It’s a quiet midweek morning in Orlando, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has pulled into the gleaming Amway Center for its annual weeklong run. As workers truck the Big Top onto the arena floor, the ponies and elephants pace in the adjacent parking lot that for the next week will serve as the circus corral.
|Pat Williams got his start in minor league baseball, but his made his mark by helping bring the NBA to Orlando.
Few in sports have accomplished as much as Williams over his 50 years in the industry. An intuitive marketer, builder of NBA championship teams and an indefatigable promoter, Williams also is a vestige to a bygone era in sports, where front-office executives would do everything from selling program ads to trading players, sometimes in the same day. Imagine a spreadsheet-toting, Ivy League-educated general manager of today wrestling a bear during a halftime promotion like Williams once did when he ran the Chicago Bulls.
“The Humane Society didn’t want strangers wrestling the bear, and the show had to go on,” Williams said with a laugh, and they are words he still lives by.
The show must go on.
■ What others are saying
■ Stern: Pat ‘refused to take no for an answer’
This is the second in a series of profiles of the 2013 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees, and the issues in which they will be featured, are:
Feb. 4: Ron Shapiro
Feb. 11: Pat Williams
Feb. 18: Roy Kramer
Feb. 25: Rosa Gatti
March 4: Donald Dell
March 11: Harvey Schiller
His success first came in baseball’s minor leagues, where he leveraged his dim playing prospects with the then-Class D Miami Marlins into a front-office career so full of success that he once was offered ownership of a minor league franchise to prevent him from moving to the NBA, where he built the Philadelphia 76ers into a championship team.
Williams also enjoyed stints with the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but arguably his biggest contribution to sports was in Orlando, where he played a pivotal role in bringing the NBA to central Florida.
His achievements have not lacked reward or recognition, culminating with the Basketball Hall of Fame honoring Williams last year with the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award.
Williams credits much of his success to a hot late-summer day more than 50 years ago, in 1962, when he drove to Easton, Md., to meet with the legendary White Sox owner Bill Veeck. Williams, who was then toiling in the bare-bones world of minor league baseball, first as a player, then as an executive, found the nerve to call Veeck and talked himself into a meeting.
“TA2445, that was Bill’s phone number,” Williams said, remembering Veeck’s antiquated phone number. “And it took me 15 minutes to dial.”
Over a lunch of BLT sandwiches, Williams learned at the wooden leg of one of sport’s legendary owners — and arguably its most famous promoter.
“I drove up and Bill was sitting there on his porch reading a book,” Williams recalls. “He shirt was off and so was his [prosthetic wooden] leg and he greeted me warmly. I left five hours later and it was the start of a 25-year friendship.”
Driving home, Williams already had memorized what he calls the “Veeck Principles,” which have served him so well throughout his career.
“Don’t announce promotions in advance, be out on the speaking circuit, stand at the gates when fans leave, open your own mail and don’t screen your calls,” Williams recites from his visit with Veeck as if it were yesterday.
The meeting still inspires Williams today, and 50 years ago it set him on a course to blaze his own trail across the sports industry.
Williams’ introduction to pro sports began as a kid growing up in Wilmington, Del.
As the only son of four kids in his family, Williams, the second oldest, struck up a childhood friendship with Ruly Carpenter, whose father Bob owned the Philadelphia Phillies and was a family friend. Williams’ father coached and taught at Tower Hill School in Wilmington where Pat and Ruly were classmates and played together on the school’s baseball, football and basketball teams.
On Sundays, Williams would tag along with the Carpenters and hang out in the Phillies’ dugout and clubhouse chatting with stars such as Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts. During high school, Williams would travel down to Clearwater, Fla., for spring training, where he would catch his buddy Ruly as he pitched to the pros.
|Pat Williams’ 50-plus-year career in sports has taken him from the fields of minor league baseball to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Williams was a talented high school catcher, played quarterback and starred on the basketball team. But not even his closest friends foresaw his promotional abilities.
“In high school, Pat didn’t really have the same personality that he has today,” Ruly Carpenter said. “He was quiet and shy. It is almost like a role reversal today.”
With no MLB draft in existence in 1958, Williams graduated from Tower Hill and went to Wake Forest University, where he majored in physical education and played baseball, catching every game for four years. When he graduated in 1962, the Carpenters signed him to a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins, more as a favor than as a prospect.
He received a $500 signing bonus and was paid $400 a month.
“I thought I was the biggest of bonus babies,” Williams said.
Phillies scout Wes Livengood’s report on the slow-footed and streaky hitter was remarkably prescient.
“Has a bright future in a front office,” Livengood wrote.
After two scuffling seasons with the Marlins, his short-lived career ended with a dead arm after catching both games of a doubleheader. But Marlins general manager Bill Durney — a baseball lifer — saw in Williams an eager and natural leader with a marketing degree. Durney hired him as the team’s business manager, where Williams struggled to sell local ads in the team’s program.
