Cotton was fixture with Suns

Updated: July 25, 2004, 11:14 PM ET
Associated Press

PHOENIX -- Former Phoenix Suns coach Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons was remembered Sunday as a straight-shooting, feisty fixture of the franchise for more than 30 years.

Fitzsimmons, 72, the three-time Suns coach and two-time NBA Coach of the Year, died Saturday due to complications from lung cancer.

"He has always been a great friend and I appreciate him bringing me to Phoenix. It changed my basketball career forever," said Charles Barkley, who was in Phoenix last week to visit Fitzsimmons in the hospital. "I'm glad I got a chance to tell him that before he passed away."

Nicknamed "Cotton" for his fluffy white hair -- in the day when he had a lot of it -- players and coaches said Fitzsimmons didn't take himself too seriously.

"Cotton brought color to everything he touched," said former Suns assistant coach Donn Nelson, now with the Dallas Mavericks. "Whether it was the office or the arena, you always knew when he was in the room."

Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo has jokingly said that Fitzsimmons was the only man he'd given a lifetime contract. Both said they'd never had any agreement beyond a handshake in Fitzsimmons' years with the franchise.

Colangelo lured Fitzsimmons to the Suns in 1970. Fitzsimmons left to coach Atlanta in 1972 but later returned to Phoenix.

He became coach of the Suns for the second time in 1988 after serving one year as the franchise's first director of player personnel.

Colangelo credited Fitzsimmons with rebuilding the Suns. They won 55 games in the 1988-89 season, 21 more than the previous season.

Fitzsimmons left the sidelines in 1992 after guiding Phoenix to four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference finals.

He moved to the Suns' front office, but took over as coach again when Paul Westphal was fired in January of 1996. When Phoenix got off to a 0-8 start the following year, Fitzsimmons turned coaching duties over to Danny Ainge and returned to his position as senior vice president.

"He always felt like he could win. His popularity, it came across to the players and the fans," Ainge said.

On Sunday, the Suns dedicated the team's Web site to thoughts of Fitzsimmons from former players and coaches.

"To be honest, he won a lot of basketball games, and I mean a lot of basketball games, with very mediocre teams," said former Suns forward Connie Hawkins. "If they really checked the records, the games he won and the teams he carried, he probably should be nominated for the Hall of Fame."

For many, Fitzsimmons was more than a friend.

"He was a father figure, a mentor and a true friend. His spirit, passion and generosity will forever hold a place in my heart and on each Father's Day," said former Suns' guard Kevin Johnson.

Most recently, the colorful coach was a television and radio commentator for Suns games.

"A few times, he wound up in my lap. He liked to lean against me when he got excited during the game and sometimes that got a little hectic," said Al McCoy, the Suns senior vice president of broadcasting.

"I'll miss that leaning against me, believe me," McCoy said.

Even in his final moments, Fitzsimmons was upbeat, said former Sun's forward Dan Majerle.

"When I went and visited him in the hospital, he was sitting up and he gave me the thumbs up, and you could tell there was still a lot of fight in him. He was very positive and that's just the way he's always been."

Fitzsimmons had been in a Phoenix-area care center since suffering a stroke earlier this month. In April, a malignant tumor was found on Fitzsimmons' lung, near his heart.

Funeral services were scheduled for Monday night at St. Timothy Catholic Community in suburban Mesa. His burial will be private.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press