Fitzsimmons, Lowell (“Cotton”)
Fitzsimmons, Lowell (“Cotton”)
(b. 7 October 1931 in Hannibal, Missouri; d. 24 July 2004 in Phoenix, Arizona), basketball coach who won acclaim for rebuilding National Basketball Association (NBA) franchises, ranked eleventh in number of NBA games won as a coach, and twice was named NBA coach of the year.
Fitzsimmons was one of four children of Clancy Fitzsimmons and Zelda Curry (Gibbons) Fitzsimmons. His father was a dry goods delivery driver and horse trainer who died when Cotton was in the fifth grade; his mother was a homemaker. Fitzsimmons graduated from Bowling Green, Missouri, High School in 1952 and attended Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri for his freshman year. As a five-foot, seven-inch, 160-pound guard in the 1952–1953 season, Fitzsimmons tallied 838 points for a 25.4-point average in thirty-three games. Fitzsimmons transferred to Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he earned a BS in 1956 and an MS in 1958. Playing basketball at Midwestern State, Fitzsimmons averaged 8.7 points in twenty-seven games in the 1953–1954 season, 14.7 points in twenty-seven games in the 1954–1955 season, and 16.4 points in twenty-eight games in the 1955–1956 season, for a three-year total of 1,092 points and a per-game average of 13.7 points.
Fitzsimmons began his head basketball coaching career at Moberly Junior College (now Moberly Area Community College) in Missouri, compiling a 223–59 record for the 1958–1959 through 1966–1967 seasons. Fitzsimmons’s teams won at least twenty-four games in each of his final seven seasons. Moberly won the National Junior College basketball title with a 29–5 record in the 1965–1966 season and a 31–2 record in the 1966–1967 season. Fitzsimmons was named Junior College Coach of the Year in both seasons. He also served as athletic director.
Fitzsimmons joined Kansas State University as an assistant basketball coach in the 1967–1968 season. Kansas State appointed him head basketball coach the following season. The Kansas State Wildcats finished 14–12 in the 1968–1969 season. The team won the Big Eight Conference title with a 20–8 record in 1969–1970, losing to the University of New Mexico, 70–66, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association regional semifinals. Fitzsimmons was selected the Big Eight Conference coach of the year in 1970.
Fitzsimmons spent the remainder of his head coaching career in the NBA, beginning with the Phoenix Suns in 1970. Phoenix, led by Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Ars-dale, had records of 48–34 in the 1970–1971 season and 49–33 in 1971–1972. The team placed third in the Midwest Division but missed the playoffs both seasons. Fitzsimmons joined the Atlanta Hawks as the head coach in 1972. Atlanta, led by Lou Hudson and Pete Maravich, placed second in the Central Division with a 46–36 record in the 1972–1973 season. The Hawks lost to the Boston Celtics four games to two in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks steadily declined each of the next three seasons and did not make the playoffs. After Atlanta fired him in March 1976, Fitzsimmons served as the director of player personnel for the Golden State Warriors in the 1976–1977 season. He joined the struggling Buffalo Braves as the head coach in 1977. The Braves’ record was only 27–55 in Fitzsimmons’s only season with Buffalo.
Fitzsimmons earned his first NBA Coach of the Year award in 1979 after mentoring the Kansas City Kings to a 48–34 record. Kansas City, led by Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, and Phil Ford, catapulted from last to first place in the Midwest Division but lost to the Phoenix Suns four games to one in the Western Conference semifinals. Fitzsimmons stayed with Kansas City through the 1983–1984 season. He steered the Kings to second place finishes in the Midwest Division with records of 47–35 in the 1979–1980 season and 45–37 in 1982–1983. Fitzsimmons recorded one of his best coaching performances in 1980–1981, when the Kings won forty of eighty-two games. After upsetting the Portland Trail Blazers two games to one in the first playoff round, Kansas City used a deliberate offensive scheme to defeat the Phoenix Suns four games to three in the Western Conference semifinals. The Houston Rockets eliminated the Kings four games to one in the Western Conference finals. After missing the playoffs the next two seasons, the Kings finished third in the Midwest Division in the 1983–1984 season and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first playoff round.
The San Antonio Spurs hired Fitzsimmons as head coach in 1984, and he spent two seasons with the team. San Antonio, led by George Gervin and Artis Gilmore, had a 41–41 record and shared fourth place in the Midwest Division in the 1984–1985 season, losing to the Denver Nuggets three games to two in the first playoff round. The Spurs slipped to 35–47 in the 1985–1986 season and were swept in three games in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1987 Fitzsimmons returned to the Phoenix Suns as the director of player personnel. He engineered a blockbuster nine-player trade in February 1988, acquiring Kevin Johnson from the Cleveland Cavaliers for Larry Nance. He also signed Tom Chambers of the Seattle Supersonics in July 1988 as the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history. Fitzsimmons began his second stint as Phoenix head coach in the 1988–1989 season and was named NBA Coach of the Year for the second time. Phoenix, led by Johnson, Chambers, and Jeff Hornacek, won twenty-seven more games than they had the previous season, had a 55–27 record, and placed second in the Pacific Division. The Suns swept the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs and defeated the Golden State Warriors four games to one in the Western Conference semifinals. The Suns reached the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1984, but the Los Angeles Lakers swept the conference finals four games to zero. Fitzsimmons coached Phoenix to records of 54–28 in the 1989–1990 season, 55–27 in 1990–1991, and 53–29 in 1991–1992, finishing third in the Pacific Division all three seasons. The Suns were eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers four games to two in the Western Conference finals in 1990, by the Utah Jazz three games to one in the first playoff round in 1991, and by Portland four games to one in the Western Conference semifinals in the 1991–1992 season.
Fitzsimmons retired as coach in 1992 to become the senior executive vice president and television commentator for the Suns, but he returned to coaching to replace Paul Westphal as the head coach in January 1996. Fitzsimmons guided the Suns to a 27–22 record and fourth place in the Pacific Division. The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Suns in four games in the first round of the playoffs. Fitzsimmons resigned after Phoenix lost its first eight games in the 1996–1997 season and served as a senior executive vice president and television commentator for the Suns until his death.
Fitzsimmons compiled an 832–775 regular season record for a .520 winning percentage in twenty-one NBA seasons. He was eleventh in games won by an NBA coach. Fitzsimmons’s best seasons as an NBA mentor came in Phoenix, where the Suns’ record was 341–208 over eight seasons. Fitzsimmons’s teams prevailed in only 42 percent of their playoff games with a 35–49 record and never reached the NBA finals.
Fitzsimmons’s first marriage produced one son, Gary, and ended in divorce in 1973; Gary later served as assistant general manager of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors. Fitzsimmons married JoAnn D’Andrea on 2 September 1978. He was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the National Junior College Hall of Fame in 1985. He died of complications of lung cancer on 24 July 2004 in Phoenix, Arizona. A funeral service took place at Saint Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa, Arizona.
For brief summaries of Fitzsimmons’s NBA coaching career, see Peter C. Bjarkman, The Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball Team Histories (1994) and The Biographical History of Basketball (2000). For Fitzsimmons’s playing and coaching records, see the Sporting News 2004–05 Official NBA Register and the Phoenix Suns 1996–1997 media guide. The Sporting News 1996–97 Official NBA Guide reviews year by year the regular and postseason records of each of Fitzsimmons’s NBA teams. Obituaries are in the Arizona Republic and the New York Times (both 25 July 2004).
David L. Porter