons became only the sixth coach in NBA history to reach 800 wins. After losing to the Trail Blazers at that year's Western Conference Semi-Finals, 4 games to 1, Fitzsimmons retired as coach, to work as Suns senior executive vice-president. By then a long-time friend of Colangelo, he helped Colangelo decide to trade Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry for Charles Barkley, while also helping with the decision of signing free agent Danny Ainge. He also did television commentary, joining Al McCoy for Suns broadcasts.

Third stint with the Suns

In 1996, he returned to the Suns as head coach for the third time, helping the Suns reach the NBA Playoffs, where they lost to the Spurs, 3 games to 1.

The 1996–97 Suns lost their first eight games, and Fitzsimmons resigned as head coach of the Suns. At the moment of his retirement, he had 832 wins and 775 losses, making him the eighth winningest coach in NBA history. He has since slipped to number ten in the all-time winning list as an NBA coach.

Head coaching record

Regular season G Games coached W Games won L Games lost W–L % Win-loss %
Post season PG Playoff games PW Playoff wins PL Playoff losses PW–L % Playoff win-loss %
Team Year G W L WL% Finish PG PW PL PWL% Result
Phoenix 1970–71 824834.5853rd in Midwest Missed playoffs
Phoenix 1971–72 824933.5983rd in Midwest Missed playoffs
Atlanta 1972–73 824636.5612nd in Central624.333 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Atlanta 1973–74 823547.4272nd in Central Missed playoffs
Atlanta 1974–75 823151.3782nd in Central Missed playoffs
Atlanta 1975–76 742846.378(fired)
Buffalo 1977–78 822755.3294th in Atlantic Missed playoffs
Kansas City 1978–79 824834.5851st in Midwest514.200 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Kansas City 1979–80 824735.5732nd in Midwest312.333 Lost in First Round
Kansas City 1980–81 824042.4882nd in Midwest1578.467 Lost in Conf. Finals
Kansas City 1981–82 823052.3664th in Midwest Missed playoffs
Kansas City 1982–83 824537.5493th in Midwest Missed playoffs
Kansas City 1983–84 823844.4634th in Midwest303.000 Lost in First Round
San Antonio 1984–85 824141.5005th in Midwest523.400 Lost in First Round
San Antonio 1985–86 823547.4276th in Midwest303.000 Lost in First Round
Phoenix 1988–89 825527.6712nd in Pacific1275.583 Lost in Conf. Finals
Phoenix 1989–90 825428.6593rd in Pacific1697.563 Lost in Conf. Finals
Phoenix 1990–91 825527.6713rd in Pacific413.250 Lost in First Round
Phoenix 1991–92 825329.6463rd in Pacific844.333 Lost in Conf. Semifinals
Phoenix 1995–96 492722.5514st in Pacific413.250 Lost in First Round
Phoenix 1996–97 808.000(resigned)
Career 1,607832775.518 843549.417

Death and awards

Fitzsimmons was diagnosed with lung cancer later on in life. His family chose to keep his health status private. Months after being diagnosed with cancer, his condition worsened because of a brain stroke. He suffered two more brain strokes before it was finally revealed to the public that he was in serious condition at a local hospital. On July 25, 2004, the morning after his death, the Arizona Republic's sports section's headline read: "Brightest Sun Fitzsimmons dies."

Fitzsimmons was very popular among Phoenix Suns fans and in the organization, and was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2005. He is also a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the National Junior College Hall of Fame.

Fitzsimmons was posthumously nominated for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 and 2012.[1]

A horse race at Turf Paradise in the Phoenix area is named for Fitzsimmons, the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile Handicap. Horses must be four years of age or older, and weight is based on past performances.[2]


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