October 7, 1931|
July 24, 2004 (aged 72)|
(Bowling Green, Missouri)
|1958–1967||Moberly Area CC|
|1978–1984||Kansas City Kings|
|1984–1986||San Antonio Spurs|
|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
|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
NBA coaching career
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.
Second stint with the Suns
Further honors came in 1988, when Fitzsimmons 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 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."
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
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 %|
|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|
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.
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.
- Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile Featured Saturday at Turf Paradise, January 14, 2015, Turf Paradise