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Saturday, July 24, 2004
Updated: July 25, 9:18 PM ET
Cancer claims Suns executive at 72

Associated Press

PHOENIX -- Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons, who won 832 games in 21 seasons as an NBA coach, died Saturday due to complications from lung cancer. He was 72.

Fitzsimmons was executive vice president of the Phoenix Suns, a team he coached on three occasions.

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

The colorful coach, born in Hannibal, Mo., was a television and radio commentator for the Suns in recent years.

"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. The Suns, the city of Phoenix and the entire NBA family will miss the game's ultimate coach, teacher and communicator."

Colangelo jokingly said that Fitzsimmons was the only man he'd given a lifetime contract, and both said they'd never had any agreement beyond a handshake in Fitzsimmons' years with the franchise.

Fitzsimmons had coaching stints with five teams _ Phoenix, Atlanta, Buffalo, Kansas City and San Antonio. He had a 832-775 (.518) record in the NBA, ranking him 10th in career victories.

Fitzsimmons was head coach at Kansas State for two seasons, earning Big Eight coach of the year honors in 1970, when he directed the Wildcats to the conference title and the NCAA regional semifinals.

Colangelo lured Fitzsimmons to the Suns in 1970, and the coach was 96-67 in two seasons with Phoenix.

From there, Fitzsimmons coached Atlanta from 1972 to 1976. He was director of player personnel for the Golden State Warriors in 1976-77, then coached the Buffalo Braves in the 1977-78 season.

Fitzsimmons moved to Kansas City and coached the Kings from 1978 to 1984, earning coach of the year honors for guiding the team to the Midwest Division title in 1979. He coached the San Antonio Spurs from 1984 to 1986.

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. On Feb. 28, 1988, he helped orchestrate the trade that sent Larry Nance, Mike Sanders and a first-round draft pick to Cleveland for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, and a first- and second-round pick. The first-round pick was used to select Dan Majerle.

The Suns 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.

Fitzsimmons 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.

Fitzsimmons began his coaching career at Moberly Junior College in Missouri, going 223-59 in nine seasons, winning two national titles and twice being named JC coach of the year. He moved to Kansas State as an assistant to Tex Winter, then took over as Wildcats' head coach in 1968.

In his later years, Fitzsimmons was a warm presence on press row, telling stories and offering opinions in his Midwest drawl.

Fitzsimmons is survived by his wife of nearly 26 years, JoAnn, son Gary, two grandchildren, one brother and two sisters.

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