Former Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons to be enshrined in Basketball Hall on Saturday

Mark Faller and Kent Somers
Arizona Republic
Cotton Fitzsimmons, one of the most popular figures in Phoenix Suns history, will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

He was bold. He was a winner. And on Saturday, he becomes a Hall of Famer.

Cotton Fitzsimmons, the most popular coach in Phoenix Suns history and one of the most successful, will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of a 16-person class from across the game's spectrum.

“He was well respected in the league," said former Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, who will present Fitzsimmons for induction in Springfield, Mass., along with former Suns star Charles Barkley and Phil Knight, the former Nike CEO and long-time friend of Fitzsimmons. "Players loved to play for him. And he had an outstanding career."

Colangelo said he expected former Suns players Eddie Johnson, Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson to be on hand to celebrate Fitzsimmons, who died in 2004 of complications from lung cancer.

“He was an early proponent of talking about relationships and building relationships. He had great communicative skills," Colangelo said. "I don’t think there was ever a player who didn’t have incredible things to say about what a pleasure it was to play for him. They loved playing for him.”

Fitzsimmons, who was selected for induction by the Hall of Fame's Contributor Committee, coached for parts of 21 seasons in the NBA with five franchises, winning 832 games (16th most all-time) including 341 in three stints with the Suns. Only John  MacLeod (579) won more.

His second time leading the Suns, four seasons beginning in 1988-89, with the franchise still recovering from a drug/gambling probe two years earlier.

Under Fitzsimmons, those late 1980s-early 1990s Suns won at least 53 games each season, reaching the Western Conference finals twice, before he decided to retire. He worked as an executive in the team's front office and was a staple on Suns broadcasts after that. He returned for one more coaching run, replacing Jeff Hornacek 33 games into the 1995-96 season, then leaving the bench for good after losing the first eight games the following year.

It was a testament to Fitzsimmons' ability to forge relationships that enabled him to return for those later turns as coach, because his first time in Phoenix ended a bit abruptly.

The second full-time coach in franchise history, Fitzsimmons led the Suns to 48 wins his first season (1970-71) and 49 in the second, but missed the playoffs because only the top two teams in the division qualified; Phoenix was third. This frustrated Fitzsimmons, Colangelo said, which led to Fitzsimmons leaving for Atlanta. 

“He got heavily recruited, even though he was under contract," Colangelo said. "It was tampering but my attitude was and has been, ‘If somebody doesn’t want to be there, then it’s time to go.’ 

“It was his choice and that did not work out for him.”

The Hawks only made the playoffs once in Fitzsimmons' four seasons in Atlanta. He went on to coach the Buffalo Braves, Kansas City Kings and San Antonio Spurs for nine seasons before returning to Phoenix.

Cotton Fitzsimmons picks up Charles Barkley at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 1992.

Colangelo, who was general manager of the expansion Suns when they were founded for the 1968-69 season, first met Fitzsimmons at an NCAA Final Four in Louisville and had him on his short list when it came time to replace original Suns coach Red Kerr.

“It was about a year later. I finished coaching and I was had three candidates (to replace himself as interim after Kerr was let go). “I had K.C. Jones, who was a retired Celtic player but he was given high marks for his potential as an NBA coach. And Tex Winter, who was actually the guy who hired Cotton at Kansas State." Fitzsimmons followed Winter and took the Wildcats to the 1970 Sweet 16.

“Those were the three interviews (including Fitzsimmons). I didn’t believe K.C. Jones was ready yet, especially with what we had (coming back). Tex Winter came across very well but I thought he ... had blinders on in terms of flexibility. I thought that was the future of the NBA, you had to be flexible.

“And Cotton came across as filling all the boxes. The thing I knew for sure, he would be as flexible as was required. He wasn’t locked in, ‘We’re going to play one way. That’s my way or the highway.”

Cotton Fitzsimmons (left) and Suns owner and team president Jerry Colangelo answer questions during a news conference naming Fitzsimmons as the Suns' new head coach on Jan. 16, 1996.

Fitzsimmons' death "was a big loss to me because of our relationship, and a big loss to our organization," Colangelo said. "I put a group together to buy the team and build the arena and do all of those things, and Cotton there at my side was very important.”

If you talk to anyone who ever met Cotton Fitzsimmons, they will all say the same thing that Colangelo did: He was "one of the absolutely most positive people I’ve met in my lifetime. He lit up the room every time. JoAnn (his wife) was a great match for him. They lived life to the fullest.

“She was really down for some time (after Cotton died) and people would say, ‘JoAnn, just think about the good days, think about the good times.’ And she had a great line. She said, ‘we never had a bad one.’”

Mother of the Suns:JoAnn Fitzsimmons keeping Cotton's spirit alive

Hall of Fame Class of 2021

Honorees from the North American and Women’s committees:

—Rick Adelman, ninth-winningest coach in NBA history

—Chris Bosh, 11-time NBA All-Star 

—Yolanda Griffith, seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist 

—Lauren Jackson, seven-time WNBA All-Star and three-time WNBA MVP

—Paul Pierce, NBA Finals MVP and 10-time All-Star 

—Bill Russell, being enshrined a second time for being the first African American NBA head coach 

—Ben Wallace, four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year

—Chris Webber, five-time NBA All-Star and NBA Rookie of the Year

—Jay Wright, two-time NCAA national champion Villanova coach

Honorees from distinguished committees focused on preserving all areas of the game:

—Val Ackerman, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Howard Garfinkel (Contributor Committee)

—Clarence “Fats” Jenkins (Early African American Pioneers Committee)

—Toni Kukoc (International Committee)

—Bob Dandridge (Veterans Committee)

—Pearl Moore (Women’s Veterans Committee)

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