ORLANDO — Pat Williams knows about beating the odds.
Three times he has been the official team representative when the Magic won the Draft Lottery.
At 71, he is smiling and relentlessly active and looking fit less than a year after being diagnosed with cancer.
So while the immediate outlook for the local NBA franchise would seem to run the gamut from bleak to dire, Williams says Orlando as a sports market and a city is in far better shape to withstand the loss of Dwight Howard than when Shaquille O’Neal bolted for L.A. back in 1996.
“It won’t be nearly as big a blow,” said Williams. “Not really. This town has grown so much since then. We had 55 million visitors last year. That’s never happened before in an American city. I think Orlando can stand on its own. It’s a major, major market now.
“So is there sense of dismissal, that we’re ‘a dried up pond,’ as Shaq called it? No. No.
“Of course, we were a good bit smaller then and maybe not as sophisticated. Of course, he never left here and has lived here ever since. So I guess you could say that Shaq hasn’t changed since then, but we have.
“The Shaq experience, it continues to irk people with no end in sight and that was 16 years ago.
“There was a sense back then that said: ‘How could Shaq do that after all the love we’ve shown him and all the possibilities that were there for the team? How could he call us this little shriveled up village or whatever else he said?’ “
Williams was the co-founder and zealous missionary who spread the gospel of the NBA in Central Florida when the Magic were born in 1989. He hired Matt Guokas as the team’s first coach, made Nick Anderson the first draft pick and was the good luck charm sitting in the chair before the national TV cameras when the ping-pong balls bounced the right way and delivered the No. 1 pick — and Shaq — to the Magic in 1992. And again in 1993 when the Magic traded No. 1 pick Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway. Again in 2004 when the Magic earned the No. 1 pick and chose Howard.
In a way, the proof that the Magic and the City of Orlando can survive and even thrive in the wake of Howard’s departure is in his very arrival eight years ago. And the belief that anything is possible lives inside Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer that infiltrates the blood plasma in the bone marrow. It is inoperable and incurable, but some patients have been treated with chemotherapy to the point of inactivity. Williams has been to see his doctor this week and the results of his latest blood tests were good. His hair is growing back and his infectious, upbeat attitude has never left.
“I’m back in the game,” he said. “Just like the Magic will be, regardless of what happens. Players are going to leave cities because free agency is a moving game that never ends. Another center, Chris Kaman, has left New Orleans and is going to Dallas. Does that mean New Orleans is a city not worth living in? Players change teams and change cities all the time. What you can’t let it do is change the way you feel about yourself.”
Williams, in fact, isn’t willing to let go of even the longest of longshot scenarios.
“Well, the way things stand, Dwight may well be here in the fall and then we see what happens. What we see is things can change. Look at all the plates that have already been spinning through all of this. Who would have predicted that we’d be here now at this point if you went back six months or three months or maybe a couple of weeks ago?
“I have no special insight or idea as to what might happen. But you know, in the end, what if Dwight just stayed right here? Could you put the relationship back together? I think so. A lot of things get said during these situations, the negotiation. But if Dwight decided he wanted to stay, I’m sure Orlando would get over it. Some scars? Some hard feelings? Sure. Then you get over it. There’s life to live.”