I don’t get to write about sports in Orlando for this site if Pat Williams never came to town in the 1980s. Downtown Orlando looks vastly different, if Williams, who retired as Executive Vice President of the Orlando Magic on Monday, does not lead the charge for NBA basketball in this market.
With The City Beautiful serving as one of the fastest growing metropolises in the United States, people come here every day who have no idea who Pat Williams is. Several will even stumble on this column with only faint knowledge of this Orlando sports giant.
Perhaps you have seen pictures of Williams kissing ping pong balls when the Magic landed their first two superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. Maybe the video has crossed your eye of him raising excited fists to the sky years later when another first overall pick that turned into Dwight Howard came their way.
Yes, Pat Williams is the #1 cheerleader and #1 good luck charm in Orlando sports history, but he is so much more.
While his role with the franchise has largely been ceremonial for years, Williams stands as a pillar that Magic basketball was built on. Before even stepping foot in Central Florida, he was already an iconic basketball executive, building the Philadelphia 76ers team that won an NBA title in 1983.
Williams brought that credibility south, when original owner Jimmy Hewitt got the unlikely idea to make Orlando a basketball town. He rallied support from every corner of town, got 14,000 season ticket commitments, turned the NBA into believers and watched as the league awarded this town a franchise on April 22nd, 1987.
The work did not end there. Williams was instrumental in packaging the entertainment around Magic games, built an inaugural season roster for 1989 and hired the team's first head coach, Matt Guokas, whom he had previously brought with the Sixers.
In the years to follow, Williams guided the growth of the Magic from gangly expansion afterthoughts to championship contenders. He stayed on as the team's general manager through 1996, acquiring the team's first collection of stars and seeing them through their NBA Finals run in 1995.
Williams has remained a guiding force ever since, advising Orlando's main decision makers as a Senior Vice President. In his 30 years of association with the Magic, he handled his business with class and set the tone for an organization, that despite a recent downtown of on-court performance, is still regarded with respect around the league.
Williams almost even got Orlando a second major professional team when he pursued his first sports love, baseball, in the 1990s. He was Phil Rawlins before Phil Rawlins and then stood by for counsel and support as the Orlando City Soccer founder similarly shared his vision with this city and was awarded a Major League Soccer franchise in 2013.
While building a basketball brand to last, Williams accomplished even more outside of the game that speaks to his legacy. He is the author of over 100 books, a popular motivational speaker, has completed 58 marathons, is the father of 19 children (14 adopted from around the world) and grandfather to 18 grandchildren.
Not often does a town outside of the historic old guard get to welcome pro sports and that rang even truer when Williams co-founded the Magic. Orlando is on a short list of places like San Antonio, Portland and Jacksonville where visionary leadership was able to entice at least one of the "big four" American sports leagues to set down roots in their city.
Williams got the ball rolling here on a remarkable dream. The next time you are cheering on the Magic, Orlando City or an increasingly-nationally relevant UCF Athletics program, tip your hat to Pat.
He made Orlando a sports town.
Photo courtesy Orlando Magic