ORLANDO, Fla. — Asking Pat Williams to name a favorite moment in Orlando Magic history would almost be like asking him to name a favorite child or a favorite book he has written.
But it may come as a surprise or even a shock to hear him not cite the teams which got to the NBA Finals in 1995 and 2009, or the winning of the draft lotteries in 1992, 1993 and 2004. After all this time, the father of 19 (14 of whom were adopted) and the author of more than 80 books maintains the softest of spots for a collection of players who lost 64 games, including their last 15 straight at the brand spanking new Orlando Arena.
The arena is no longer part of the city’s landscape. Aside from Nick Anderson, who is now a community ambassador for the Magic, and Jeff Turner, who serves as their color analyst on FOX Sports Florida, those players are largely names scattered in the wind.
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That matters not at all to Williams, who was honored along with local businessman Jimmy Hewitt during last Friday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs for helping Orlando land what is still its only big-league franchise in the four major professional sports.
“It would probably have to be the first one,” he said of the 1989-90 team coached by Matt Guokas. “To finally see the fruits of our labor right on the court … It was a long season. We suffered through a lot of losses. But the wins were so dramatic. And the crowds in the new arena were just so excited to be a part of it. They were just absolutely energized every game, win or lose.
“It was just rewarding to see that we were finally on the court with real uniforms and real players, a real team. We were in the standings every morning. We were legit.”
Although Williams ceded the reins of general manager in April 1996 to become a senior vice president with the Magic, his remains a constant presence at home games. He was diagnosed in February 2011 with multiple myeloma, a cancer that begins in plasma cells, but several rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant have helped get him back to his usual active self.
“When you think back to where we started, it’s gone very fast,” he said of the Magic’s 25th anniversary season. “I think life goes fast, when you think about it. I’m still having trouble believing I’m 73 years old.”
In September 1985, barely two years after the Philadelphia 76ers won an NBA championship with him as their general manager, Williams flew to Orlando for a speaking engagement. That was where he was re-introduced through a mutual acquaintance to Hewitt, a former accountant who had just sold off his string of day-care centers.
Before Williams returned to Philadelphia, Hewitt turned what seemed like an innocuous question into a bolt out of the blue.
“He drove me out to the airport, and I just said, ‘If pro basketball were to go in Florida, where would you put the team, Miami or Tampa?’ That really got him upset,” Williams recalled. “He said, ‘Neither place. You’d put it right here in Orlando.’ And I remember saying as we got to the airport, ‘Well, Jimmy, if you really believe that, you might get a hold of David Stern and just see what’s going on.’ And I thought no more of it.
“The next week, I’m back in my office in Philadelphia. The phone rings, and it’s Jimmy saying, ‘Bubba, we’ve got an appointment with David Stern in New York. We’re going up to see him next week.’ “
Williams stepped down from his post with the Sixers less than a year later and began drawing upon the promotional and marketing strategies of his idol, the late baseball owner Bill Veeck, to sell pro basketball to Orlando and the surrounding areas.
“When you think back, we were a small Southern community with no sports history,” he said. “I think the league felt like they were taking a chance on us.”
Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota were all considered to be the front-runners for expansion franchises, with Orlando seen as having only slightly better odds than Toronto and Orange County (Calif.). But Stern and his top assistant, future NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, couldn’t help but notice that Williams’ sales pitch was working, eventually securing 14,000 season ticket deposits.
“At that time, not many teams had more than 3,000 or 4,000 season tickets,” he said.
Fans who weren’t there for the Magic’s inception probably know Williams best as the franchise’s good-luck charm after the team failed to make the playoffs and thus qualified for the draft lottery. Williams was on hand when NBA officials announced, sometimes through gritted teeth, that the Magic had won the rights to picks which brought Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Dwight Howard to town.
As far as Williams is concerned, this past May marked the fourth time the Magic struck it rich, even if Victor Oladipo wasn’t selected by them with the No. 1 choice.
“We’ve had a good run in the draft lottery,” he said. “I have no complaints with that, including last year. People say, ‘Well, you didn’t win it.’ In my mind, we did win another one because the guy we would have taken at 1, we took at 2.”
The thrill of winning the franchise is still very fresh to him. And Williams harkens back to those early years of the Magic whenever he watches a game in person, even if he’s no longer as actively involved in their day-to-day operations.
“In my own mind, I’m always day to day — following other teams, preparing for a draft,” he said. “As an old GM, you never stop GM-ing 30 teams. You did then, you are now. I’m the GM of 30 teams. That will probably never change.”