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The Associated Press

Fitzsimmons known for skill, spirit

The Associated Press

PHOENIX – Players and fans will say goodbye tonight to former Phoenix Suns coach Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons at a memorial in Mesa.

The service at St. Timothy Catholic Community, 1730 W. Guadalupe Road, is set to begin at 7:30 p.m.

Fitzsimmons, 72, died Saturday at his Phoenix-area home of complications from lung cancer. The burial is scheduled for tomorrow in a private service.

The three-time Suns coach and two-time NBA coach of the year was remembered yesterday as a straight-shooting, feisty fixture of the franchise for more than 30 years.

“He has always been a great friend, and I appreciate him bringing me to Phoenix. It changed my basketball career forever,” said Charles Barkley, who went to Phoenix last week to visit Fitzsimmons in the hospital. “I’m glad I got a chance to tell him that before he passed away.”

Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo has jokingly said that Fitzsimmons was the only man he’d given a lifetime contract. Both said they’d never had any agreement beyond a handshake in Fitzsimmons’ years with the franchise.

Colangelo lured Fitzsimmons to the Suns in 1970. He left to coach Atlanta in 1972. 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.

Colangelo credited Fitzsimmons with rebuilding the Suns, starting in February 1988. 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.

He 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.

“To be honest, he won a lot of basketball games, and I mean a lot of basketball games, with very mediocre teams,” said former Suns forward Connie Hawkins.

Most recently, the colorful coach was a television and radio commentator for Suns games.

He was nicknamed “Cotton” for his fluffy white hair, and players and coaches said Fitzsimmons didn’t take himself too seriously.

“Cotton brought color to everything he touched,” Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson said. “Whether it was the office or the arena, you always knew when he was in the room.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Associated Press photo

“Cotton” Fitzsimmons, who died Saturday, was associated with the Phoenix Suns for more than 30 years as a coach, executive and TV and radio commentator.

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