Fitzsimmons in 1974
|Born||October 7, 1931|
|Died||July 24, 2004 (aged 72)|
|Listed height||5 ft 7 in (1.70 m)|
|Listed weight||160 lb (73 kg)|
|High school||Bowling Green|
(Bowling Green, Missouri)
|1958-1967||Moberly Area CC|
|1978-1984||Kansas City Kings|
|1984-1986||San Antonio Spurs|
|Career highlights and awards|
Lowell Gibbs "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, Missouri 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. Fitzsimmons won 1,089 games in his coaching career: 223 games at the junior college level, 34 at the Division I college level and 832 in the NBA.
The family of six moved to Bowling Green when "Lowell" was young. There, his fourth grade classmates nicknamed him "Cotton" because of his hair. His father died when he was in fifth grade. His mother raised Cotton and three siblings.
In high school, Bowling Green High School basketball coach James A. Wilson became a key figure for Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons said: "Coach Wilson had the biggest influence on me of any male adult. He taught me the difference between rules and principles. Rules are made to be bent, sometimes even broken. Principles are something you live by. My mother raised me, of course, but I think I looked up to Coach Wilson as a father figure and wanted to be like him."
With the 5'7" Fitzsimmons, Bowling Green High School twice advanced to the Missouri State High School Basketball Tournament.
After graduating from Bowling Green High School, Fitzsimmons worked at a brick plant in nearby Farber, Missouri. He worked for two years to help support the family until his sisters graduated from high school, just as his older brother Orland had done. During those two years, Cotton played 80 game seasons for the brickyard basketball team, was a basketball referee for local high school games and was a baseball infielder on a Bowling Green town baseball team, serving as the team manager. On his first taste of coaching, he recalled, "It's not easy going to the mound as a kid and taking out your pitcher, who's probably 30."
In 1952, Fitzsimmons enrolled at Hannibal-LaGrange College (HLG), then a junior college in Hannibal, Missouri. Fitzsimmons became a junior-college All-American, averaging 25.5 points a game at Hannibal-LaGrange (where his jersey is now retired). He led the team to the NJCAA Tournament.
Fitzsimmons left Missouri to attend Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. There, he averaged 13.3 points over 82 games and scored a career 1,095 points, while helping the Mustangs to the NAIA Tournament quarterfinals in 1956. Fitzsimmons turned down an offer to play AAU basketball for the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots and remained at Midwestern State after graduation to earn a master's degree in administrative education. He decided his ambition was to become a professional basketball coach.
After earning his degrees at Midwestern State, Fitzsimmons returned to Missouri. He accepted the position as head coach at Moberly Junior College in Moberly, Missouri in 1958, replacing Maury John. Fitzsimmons coached for nine seasons (1958-1967) at Moberly, with a record of 223-59 (.790). When asked in his interview how long he planned to stay at Moberly if hired, ""I gave him the dumbest answer I ever gave anyone," he said, "I told him I'd be there till we won two titles in a row." Fitzsimmons proceeded to finish his tenure at Moberly with back-to-back NJCAA National Championships, in 1966 and 1967.
Fitzsimmons was hired by Kansas State University, serving as an assistant coach in 1967-1968 under Head Coach Tex Winter. There he learned the Triangle Offense from Winter, who left after the season for Washington and recommended Fitzsimmons to replace him. In 1968, he was named Head Coach at Kansas State. Fitzsimmons' first team at KSU finished 14-12. In 1969-1970, The Wildcats went a surprising 20-8, capturing the Big 8 Conference Championship. He was named 1970 Big 8 Coach of the Year and led the Wildcats to the Sweet Sixteen of the 1970 NCAA Tournament. Fitzsimmons then moved to the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.
In 1970, Fitzsimmons replaced Jerry Colangelo as head coach of the Phoenix Suns. It was Colangelo, serving as General Manager, who sought Fitzsimmons for the position. At first Colangelo had called Fitzsimmons and asked about other possible candidates. Eventually, Colangelo asked Fitzsimmons, "How would you like the job?" Fitzsimmons took the position and led the Suns to their first winning season, going 48-34 that season. The relationship between Colangelo and Fitzsimmons would be lengthy, as Fitzsimmons would serve the Suns in multiple capacities, including three tenures as head coach. Fitzsimmons worked for Colangelo on one year contracts, without any discussion of compensation throughout their long tenure together.
In 1972, Fitzsimmons left Phoenix and became coach of the Atlanta Hawks. He was 140-180 in four seasons, with one playoff appearance. He returned to Phoenix to reside in 1975, 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. The Hawks traded Maravich to the New Orleans Jazz in May, 1974 and Fitzsimmons was left with a young team and a rotating front office."Presidents and GMs were flying out of here like paper clips." he told Sports Illustrated. On May 30, 1976, Fitzsimmons was replaced by his assistant Bumper Tormohlen with the Hawks at 28-46.
On August 4, 1976, Fitzsimmons was hired as player personnel director for the Golden State Warriors, to replace the late Bob Feerick, working alongside Al Attles, who was Coach and General Manager. Attles said, 'I have a long-standing relation with Cotton and have always admired and respected him as a person, coach, and evaluator of talent," There, the team made a series of trades of veteran players to acquire future draft picks.
