When I first heard that Cotton Fitzsimmons had cancer, I couldn't help but think about one of his trademark lines.
Whenever a situation looked dire, the Norman Vincent Peale of basketball coaches would straighten his back and in that raspy Missouri twang, proclaim, “We'll be fine.”
I knew the battle Cotton was facing. My father has cancer, and Cotton and I shared a long, private conversation a few weeks ago about the disease.
I just thought Cotton would beat it, that he'd be fine, too. Cotton died Saturday at the age of 72 from lung cancer, which is tragically ironic because few people had more life in their lungs than Fitzsimmons.
I'm not sure where to begin in telling you about Cotton: with what he did or what he was like. He was a Hall of Fame coach — even if voters failed to honor him — but his personality dwarfed his accomplishments.
Cotton was a first-class character, a gravel voice out of a Damon Runyan tale. He could talk for hours — and often did. He always spoke his mind, even if it was more convenient or polite to say nothing. When Suns' fans jeered the selection of Dan Majerle in the 1988 NBA draft, a defiant Fitzsimmons said, “You'll regret the day you booed him.”
Cotton could be crusty that way, but he looked at life like it was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He didn't have bad days. He had days that were less than perfect.
“I don't know a more positive person I've been around my entire career,” said Suns broadcaster Al McCoy.
During one of Fitzsimmons' three coaching stints with the Suns, the team arrived in Chicago as a blizzard was pelting the city. The players rushed onto the bus that awaited them on the tarmac, only there were no skycaps to carry the luggage from the plane.
That didn't bother Fitzsimmons.
“Cotton grabs me and trainer Joe Proski and says, ’C'mon, just pretend you're skycaps now. We'll throw these bags in and get ready to go,’ ” McCoy recalled. “So here's the head coach standing out there covered with snow from top to bottom grabbing the bags.”
As Fitzsimmons' coaching career faded into memory, it was easy to forget what an accomplished bench jockey he was.
He never won an NBA title, but in 20 years as a head coach, with five different teams, Fitzsimmons won 832 games, finishing his coaching career sixth all-time in wins at the time of his retirement.
Longtime Suns' fans will remember one of Fitzsimmons' greatest coaching moments. In 1981, his Kansas City Kings limped into the Western Conference semifinals against the top-seeded Suns without injured starting guards Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong. Fitzsimmons engineered a makeshift lineup with 6-foot-6 forward Reggie King in the backcourt. With Fitzsimmons cheering them on and exhorting their every move, the Kings stunned the heavily favored Suns in seven games.
“He always chuckled about that one,” McCoy said. Fitzsimmons had a knack for finding solutions to problems. He engineered the 1988 trade for Kevin Johnson that transformed the franchise.
Johnson was a lightning-quick point guard who wasn't sure about his place in the NBA. Fitzsimmons turned him into an all-star.
“I remember his raspy voice, doing his thing, telling me in training camp, ‘Here's the ball, we're going to go as far as you can take us. You never have to look over your shoulder,’ ” Johnson recalled. “I was 22 at the time. That kind of confidence meant so much to my success.”
Fitzsimmons' career was built on those relationships, although his old-school sensibilities sometimes collided with the game's me-first personalities. “I don't know a coach through the years who loved his players more than Cotton,” McCoy said. “He could get on them but when you played for Cotton Fitzsimmons you were family.”
After his coaching career ended, Fitzsimmons was named the Suns' senior executive vice president, but, as he joked, he was vice president of nothing.
He was Colangelo's consigliere, the voice Colangelo could always trust.
When we talked a few weeks ago, I asked Cotton if I could write a story about what he was going through. He politely said no. He wanted to give the treatments a few more weeks and see how he was doing.
He did talk with Peter Vescey of the New York Post and described his battle
with cancer as only he could.
"I look at this as my new coaching gig,” he said. “I've already had 24 of 33 radiation treatments and you know what they say in my business, 'If you can get it down to single digits going into the fourth quarter, at least you've got a shot to win.' Kareem and Bird had pretty good luck with that number (33). They won their share, so I like my chances."
Covering Suns' games won't be as much fun with Cotton gone. He was a tie-dye shirt in what has become a buttoned-down corporate world. The Suns aren't as smart or as funny without him.
It's going to take a while, of course.
But they'll be fine.