A newspaper columnist in Orlando recently wrote about a Mount Rushmore of people who revolutionized and revitalized that central Florida city, and one of them was a no-brainer – Walt Disney, who chose the Orlando area to build a fantasy destination for millions of tourists.
But another historical figure he named wasn’t as obvious – Pat Williams. If Disney turned Orlando into a fantasy town, then Williams turned Orlando into a major-league town.
That’s why it was such a big deal when Williams recently announced his retirement from the Orlando Magic, the NBA franchise that he, more than anybody else, helped to create in 1987. Williams, who just turned 79 this month, has been the team’s general manager and executive vice-president and now, after more than 50 years in the business of sports, he is walking away.
Williams, of course, got his start in Delaware, not Florida. He was a star athlete at Tower Hill School who played baseball at Wake Forest before beginning a long and distinguished front-office career in professional sports long before he packed his bags for Orlando.
That career started in baseball with the Phillies organization, and he held various titles as he worked his way up the minor-league ladder, just like a player. Then he jumped to basketball and became the Sixers’ business manager before short stints as general manager of the Chicago Bulls (where he traded for Chet Walker) and the Atlanta Hawks (where he traded away Pete Maravich).
He returned to the Sixers as GM in 1974, when they had one of the worst teams in the NBA, and Williams played a big part in turning that rag-tag group that went 9-73 in 1973 into a team filled with All-Stars who eventually won an NBA Championship.
The story behind Williams’ most important acquisition has become the stuff of legends. The 76ers owner at the time was a soft-spoken businessman named Fitz Dixon.
He made a fortune the old-fashioned way – he inherited it – and he knew nothing about basketball. Fortunately for the Sixers, Williams did. And he knew that the New Jersey Nets – one of the franchises from the upstart American Basketball Association that was invited to join the NBA – were having financial problems and they might be interested in selling the rights to their star player, a guy by the name of Julius Erving.
Williams approached Dixon about the possibility, but Dixon had never even heard of Erving – don’t forget, in those primitive times before ESPN, etc., the ABA games were rarely on television and few people had seen Dr. J’s high-flying act. Dixon balked at the asking price – more than $6 million, a hefty amount in those days – but Williams convinced him to make the deal by comparing Erving to somebody even a non-sports guy like Fitz Dixon knew about. Williams told his boss that Julius Erving was the Babe Ruth of basketball, and that was enough to sway Dixon.
And the rest is history, not to mention a little geography, as Dr. J moved to Philadelphia and transformed the Sixers from chumps to champs.
Then Williams was given another challenge – a group of investors wanted to bring an NBA franchise to Orlando, which isn’t exactly the big city no matter how many Epcot Centers they build there. Williams joined the group in 1987 and he used his connections and persuasiveness to get the coveted franchise, and suddenly Orlando was known for Shaquille O’Neal as much as it was known for Mickey Mouse.
Pat Williams’ personal life is as interesting and eclectic as his professional one. For one thing, he is the father of 18 children and 14 of them were adopted, from four different nations. And Williams has really made his mark as an inspirational and motivational speaker and prolific author – he’s written more than 100 books, including his latest, Character Carved in Stone, which is subtitled Leadership Secrets of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The book has made the New York Times’ best-seller list.
It hasn’t always been fun and games for Williams, however. In 2011, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is often a fatal cancer, and he underwent treatment for the disease, including chemotherapy and stem cell therapy. The disease did go into remission and Williams is currently cancer-free.
The disease didn’t slow Williams down and retirement won’t, either. You get the feeling that Williams isn’t done yet, that he has another 100 books in him. The energy and passion that he has always had – whether it’s convincing Fitz Dixon to pay more than $6 million for Julius Erving, inspiring an audience at one of his motivational seminars, or dealing with a serious disease – hasn’t gone away just because he’s stepped away from the NBA.
That unabashed enthusiasm has carried Pat Williams through a long and fruitful life, from Tower Hill to Mount Rushmore.