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COTTON'S CLOWN ACT

What's left to say? They were awful. Who else could I be talking about except the Phoenix Suns?

There are times when a ball club meets defeat and you can take consolation in saying the players tried their best.

Not this time. The Suns dogged it through all four games. They put on an odious display that simply reeked of a team taking a dive into the tank.

It makes you realize this Suns team has turned into a pampered group of young millionaires. Apparently they have learned it's more important, from their own personal standpoint as young businessmen, to avoid possible injury than it is to win games.

What's so surprising? When you make the kind of money that Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson make, the most important thing in your life has to be a desire to make sure the fabulous income continues.

Their attitude makes excellent business sense.
When you think about it, what's the big deal to these current Suns in winning an NBA championship? They already have all the money they can spend either now or in the foreseeable future.

Certainly, that would account for their blase attitude. Utah Jazz pushed and shoved the Suns all over the floor. The Suns were outhustled and outrebounded. Jazz players like Karl Malone and John Stockton totally dominated them.

It would be easy to say that Cotton Fitzsimmons was outcoached by Jerry Sloan. Who could disagree?

But to come to that conclusion one would first have to assume Fitzsimmons had input to begin with.

The problem is that Fitzsimmons clearly never got to coach. Everything was out of his control. Obviously the Suns players, led by Chambers and KJ, no longer pay attention to what Fitzsimmons tells them.

In Fitzsimmons, the Suns have an immensely likable cheerleader. He does his most effective work when he pumps up radio and television announcers by telling them how his team is going to play its heart out in the upcoming game.

There's just one problem. This is a team with no heart. The players have no guts. They quit when things become too difficult. They slide through the motions until it's time to hit the shower and then breeze home in their Mercedes-Benzes.

Conceivably, there are times when you can make excuses for Kevin Johnson. Much has been written about the hamstring injury he suffered during the playoffs a year ago against the Portland Trail Blazers.

But that was last year. No one has convinced me that his problem this year has been anything other than a concerted mental effort to make sure he doesn't pull the same muscle again.

If that was Kevin Johnson's goal for this season, then he can congratulate himself on emerging from this season's play physically unscathed.

But there is something else to say about this new, "safe" version of KJ. He will not win the big games for you. More than likely, he will be the big reason you lose.

If you wanted to pin the defeat in this series to one player, KJ is your man.

Stockton, the Jazz point guard, conducted a clinic against Johnson. Stockton did everything an outstanding point guard is supposed to do.

KJ did none of those things. He was simply awful.
His uninspired performance set the tone for the entire team.
But you have to fault Fitzsimmons, the coach, for allowing it to happen. Game after game, Cotton kept telling sportswriters that if KJ didn't come around, Negele Knight would see a lot of playing time.

Every time Knight was called upon, he responded. He played with the same explosive verve that KJ used to exude before he became Mr. Big.

The problem was that Fitzsimmons never had the iron will necessary to sit KJ down at the end of the bench and roll the dice with Knight.

And now Jerry Colangelo, the wizard of Chicago Heights, has compounded the problem by announcing that Fitzsimmons will be back next year to coach the Suns. A coaching tenure that was originally promised to be a one-year deal is stretching out in time as long as the Civil War.

How can that be? How can Colangelo be so blind?
There is only one reason that he has decided Fitzsimmons will remain. It's a pure business decision. Fitzsimmons is a huckster who helps sell the game to the season-ticket holders.

If Colangelo ever had more than three seconds to think about anything other than accumulating more money, he would realize the situation is already out of control.

Fitzsimmons has infinitely more credibility with the radio and television audience than he does with his own players.

Unfortunately for him, Cotton has become the modern version of the carnival shill who stands outside the tent enticing suckers to buy their tickets to see the tattooed lady sing and the seven-foot man from Borneo swallow a flaming sword.

Everybody rushes to buy their tickets with great hopes of seeing something wondrous unfold.

It is only after they get inside the tent that they realize the show consists of an acrobat in a gorilla suit who does pantomime and a dozen jaded millionaires going through the motions.

If there's only room for one pullquote with this column, please use the following one. Thanks, DJB

Cotton has become the modern version of the carnival shill who entices suckers to buy their tickets to see the seven-foot man swallow a flaming sword.

This is a team with no heart. The players have no guts. They quit when things become too difficult.

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Tom Fitzpatrick