Cotton Fitzsimmons never forgot his roots, and he’s finally being immortalized for a lifetime of playing and teaching the game he loved so passionately. The Pike County native will be inducted …
Cotton Fitzsimmons never forgot his roots, and he’s finally being immortalized for a lifetime of playing and teaching the game he loved so passionately. The Pike County native will be inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Perhaps the only equals to Cotton’s affection for basketball were a love of family and the place where he first bounced the leather. Carol Lovell, of Silex, is the coach’s only surviving sibling, and says the Hall of Fame honor is a “long time coming, but well-deserved.” She remembers her brother was indomitable, positive and bold, yet remained cordial, warmhearted and humble.
“I always said Cotton was just my brother who happened to be a NBA coach,” she said. “He never met a stranger and always thanked the fans who asked for his autograph.”
Carol’s husband, John, said his brother-in-law’s demeanor was a direct result of his Bowling Green upbringing. “It didn’t matter how successful he became,” John Lovell said. “He treated the guys who washed his car and the golf course workers the same as he treated the ‘celebrities’ (with whom) he came in contact.” Cotton had talent, but perspective was a key part of his success. Defeat, on or off the court, could not dominate him. A competitive streak would define every aspect of life. “His glass was always half full,” Carol Lovell recalls.
Lowell Gibbs Fitzsimmons was born in Hannibal on Oct. 7, 1931. In addition to Carol, he had an older brother, Orland, and a younger sister, JoAnne. Their mother, Zelda, kept the four in line while their father, Clancy, did all he could to provide for the family. It was a lesson all four would never forget.
A crop of what he later called “very fluffy and wavy” white-blond hair led Bowling Green classmates to give Lowell the nickname “Cotton.”
Attitude and ability were essential. Cotton stood only five-feet-seven-inches tall, but made up for a lack of height with speed and a killer shot. Determination and hard work were constant companions, especially after his father died the year Cotton turned 11.
At Bowling Green High School, the hard-working cager twice led his teams to the state basketball tournament and followed that with success at Hannibal-LaGrange College.
Wayne and Jack Freeman were early mentors and Gene Hall, a first cousin of John Lovell who would go on to a storied collegiate coaching and administrative career, was one of Cotton’s closest friends.
Life was far from easy for the Fitzsimmons siblings. All worked as they grew up and sacrificed for each other. Cotton found a father figure and major influence in longtime Bowling Green educator and coach James A. Wilson. “With the help of Coach Wilson, his mind was made up early in his life that basketball was to be his profession,” Carol Lovell said.
The stories of Cotton’s chutzpah are almost endless. One example came during a Hannibal-LaGrange game against the University of Missouri freshman team. The self-confident star had tried out for Mizzou coach Wilbur Stalcup, but was told to come back when he “grew up.” Cotton got his revenge by scoring 52 points. After the game, he asked Stalcup “If he thought he had grown up,” Carol Lovell remembers.
Classroom acuity also paid off, as Cotton earned a master’s degree in administrative education. He won two national titles during 11 years as coach at Moberly Junior College and spent another three years leading the men’s basketball program at Kansas State before the NBA came calling.
Cotton helmed the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Kansas City Kings and San Antonio Spurs in a 21-year career, compiling a record of 832 wins and 775 losses.
Eight of those seasons were in Phoenix, where Cotton arguably had his best years. Not only did he coach the Suns to 341 victories, but also later served as a team executive, consultant and broadcaster.
Many experts have agreed that Cotton was an extraordinary evaluator of talent who could invigorate struggling teams and effectively challenge winning squads to do even better.
The recognition by the Hall of Fame “supports what we as a family know – he was a great contributor to the game of basketball,” John Lovell said.
Though he never won a championship, Cotton twice was named NBA Coach of the Year and made 12 playoff appearances with four teams. Amid other accolades, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1981.
Despite all of the fame, an enduring part of Cotton’s character is one that’s mentioned frequently by those who knew him – a special closeness he had with people. He kept in contact with many of those with whom he had grown up and returned to Missouri often for family visits, class reunions, fishing or golf outings, or to run basketball camps for young players.
True to their uncle’s emphasis on teamwork, John and Carol Lovell’s daughters – Nancy, Lisa, Joni and Vonda – answered questions for this article with one voice. They fondly remember Cotton’s unfailing optimism. “He always had an outlook that if you woke up and could see the sky, then life was good,” the sisters offered. “He always said ‘You haven’t lived if you haven’t been fired in the NBA,’ and that seemed to be his motto in life in general. He never let life get him down.”
Even after being stricken with cancer, Cotton remained upbeat. He died at age 72 on July 24, 2004, leaving his wife, JoAnn, and son, Gary.
The Hall of Fame ceremony takes place at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. Lisa and Vonda plan to attend. Presenters will be retired NBA player Charles Barkley, former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo and Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
The Lovell sisters say the family is “pleased to see that someone who loved the game as much as he did and was a student of the game until his death get recognized for his accomplishments. He treated his players fairly and like family, and that translated onto the court for his success.”
Carol Lovell says her brother would be very honored, but probably just as happy dribbling a ball around his hometown – with a caveat to reflect his good-natured orneriness, of course.
“He would love a pickup game in the park in Bowling Green, providing he could make the rules and keep score.”