The real butt-kicker of the Suns is Fitzsimmons, the gravel-voiced Munch-kin who has taken over six losing teams during his NBA career. "I'm the Red Adair of the NBA," says Fitzsimmons. "Always trying to put out fires."
He has started at least one himself. While he was with the San Antonio Spurs, the team he coached before joining the Suns, he traded the most popular monument in town short of the Alamo—George Gervin. Fitzsimmons had tried to persuade Gervin to become the Spurs' sixth man, but after the Iceman thought about that one for a while, he told Cotton, "I ain't no John Havlicek."
Shortly thereafter, Fitzsimmons began receiving death threats. "He was so unpopular in San Antonio that I actually used to pray he'd get fired," says his wife, JoAnn. Her prayers were soon answered. Fitzsimmons says he then lived for six months as "a vagabond," traveling around the country before deciding to settle in Phoenix. He showed up periodically in the stands at Sun games, waiting, some thought, for MacLeod's head to roll.
When MacLeod was fired, Colangelo replaced him with Dick Van Arsdale, who coached the final 26 games. Assistant coach John Wetzel took over the following season, and Fitzsimmons was hired as Phoenix's player-personnel director. Wetzel suffered through a 28-54 season in 1987-88, so he, too, was canned. Colangelo wanted to replace Wetzel with Fitzsimmons but was worried that hiring a 56-year-old would only add to the franchise's instability, so on the day he announced that Fitzsimmons would be Phoenix's next coach, he took the unorthodox step of naming Paul Westphal "the heir apparent, a coach-in-waiting."
Westphal, who had been the Suns' leading scorer for five seasons, represented happier times. What's more, he had enjoyed coaching success in Phoenix, first at Southwestern College, a small Bible school, and then at Grand Canyon College, which he led to the NAIA championship in 1988. Westphal could take over next season, or he may have to wait several years.
Whoever the coach is, the Suns are headed for better times. "When you look at the standings and see yourself in second place, fighting the Lakers for the division lead, you know the dark days are over," says Colangelo. "The black cloud is gone. I don't see it anymore."