Fitzsimmons quickly returned to coaching, becoming head coach by the Buffalo Braves, hired by General Manager Norm Sonju on August 5, 1977. His one season as Braves head coach (27-55) was the team's last in Buffalo. The franchise moved to become the San Diego Clippers. The Braves changed owners and the team was moved and rebranded and Fitzsimmons reflected of his tenure jokingly, "I think Buffalo got a raw deal as far as the NBA," he said years later. "I enjoyed everything Buffalo. What I feel bad about is the franchise ... I guess I've got to take credit for folding the franchise."
Fitzsimmons was immediately hired as head coach of the Kansas City Kings for the 1978-1979 season. Fitzsimmons spent six seasons with the Kings, with a 248-244 record and four playoff appearances. He won the 1979 NBA Coach of the Year Award,as the Kings finished 48-34 after finishing 31-51 the previous season. In the 1981 playoffs the 6th seed, with a losing regular season record, the Kings knocked off the top-seeded Phoenix Suns and advanced to the Western Conference finals, where they lost the semi-finals to the Houston Rockets in five games. Prior to the 1983-1984 season, the Kansas City Kings were sold to a group in Sacramento, California and the franchise was in limbo with a pending move to Sacramento. The Kings qualified for the playoffs and Fitzsimmons resigned after the season.
On May 9, 1984, Fitzsimmons left Kansas City to become head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were 76-88 in Fitzsimmons two seasons, qualifying for the playoffs both seasons. Fitzsimmons was fired by the Spurs on April 29, 1986.
Colangelo and Fitzsimmons reunited in 1986, as Fitzsimmons returned to the Suns organization, joining Colangelo in the Suns' front office. He would later return to the bench as head coach of the Suns in 1988. He was 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 (who was Dan Majerle). The Suns also drafted Steve Kerr in the second round in 1988.
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 1987–1988 season in which they 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. Fitzsimmons inherited a team that had finished 28-54, and improved them to 55-27. The Suns defeated the Denver Nuggets (3-0) and Golden State Warriors (4-1) in the playoffs before being swept by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
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 in 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 in that year's Western Conference Semifinals, 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.
The 1996-97 Suns lost their first eight games, and Fitzsimmons resigned as head coach. With 832 wins and 775 losses, Fitzsimmons was the eighth winningest coach in NBA history. He has since slipped to number ten in the all-time winning list as an NBA coach.
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.
"Cotton Fitzsimmons embodied all things that are great about life and the game of basketball," Suns chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo said. "His energy, passion and upbeat approach to everything impacted those that he touched in a positive and meaningful way."
Fitzsimmons was survived by his wife JoAnn, and his son, Gary.
Mabel McCormick a program supporter (her husband was the volunteer team doctor), who kept the scorebook and statistics for Fitzsimmons at Moberly Community College, lived to be over 100 years old. She said her relationship with Fitzsimmons was special. Mabel said that she played a role in recruiting Fitzsimmons to Moberly after having seen him play at Hannibal-LaGrange, saying she went to the board and recommended him, along with an influential sports writer from the area. "I was convinced he was the right person," she said. She said of their relationship afterwards, "During his days here, Cotton was like a member of my family. He probably is my favorite. Even after he left Moberly and ended up with professional basketball we kept in close contact with one another and he would come to Moberly to visit me."
"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." -Cotton Fitzsimmons
|Kansas State (Big Eight Conference) (1968-1970)|
|1969-70||Kansas State||20-8||10-4||1st||NCAA Sweet Sixteen|
|Kansas State:||34-20 (.630)||19-9 (.679)|
Postseason invitational champion
|Phoenix||1970-71||82||48||34||.585||3rd in Midwest||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Phoenix||1971-72||82||49||33||.598||3rd in Midwest||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Atlanta||1972-73||82||46||36||.561||2nd in Central||6||2||4||.333||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Atlanta||1973-74||82||35||47||.427||2nd in Central||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Atlanta||1974-75||82||31||51||.378||2nd in Central||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Buffalo||1977-78||82||27||55||.329||4th in Atlantic||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Kansas City||1978-79||82||48||34||.585||1st in Midwest||5||1||4||.200||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Kansas City||1979-80||82||47||35||.573||2nd in Midwest||3||1||2||.333||Lost in First Round|
|Kansas City||1980-81||82||40||42||.488||2nd in Midwest||15||7||8||.467||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Kansas City||1981-82||82||30||52||.366||4th in Midwest||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Kansas City||1982-83||82||45||37||.549||3rd in Midwest||--||--||--||--||Missed playoffs|
|Kansas City||1983-84||82||38||44||.463||4th in Midwest||3||0||3||.000||Lost in First Round|
|San Antonio||1984-85||82||41||41||.500||5th in Midwest||5||2||3||.400||Lost in First Round|
|San Antonio||1985-86||82||35||47||.427||6th in Midwest||3||0||3||.000||Lost in First Round|
|Phoenix||1988-89||82||55||27||.671||2nd in Pacific||12||7||5||.583||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Phoenix||1989-90||82||54||28||.659||3rd in Pacific||16||9||7||.563||Lost in Conf. Finals|
|Phoenix||1990-91||82||55||27||.671||3rd in Pacific||4||1||3||.250||Lost in First Round|
|Phoenix||1991-92||82||53||29||.646||3rd in Pacific||8||4||4||.333||Lost in Conf. Semifinals|
|Phoenix||1995-96||49||27||22||.551||4th in Pacific||4||1||3||.250||Lost in First Round|