A high school basketball coach with strong Rim Country ties was honored Sunday at a halftime presentation during the 2007 NBA playoffs, Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers game.
Gary Ernst, head coach of the boys basketball team at Mesa Mountain View High School for 23 years, received the Spirit of Cotton Award, named in memory of former Suns head coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who passed away in July 2004.
The annual award honors an Arizona High School coach who consistently demonstrates the best qualities of leader, educator, mentor and community leader.
Ernst, who has a summer home in Payson, spends family weekends and off-season time here.
Each year, when the now-defunct Payson Invitational Summer Tournament was played from the late 1980s to 2003, Ernst would bring his Toros team to the Rim Country to hone their hardwood skills in off-season play.
Although championship teams were sometimes not named in the tournament, the Toros were among the finest teams to participate.
At Mountain View, Ernst also coached two former Tonto Village Shelby School standouts, Dallas Rensch and Harper Kamp. Both opted to attend the Mesa school rather than Payson High.
This season, the 6-foot-8-inch Kamp led the Toros to their third consecutive state championship. Kamp, one of the most recruited high school players in Arizona, has received a full-ride scholarship to a school in California.
Several years ago, Rensch -- after playing his freshman year at PHS -- transferred to Mesa Mountain View High School, where he became an all-state player under Ernst's tutelage.
Ernst, who is in the 33rd year of his coaching career -- 23 of those in Mesa -- has led his teams to state tournament appearances in 18 out of the past 19 seasons, winning seven state championships. He is also one of the winningest coaches in the state with a record of 664-265.
As part of the Spirit of Cotton Award, Ernst will receive a Phoenix Suns Charities grant of $10,000 for use in the Toros athletic program, a commemorative plaque, custom-made ring and a vacation for two.
In giving out the award, Joann Fitzsimmons, late wife of the former Suns coach, said, "Anyone who follows high school basketball is familiar with Coach Gary Ernst.
"Obviously, being one of the most successful coaches in Arizona played a part in his selection, but his personal reputation is equally impressive."
Before Fitzsimmons' death, he was an important cog for the Suns since 1970. Over a 20-year NBA career, he won 832 games with four different teams. He was twice honored as the NBA Coach of the Year.
In the inaugural year, Coach Dick McConnell of Sahuaro High School received the award.
Ex -Horn draws praise
Mesa Community College head football coach Dan Dunn says former Payson High School two-way lineman Kevin Allen is working hard to battle for a starting position on next season's Thunderbird team.
Dunn said he's impressed with Allen's off-season work ethic and if the ex-Horn continues to improve, he can contribute to the MCC gridiron cause.
Allen, who starred at PHS under former football coach Jerry Rhoades, signed a letter of intent in 2006 to attend MCC.
Dunn said there is also a possibility Allen's younger brother, Kyle, could also attend MCC next year. Kyle is currently a senior at a high school in the Pacific Northwest.