One last hello ... and goodbye
Word reached me that Cotton Fitzsimmons had lung cancer sometime in May. I tried to reach him by phone a couple of times but his old numbers were no longer in service. I was busy with my ESPN playoff broadcast schedule and kept putting off tracking him down. I finally got a number where he could be reached from Mike Woodson, then a Detroit assistant. I left messages and finally reached Cotton during the NBA Finals.
I spoke first to his loving wife, Joann, who said in a cheerful voice, "Cotton's been waiting for your call, Jack. Let me get him."
"Doc, how you doin'?" he asked, his voice booming through the phone.
I should have expected nothing less. You'd never have guessed that he was in ill health. His voice was strong and he seemed as upbeat as ever. He talked about the discovery of the tumor in his lung. "You know that I never smoked," Cotton said. "It (his condition) was just one of those things that nobody has an answer to."
He then spoke matter-of-factly, in a kind of amused manner, about the effects the chemotherapy was having on his body. "One of my legs has gotten bigger. ... It was up to a Kevin Duckworth size there for awhile, but now it's down to about a Karl Malone," he said with a laugh. "I'm walking around a little bit, so I guess I'm doin' all right."
Then we settled in to talk about the NBA.
Cotton loved to talk. His favorite subject was the game of basketball -- all phases of it. He had strong opinions about the game and those who administered it, coached it or played it, and he enjoyed expressing those opinions to anyone who would listen. He spoke at length about the great job Hubie Brown had done with Memphis and Larry Brown's impact on the Pistons.
Cotton's players loved him. He had a straight-forward approach that all players appreciated. He was critical when he needed to be and lavished them with praise when they deserved it. What you saw in Cotton Fitzsimmons was what you got. No frills, no sham ... pure person.
Cotton was the best friend I had among NBA coaches. He was one of the few that I would get together with after a game, and I was not normally a good companion after a loss. Cotton knew that, and he'd say to me before the game, "Now look, Doc ... we're going to go out and have a nice meal after the game. Just you and me. Win or lose." I'd agree, and we would do just that.
Cotton was the same upbeat personality whether he won or lost. He would perk up my spirits if his team had won. He'd do most of the talking, but it was always a pleasant time. It was impossible to stay depressed if you were in Cotton Fitzsimmons' company.
Cotton placed a personal touch on the outcome of a game.
"Well, Doc, you beat me tonight. You had your guys ready ... you were good tonight, Doc," he would say. Or he'd say: "I got you good tonight, Doc."
Then he would go on to tell me how his team had beaten mine ... but in a way I didn't mind hearing. I didn't put that kind of personal attachment to the outcome of games, but I didn't object to Cotton's approach.
We coached a lot games against each other. We each won our share of those games. But there was one time that I felt that Cotton did "beat me." It was in the 1981 playoffs when I coached Portland and Cotton coached Kansas City (now Sacramento). The Blazers had a better team (45-37) than the Kings (40-42) and had home-court advantage in the best-of-3 format at that time.
But Cotton beat me in overtime in Game 1, then beat me again in Game 3 after we had tied the series in Kansas City. The Kings went on to upset Phoenix in the conference semifinals that season before losing to Houston in the conference finals. I thought it was the best coaching job in his 21-year NBA career.
But whether he beat you, or you beat him, Cotton was always the same guy -- upbeat and effervescent. He loved life and made everyone around him feel a little better about theirs, if only for the time he was there with them.
Deep inside, he may have known that he wasn't going to beat his last opponent, but he didn't let it show. "Another thing the chemo has done ... it's darkened my hair," Cotton said. "But I've still got it, Doc, I've still got it." It was his way of telling me that he had beaten me again.
The last thing he said to me was, "I love you, Doc."
The last thing I said to him was, "I love you too, Cotton."
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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