Me, Allan Greene and my favorite Gorilla of all time hanging out at Turf Paradise. (NBAE Photos)
Being too young to go myself, I stayed at home, most likely playing Tomb Raider and picking fights with my younger sister. When my parents got back, they said they had a little surprise and handed me a betting stub. Always the polite son, I pretended to be happy about the lackluster gift and it wasn’t until turning it over I saw what all the hype was about. The souvenir featured the autograph of Cotton Fitzsimmons, who at the time was serving as the Suns’ chief color analyst on KTAR and KUTP-TV broadcasts alongside Al McCoy. The item went up on my wall and needless to say, has been an important keepsake ever since.
When I first moved to the Valley back in 1994, the only thing about Arizona I was familiar with was Phoenix Suns basketball. I had never heard of a swamp cooler, thought roadrunners only existed in cartoons and soda to me was soda, not “pop”. New to the area, Suns broadcasts quickly became my best friend and the one-two punch of McCoy and Fitzsimmons was a gigantic reason for that.
The accolades McCoy has received over the years have obviously cemented him among the greatest of all time, but it was Fitzsimmons who helped me learn the game itself. Always candid, Cotton held no punches, which was what helped make him so effective. He gave his commentary based on what took place on the court, not what was in the best interest of the organization and the New Yorker in me appreciated that. I went from Suns fan to Suns fanatic during that 1994-95 season, and through Cotton learned the way the game of basketball was meant to be played.
Hard to believe that Fitzsimmons was probably an even better coach than he was a commentator. But with 832 wins and two NBA Coach of the Year Awards, that may have just been the case. It’s been said, however, that what Cotton was best at was being a good person. My parents are two people who say their brief encounter with the Missouri Basketball Hall of Famer led them to believe this to be the case.
With Cotton’s passing in 2004, I regret that I’ll never have the chance to find out for myself. Today though I did have a chance to witness how many more people share the same sentiments as my parents, as life again proved to come full circle. Now as an employee of the team I grew up watching, I had the opportunity to attend the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, an annual race created in Cotton’s honor at what some say was his home away from home, Turf Paradise.
A number of Cotton’s friends and family were in attendance, as were a number of familiar faces. Guys like Dan Majerle and Steve Kerr, all sharing their memories of the beloved Cotton. The afternoon also gave me the opportunity to meet Cotton’s widow, JoAnn, for the first time. Having never met Cotton, I can’t give my personal impressions of him, but I can say without hesitation that JoAnn is a great woman who instantly made me feel as if I’d known her for years. She is an absolute joy to be around.
Just before the big race, our party was escorted down to the track where we’d have the opportunity to watch the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile run up close and personal. Waiting for the elevator with Steve Kerr, I commented on how I couldn’t resist betting on the number eight horse – a horse with a jockey named Larry O’ Brien. Kerr laughed and said he too bet on the 30-to-1 long shot, whose jockey shared the same name as the coveted NBA Championship trophy. Upon boarding the elevator, Kerr made a revelation which quickly removed the smile from his face.
“Come to think of it, our whole party probably bet on that horse,” the General Manager said. “We probably just messed up the odds for everybody at this track.”
After the race – which unfortunately saw We Brothers come up short – our party had our picture taken in the winner’s circle. As our photo was snapped with the horse that had cost me a year’s worth of comic books, I regretted not taking the betting advice of Web and Publishing Manager Josh Greene and his father Allan more often on the day. Regardless, the experience at Turf Paradise today was more than worth a week without lunch money (especially when Ramen noodles are an option).
While meeting JoAnn and talking omens with Steve Kerr was great, perhaps the best part of today came in seeing Suns legend Connie Hawkins, who has not been around much lately while dealing with some health issues.
I first met “the Hawk” prior to my days as a Suns employee. Having gone to a number of Suns games as a fan, I received an invitation to a Suns season tip-off party being held at the then-America West Arena. Coming off a 29-win season the prior campaign, the assumption was the organization was just desperate to get people inside the building. I brought my friend Filippo and had absolutely no idea what to expect. The party was great and gave season ticket holders the opportunity to have their pictures taken on the court with several players.
Although we were not season ticket holders, Filippo and I still enjoyed ourselves, thanks in large part to guys like Mike D’Antoni and Cedric Ceballos, who were kind enough to pose for pictures with us just off the hardwood. At one point, the two of us were sitting in our seats looking over the autographs we’d collected when a voice asked why we weren’t down on the court with everybody else. The voice belonged to Hawkins who I recognized instantly. Being a basketball historian from Brooklyn, New York, how could I not know who Connie Hawkins was?
I explained to the All-Star that since we weren’t season ticket holders, we weren’t permitted to go onto the court. Almost as if instinctively, Hawkins told us to follow him down to the court.
“Are you sure they’ll let us?,” I asked.
The Ring of Honor member smiled. “I’m Connie Hawkins.”
We followed Hawk down to the court where he organized a photo of Filippo, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and I to be taken. Just before the photo was snapped, I called out to Hawk – who had taken a seat on the sideline – to join in. He was hesitant, commenting on how we didn’t want the “old man” ruining the picture. Shawn Marion called out, “Come on Hawk, old school, new school baby” and the picture has been a personal favorite ever since.
The next time I hung out with Connie Hawkins, I was at the 2006 Phoenix Suns Summer Camp up in Prescott. I had just wrapped up my internship with the organization and was coaching a team of young, aspiring NBA players. The team was off to a slow start and before we knew it, were the only winless team at the camp (you can point to coaching, but I point to a number of key injuries).
Our team was on a bye hour, spending the time enjoying refreshments, when one of the counselors approached with Hawkins. Apparently Hawk had heard about our struggles and wanted to know if he could spend some time with the team. Over the next hour, the Hall of Famer – who could have very easily have been spending the time relaxing himself – coached the team on everything from dribbling to shooting.
Our team went unbeaten in two of its last three contests and left camp with their heads held high. Part of it I credit to the drills Hawk had them run, but most of it I feel was the confidence he had given them. Regardless of what it was, the kids certainly felt the camp feeling a lot better about themselves then they would have had the team gone winless.
You always hear about the Suns family and how it includes not only the players, but the coaches, the front office, the employees and the fans. The organization does its best to prove this each and every day not only with its play on the court, but its work in the community.
I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that I am now an employee of the Phoenix Suns. In three seasons now with the organization, the US Airways Center has officially become my second home. As far as being a member of the Suns family, however, it seems it’s been so long now, I can’t envision life being anything but.