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WHERE COTTON IS KING

Cotton Fitzsimmons is my clear pick for National Basketball Association coach of the year. Nobody comes close. Cotton came back to the Phoenix Suns when they were at the bottom. They were reeling from a drug scandal almost entirely created by Ruben Ortega's police. Their spirit was broken. There was talk of moving the franchise out of town. After a season in the front office making deals for new players, Fitzsimmons took the risk of coming back to coach the team from the bench. He and owner Jerry Colangelo had made several deals by this time. Any one of them could have proved disastrous if it didn't work. The odds against were formidable. In order to turn the Suns around, every single deal had to be a winner. And, remarkably, every deal paid off. I didn't agree with any of them at the time. I was certain they were destined to fail. They made the deal for Tom Chambers with Seattle. I thought that they paid him too much money for him and that he'd never produce enough to make the deal right. Chambers has been terrific. In terms of today's market, he was a bargain. Fitzsimmons and Colangelo made the trade with Cleveland that brought Kevin Johnson and Mark West here. In order to do that, they lost Larry Nance, who was one of the most talented players in the NBA. Where would the Suns be in the playoffs now without K.J. and West? Fitzsimmons drafted a player out of Central Michigan named Dan Majerle. Majerle was so little-known that the fans who attended the drafting session booed in frustration when his name was announced. When the Suns needed a power forward this season, Fitzsimmons found Kurt Rambis. Many felt he was all used up. Rambis wasn't. In fact, he may be the most important piece in the puzzle. In his second full season back at the Suns helm, Fitzsimmons ended the reign of the Los Angeles Lakers. He is the same guy who brought a Kansas City team to town that seemed to have only seven players to beat a far superior Phoenix team in a playoff series during the 1980s. Cotton's Suns have been gathering fan support as the season progressed. Now the fans shut down airports to greet them. The secret to the Suns' success is Cotton Fitzsimmons. He's the laid-back authority figure, who calls the shots and keeps the players relaxed. So they never know when to quit. I have never seen a small point guard as quick as K.J. Neither has anyone else, I suspect. Nobody is a purer shooter than Chambers, unless it's Eddie Johnson. Neither have I seen a player as aggressive as Majerle or as determined as Rambis. And just when did Jeff Hornacek become a star? Who is stronger under the boards than Mark West? I don't know how far they will go. Maybe they won't beat Portland. But even if they don't, Cotton Fitzsimmons is still my pick for this year's best coaching job in the NBA. The television people are unhappy because the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks have been eliminated. They think nobody up in Boston and New York will want to see K.J. and the rest of the Suns. They're panicked about ratings. Not to worry. Just wait until the eastern TV fans get a gander at the Cotton shirt collection. Cotton Fitzsimmons is still my pick for this year's best coaching job in the

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Tom Fitzpatrick