Before his Kansas City Kings surprisingly eliminated the Phoenix Suns from the playoffs Sunday, 5-foot-7 Cotton Fitzsimmons was known as the shortest coach in the league.

Now, the 1979 NBA coach of the year whose club slipped to a losing record this season again is considered one of its best.

Fitzsimmons, who has been a head coach in the NBA for 10 years, pulled off a masterful job this year, first getting his team to the playoffs and then coming up with the moves that enabled the Kings to beat Portland in the first round and Phoenix in the next round to advance to the Western Conference finals.

That best-of-seven series with the surprising Houston Rockets will begin tonight in Kansas City at 10 (delayed telecast at 11:30 p.m., WDVM-TV-9).

To appreciate what Fitzsimmons has done with the Kings, turn back the clock to Feb. 22.

Phil Ford, considered one of the quickest guards in the NBA, was leading the league in assists, teaming in the back court with high-scoring Otis Birdsong, the league's sixth-highest scorer with a 24.6 average. It was run-and-gun city.

But that fateful night Golden State's Lloyd Free accidentally poked his thumb in Ford's left eye, fracturing a bond behind the eye. Ford had to have surgery and he hasn't played since. Ford is on a day-to-day basis for the Houston series, while Birdsong, who sprained an ankle in the first game of the Phoenix series and played only a few minutes Sunday, also is not a full strength.

Fitzsimmons moved 6-6, 222-pound Ernie Grunfeld from small forward to point guard for the last 16 games of the regular season as the Kings went 8-8 and got into the playoffs on the final day of the season.

With Grunfeld instead of Ford running the show, the Kings stopped running and began walking the ball up the floor, often using 20 of the 24 seconds on the shot clock.

Before being injured, Ford ran the Kings on the floor. Now Fitzsimmons was more in control, as he virtually led Grunfeld up the court by the hand.

The Kings stunned Portland, 2-1, in the first-round playoffs.

In the first game of the Phoenix series, Birdsong severly sprained his right ankle. He didn't play again until the final game of the series Sunday. r

Fitzsimmons' ingenuity was called on again.

A lot of coaches have made the right moves in replacing one star, but Fitzsimmons had to replace his guard line. To replace Birdsong, he moved 6-7, 235-pound forward Scott Wedman to guard.

Wedman and Grunfeld were a sight, an NBA anomaly; not only were they bulky, they were slow.

Fitzsimmons moved the physical Leon Douglas into Wedman's starting forward spot. That new lineup -- Wedman, Grunfeld, Douglas, Reggie King and Sam Lacey -- no way resembled the old Kansas City Kings.

With Ford and Birdsong, the front line did the dirty work and then tried to keep up with the racehorse guards. The new Kings share the work and methodical pace.

NBA teams have a tendency to take on the personality of their point guards. Fort represented the excitement of uncertainty, Grunfeld represents calm.

When Ford was running the team, he averaged 17.5 points, 8.8 assists and four turnovers. The Kings had a 32-34 record.

Grunfeld has been the point guard for 26 games, including 10 in the playoffs, and the Kings are 14-12 for that stretch. In the playoffs, Grunfeld has averaged 17.9 points, 6.6 assists and only three turnovers.

After building up a 3-1 lead in games, the Kings lost two in a row, so Fitzsimmons made another smart move Sunday. He started 6-10 John Lambert at guard and put Wedman back at forward to get another shooter in the game.

The strategy paid off, and the Kings won, 95-88. Douglas does not shoot well outside, so when he was in the game the Suns double-teamed King, thus making him ineffective. The move to Lambert took care of that.

"Reggie is a weapon for us." said Fitzsimmons. "We don't think anybody in the league can deal with him down low. We want to use him as much as possible and, with Wedman up front with him, the defense can't concentrate on Reggie."

Fitzsimmons downplayed his role.

"I did what I had to do and the only thing I could do," he said."When a man can't put in a lot of people, he can't screw up too much. It makes may job easier and it makes me look better. We were only 40-42 in the regular season because I probably put too many people in.

"We just changed our offense. I told then what to do and they did it.

"I had to reach back on all of my coaching experience to convince the players they could win. Now they believe."

Many coaches in big games have overcome the loss of one superstar.

Paul Westhead of Los Angeles did it during the playoffs last year when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle. Westhead moved Magic Johnson from guard to center and he responded with an incredible 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist game and the Lakers won the NBA championship.