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