Denton: Williams Set to Join Illustrious Company
By John Denton
September 5, 2012
ORLANDO -- Throughout his 44 years in professional sports, Pat Williams carved a sizeable swath by being part showman, part ahead-of-the curve innovator and a full-time salesman. But he wouldn’t be where he is now – on the verge of entering the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – without being a man willing to take several major risks along the way.
When Williams accepts the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award Thursday night in Springfield, Mass., his message will revolve around how he built a professional career out of taking risks and making them successful.
Who leaves a championship organization in your hometown of Philadelphia to take a shot-in-the-dark stab at bringing professional sports to Orlando in 1986? Who gets hired out of a tiny minor league ballpark in Spartanburg, S.C. to run the 76ers as a GM? Who takes a crippling cancer diagnosis and spins it into a new passion to raise money, promote awareness and encourage others? Who writes more than 75 books, finishes 50 marathons, adopts 14 of his 19 children and finds time to also scale Mt. Rainier? And who, quite frankly, ever makes it to the Basketball Hall of Fame while starting out as a Class D catcher in the minors?
Williams gives new meaning to the phrase of having done it all, squeezing every ounce out of life over his past 72 years. There are times when he thinks what might have happened with his life had he not been so willing to chase his dreams and take risks that would cause so many others to shy away. But now that he’s on the cusp of one of his all-time greatest out-of-nowhere accomplishments of reaching the Hall of Fame, he will address those in attendance with his pleas that they should be willing to take risks and attack every day of life.
``Through it all, I’ve had fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve had some wonderful successes and some down times, but by and large it’s been a four-and-a-half decade run that’s been very rewarding, exciting, adventuresome and risky,’’ said Williams, the co-founder of the Magic and still the team’s Senior Vice President. ``I guess you’d say I’m a builder and a risk-taker. I take over franchises that needed life breathed into them and that’s what I always tried to do. … I always wanted to max everything I could out of life and I still do today.’’
Williams joins Reggie Miller, Don Nelson, Ralph Sampson, Katrina McClain, Hank Nichols, Jamaal Wilkes and the first women’s professional basketball team, the All American Red Heads as the 2012 inductees to the Hall of Fame. Don Barksdale, Lidia Alexeeva, Chet Walker and Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight were named to the Hall of Fame class in February during the All-Star Game in Orlando.
Williams joins legends such as Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Pat Summitt and Bob Cousy as previous winners of the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award. Williams has given hundreds of speeches and motivational talks through the years, but this Hall of Fame speech will center around him having taken the most unorthodox path to being alongside of some of the greatest to ever be a part of basketball.
``I’m just going to talk about how I’m the most unlikeliest of candidates to be standing there,’’ he said. ``I look at this long list of predecessors who were deeply involved in basketball from the beginning of their lives and I’m catching in the Florida State League and working in minor league baseball. One phone call changed my life and it came from Dr. Jack Ramsay. He was about to become the coach and GM of the 76ers and he was about to trade Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers. He needed somebody to run his front office as he took off to coach. That’s how I got my start and the rest is history.’’
Williams is still living life at warp speed, cranking out books, speaking to hundreds of Fortune 500 employees and frolicking with his grandchildren even though he was given a diagnosis 18 months ago that no one wants to hear. Williams has multiple myeloma, an incurable and inoperable form of aggressive cancer than infiltrates the blood plasma in bone marrow. Chemotherapy and an unbreakable spirit has helped Williams push on through the disease and vow to help others.
As he did with most of the causes he’s championed throughout his lifetime, Williams coined a phrase for his battle with cancer. ``Remission is the Mission!’’ is what Williams tells himself on a daily basis and tells to others fighting the daily fight. As strange as it sounds considering all of Williams’ grandiose accomplishments in the world of sports, he now sees this battle with cancer as his true calling in life.
``At this point in my life I’ve been thrust into the world of cancer, cancer research, cancer fundraising and cancer board meetings,’’ Williams said. ``I feel good and my energy level is good. I’m able to keep a full life and I’m not restricted in any way. We’ve come a long way in 18 months and the doctor reports are all positive. I just take every day as it comes and max it out. That’s the best way I’ve found to deal with cancer.
``I feel that I’ve been called to make a difference in fund-raising activities, research and encouraging families dealing with cancer,’’ Williams continued. ``A day does not go by when I’m not doing something in the world of cancer. That seems to be my calling this decade and I’m prepared for that. That may be the most significant thing in my life.’’
That’s saying something considering that Williams is credited with saving professional basketball in Chicago, bringing a championship and an all-time great team to Philadelphia and making Orlando a major league sports town in 1987.
Naturally, Williams had some trepidation about leaving Philadelphia in 1986 when asked by Jimmy Hewitt to head up Orlando’s push to earn a NBA franchise. Not a day goes by when he enters his office at the RDV Sportsplex or the dazzling downtown Amway Center that Williams doesn’t think about what the sports landscape in Orlando would look like if had he not taken a risk on the city some 26 years ago.
``That day in April of 1987 when word came down from New York that the NBA was going to add four new teams, including little ol’ Orlando, that was an enormous moment in my life,’’ Williams said.
That willingness to take risks, to push the envelope and being willing to take on things from a different angle came from legendary Major League Baseball executive Bill Veeck, Williams’ inspiration throughout his 44 years in professional sports. Veeck was the creator of the wacky promotions, the friendly fan service and the constant promotion of the franchise. Veeck’s motives were always to promote fun for the fans, and it’s something that Williams has tried to incorporate into everything he does.
Williams got to meet Veeck, his idol and favorite author, and the five-hour skull session in which Veeck did most all of the talking shaped the way Williams tackled projects, promoted ventures and squeezed every ounce of fun out of life.
``He just had an enormous impact on me because I bought into his philosophy right from the beginning. He said you’ve got to make it fun every night, be a man of the people, be available to people, answer your own phone and mail and be at the gates at the end of the game to shake hands with people,’’ Williams said. ``I bought into everything that Bill Veeck preached. … I’ve written a book about Bill called, ``Marketing Your Dreams,’’ and I still speak several times a year when people want me to talk about the life lessons that I learned from Bill Veeck. I’m still inspired by him today.’’
Williams considers the 1983 title in Philly with Julius Erving and Moses Malone, the creation of the Magic and the induction into the Hall of Fame as the three greatest accomplishments of his professional career. It’s with the Magic where his legacy endures, and several times a week he’s approached by fans who thank him for helping bring professional sports to Orlando. Knowing that his willingness to take a risk on Orlando paved the way for the Magic to make a difference in Central Florida is still incredibly humbling, Williams said.
``It means more to me as the years go on. In the early years things were so intense and there were so many things to be done that I didn’t think much about what we had done,’’ Williams said. ``Now that I’m not really faced with the day-to-day stuff as I was for so many years, now I can look at it objectively and realize what this franchise means to this community. It’s our only big-league team, and the community can give its full love and attention to the Magic.
``And having the beautiful new facility (Amway Center) to play in – sometimes I pinch myself and say, `Did this all really happen? What if I had decided to stay in Philadelphia in 1986?’’’ Williams remembered. ``Jimmy Hewitt said to me in April of 1986, `Bubba, we’ve gone as far with this as we can down here; if you’ll come down and head it up, we’ll go forward. And if not we’ll just end it.’ I was forced to make the decision and it was an enormous risk. We had six children at the time and there was no guarantee of anything. We took the risk and 10 months after we started, the NBA said we’re in. So the risk was well worth it for me and the city of Orlando.’’
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