Los Angeles — Head Coach Lowell (Cotton) Fitzsimmons of the Kansas City Kings, with a copy of the Manhattan telephone directory stuffed into each of his shoes, would hardly come up to the chin of one of his players.
But Fitzsimmons, according to rival National Basketball Association teams, coaches considerably taller than he looks. In the past three years the Kings, under Cotton, have won 135 regular-season games. The zenith probably came last May when K.C. upset Portland and Phoenix in the playoffs, then barely lost the conference finals to Houston.
The feeling at that time was that the Kings, if management could trade for or come up with a high quality center in the draft, might finally be within hailing distance of teams like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angles Lakers. More depth would also be a consideration.
But that bubble burst in June when Kansas City, maybe not short on cash but unable or unwilling to make million-dollar contract commitments, lost All-Star guard Otis Birdsong and forward Scott Wedman to the league's free-agent draft. Birdsong, who led the Kings in scoring last season with a 24.6 average, signed with the New Jersey Nets; Wedman with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then eight games into this season, Kansas City traded veteran center Sam Lacey to New Jersey for swingman Mike Woodsen and the Nets' No. 1 draft pick in 1982.
Even though Lacey never ranked among the NBA's top pivotmen, and despite the fact that his scoring and rebounding have been down the past two years, Sam still knows how to play the game. In fact, even now he rates ahead of the three rivals he left behind in K.C. - rookie Steve Johnson, plus Joe C. Meriweather and Leon Douglas.
The reason Fitzsimmons moved Lacey out was to buy more playing time for Johnson, a unanimous selection last season as Pacific 10 Conference Player of the Year. But so far Steve, who was foul-prone in college, hasn't lived up to his press clippings, either as a scorer or rebounder.
Johnson, anticipating that his defense might hold him back in the NBA, enrolled in Pete Newell's famous two-week course in fundamentals for big men in California this past summer. But even though Steve's intentions may have been good, he committed 75 fouls in his first 278 minutes of playing time this season , making it difficult for the Kings to start him.
''While our won-lost record to date might not reflect this, I think our current team has more potential than last year's,'' Fitzsimmons said recently in Los Angeles. ''We're young and mostly we're new to each other and our center situation right now is based on me picking spots for the three guys who are available. What we don't get down in the first half of the season, we're going to have to learn in the second half. Otherwise, we won't make the playoffs.
''If you want to know the truth, I'm not having much fun this year,'' Cotton continued. ''I'd much rather be coaching the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers or the Los Angeles Lakers, where you can concentrate on match-ups and not be locked into a teaching situation all the time. But as I told a couple of other writers earlier, I've got a lot of robins in the nest and I've got to get them some food.''
One player Fitzsimmons doesn't have to worry about is fourth-year guard Phil Ford, who is one of the best floor generals in the NBA. Watching Ford get the ball inside to forwards Reggie King and Cliff Robinson is like sitting in on a clinic. Starting next to Phil in the Kings' backcourt is Larry Drew, acquired from the Detroit Pistons for two future draft picks.
Asked about persistent rumors that he will become coach of the Golden State Warriors next season (prompted by reports that Al Attles will devote full time to being general manager), Fitzsimmons replied:
''At this point you know as much about that situation as I do. Five years ago , when I worked for Golden State, Attles and I became great friends. But Al is younger than I am and I doubt if he's ready to stop coaching just yet. Still, if the time ever came when the Warriors were interested in me, and I wasn't committed to Kansas City, I would certainly want to talk with them.''