ORLANDO – Before Dwight Howard took Orlando’s NBA team hostage … before Shaquille O’Neal stole and then, three years later, broke the hearts of Magic fans everywhere … before Howard, O’Neal and dozens of other terrific players delighted folks in what had been all football and Mouse ears in central Florida, there was Pat Williams.
Williams was the hustler, huckster, salesman and veteran NBA visionary who, about 25 years ago, got it into his head that pro basketball could thrive where it never had existed.
“It was a wild [vision],” Williams said Sunday morning at the annual NBA Legends brunch, where he was honored with the Hometown Hero award. “It was still kind of an overgrown citrus community. There was no downtown skyline. No Universal Studios. No big airport. … Our pitch was, ‘Don’t look at Orlando today. Look at it 10 years from today. Twenty years from today. Fifty years from today.’ “
The Magic entered the NBA that day in 1987, joining with expansion teams in Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota for the buy-in price of $32.5 million. Today, the Magic franchise is worth an estimated $385 million, according to a story last month in Forbes. The team is in its second season, in its second downtown area, with its second Hall of Fame-worthy big man making folks nervous on the day of its second NBA All-Star Game – none of which would have happened even once if not for Williams’ passion.
“Pat was such a pain in the neck trying to get an expansion franchise in Orlando that we finally granted it,” NBA commissioner David Stern teased.
The man to whom Orlando owes its NBA experience, at 71 still a senior vice president of the team, has had his plate full lately: Williams has been battling cancer – multiple myeloma to be exact, which affects blood plasma in his bone marrow. He went through traditional chemotherapy treatments and, when that didn’t achieve the results he needed, underwent a stem cell transplant. He is said to be holding the cancer at bay now, Magic president Alex Martins said after the brunch.
Williams long NBA career took him from public relations duties in Chicago to general manager responsibilities in Atlanta and Philadelphia before he took on the Orlando quest. He was the lucky Magic executive who saw his club land consecutive No. 1 lottery picks in 1992 and 1993, which he parlayed first into O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, then into a 1995 Finals appearance for the young team.
Williams’ busy private life is just as remarkable, filled with books he has authored, endless speaking engagements as a motivator and, with his wife Ruth, as a parent to 19 children, 14 of them adopted from four countries. At one point, 16 of them were teenager, when “I realized why some animals eat their young,” Williams quipped.
Others honored at the 13th annual Legends brunch, with Mt. Rushmore types such as Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the audience, were:
- Hall of Fame scorer Dominique Wilkins as the Legend of the Year, for his basketball achievements but also for his work in fighting diabetes and as a Boys & Girls Club Alumni Hall of Famer.
- NBA/ABA center Artis Gilmore, finally inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last summer, received the Legends’ Lifetime Achievement Award
- Nick Anderson, Orlando’s first-ever draft pick (No. 11, 1989), was presented with the Humanitarian Award for his work in the Magic’s community.
- Hardaway received the Young Legends Award.
- Magic Johnson also was recognized in a tribute to his All-Star MVP performance in the previous ASW held in Orlando. Diagnosed in November 1991 with the HIV virus, Johnson came out of his abrupt retirement to score 25 points in game and set up his participation later that year in the original Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.