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Cotton was fixture with Suns

PHOENIX -- Former Phoenix Suns coach Lowell "Cotton"
Fitzsimmons was remembered Sunday as a straight-shooting, feisty
fixture of the franchise for more than 30 years.

Fitzsimmons, 72, the three-time Suns coach and two-time NBA
Coach of the Year, died Saturday due to complications from lung
cancer.

"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 was in Phoenix last week to visit
Fitzsimmons in the hospital. "I'm glad I got a chance to tell him
that before he passed away."

Nicknamed "Cotton" for his fluffy white hair -- in the day when
he had a lot of it -- players and coaches said Fitzsimmons didn't
take himself too seriously.

"Cotton brought color to everything he touched," said former
Suns assistant coach Donn Nelson, now with the Dallas Mavericks.
"Whether it was the office or the arena, you always knew when he
was in the room."

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. Fitzsimmons
left to coach Atlanta in 1972 but later returned to Phoenix.

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. They
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.

"He always felt like he could win. His popularity, it came
across to the players and the fans," Ainge said.

On Sunday, the Suns dedicated the team's Web site to thoughts of
Fitzsimmons from former players and coaches.

"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. "If they really checked the records,
the games he won and the teams he carried, he probably should be
nominated for the Hall of Fame."

For many, Fitzsimmons was more than a friend.

"He was a father figure, a mentor and a true friend. His
spirit, passion and generosity will forever hold a place in my
heart and on each Father's Day," said former Suns' guard Kevin
Johnson.

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

"A few times, he wound up in my lap. He liked to lean against
me when he got excited during the game and sometimes that got a
little hectic," said Al McCoy, the Suns senior vice president of
broadcasting.

"I'll miss that leaning against me, believe me," McCoy said.

Even in his final moments, Fitzsimmons was upbeat, said former
Sun's forward Dan Majerle.

"When I went and visited him in the hospital, he was sitting up
and he gave me the thumbs up, and you could tell there was still a
lot of fight in him. He was very positive and that's just the way
he's always been."

Fitzsimmons had been in a Phoenix-area care center since
suffering a stroke earlier this month. In April, a malignant tumor
was found on Fitzsimmons' lung, near his heart.

Funeral services were scheduled for Monday night at St. Timothy
Catholic Community in suburban Mesa. His burial will be private.