“I was failing miserably and I thought my career would end quickly,” Williams said. “But Bill turned me loose and he adopted me.”
Soon, Williams demonstrated his selling abilities and he also gave his first speech in front of the local Rotary Club — a horrifying experience for Williams, who back in high school could barely find the nerve to deliver a five-minute speech to the student body, as needed to graduate.
“He was scared to death, and with all due respect, I did a little better,” Carpenter said. “Now, he is one of those guys who can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.”
While in Miami he earned his master’s degree in physical education from Indiana University during the offseason. He continued to prove himself to the Phillies organization and was hired in 1965 to run the Spartanburg, S.C., minor league affiliate. There, he built the team into one of the most successful franchises in the then-Western Carolinas League while operating every aspect of the team, seemingly with little fanfare.
People began to take notice of Williams after he was named Minor League Executive of the Year in 1967, and soon he found himself facing a major decision in July 1968 when his secretary handed him a pink message pad with Jack Ramsey’s phone number on it. Ramsey, who at the time was general manager and coach of the 76ers, needed someone to help run the Sixers’ business operations.
“I didn’t know what prompted him to call,” Williams said, “but years later I asked him and he said that a lot more was known about me in Philadelphia than I had thought.”
Offered a three-year contract for $20,000 per year, a princely sum for a minor league front-office executive, Williams quickly took the job.
“Pat had done a great managerial job with that minor league team and he absorbed what the NBA was about,” Ramsey said. “He was very active, very conscientious, and he was very good at promotions. I think he had a great dedication to be successful and was very driven.”
But just as Williams was leaving South Carolina, R.E. Littlejohn, the owner of the Spartanburg team, offered him a majority stake in the franchise if he would stay on and run it, according to Williams. At the same time, the expansion Montreal Expos also called and offered Williams a job.
It was a sudden embarrassment of riches for Williams, who had toiled for four years in Spartanburg, but he kept his word to Ramsey.
“It was too late,” Williams said of any desire to take the other jobs. “At age 28, I was out of baseball.”
That year, 1968, also brought to Williams a significant personal change alongside his professional advancement.
“Most important to me was my faith,” Williams said. “I became a Christian in February 1968.”
Williams doesn’t push his religion on others, but he isn’t shy about the role faith has played in his life.
“It gave me a sense of purpose,” he said. “I was wrestling [personally and professionally] and I finally had some peace about it.”
Buoyed by his other newfound religion, selling basketball, Williams dove into his job running the business side of the Sixers and distinguished himself by pushing promotions that only Veeck could be proud of.
With Williams running the show, each night at the Spectrum seemed to outdo the last.
“The rap on me was that what had played in Spartanburg wouldn’t play in the big leagues,” he said, “and I was determined to prove it wasn’t the case.”
There were halftime acts such as Victor the Wrestling Bear, hot dog eating contests, and appearances by the show-stopping Echoes of November singing group led by then-Philadelphia Phillies star Dick Allen.
“The team was giving away salamis before Pat got there, and then it became a show,” said sports marketing veteran Andy Dolich, who worked for the Sixers in the early 1970s. “He was a promotional leader and deserves as much credit as anyone in being able to marry the business and marketing side of the NBA with the basketball side.”
Word of the team’s promotional exploits orchestrated by Williams spread quickly through the league, with the Sixers in 1968-69 posting a 55-27 record and the third-highest attendance in the 14-team NBA. Suddenly, Williams was in demand.
|Williams had a knack for winning the NBA draft lottery, such as in 1992 (above) and 2004 (below).
“It was a promotion for him, and I don’t like to stand in the way of people advancing themselves,” Ramsey said.
Backed by a three-year deal now worth $30,000 per year, Williams walked into a Bulls organization that was struggling for survival, with little fan support and a 33-49 record.
Williams immediately revamped the team’s roster, trading with his old team for Chet Walker, and over the course of four seasons, the Bulls steadily improved on the floor and at the box office, where the imaginative Williams promoted the Bulls in ways not seen before.
Today, when fans cheer as Benny the Bull runs across the United Center floor, they can thank Williams for creating one of the NBA’s earliest and best-known mascots.
And similar to Williams’ move to Philadelphia in 1968, which brought a deep, personal change in his life, so too did his move to Chicago. Williams met and married his first wife, Jill, during his time in Chicago and it was a marriage that lasted 23 years, with the couple raising 18 kids — 14 of whom were adopted from four foreign countries.
The life-changing decision to adopt didn’t come easy or quick for Williams, who initially resisted Jill’s desire to add more children to their family. But slowly, Pat was convinced, and the first set of sisters were adopted from South Korea in September 1983.
“Jill had wanted to adopt for years and I had squashed it,” Williams admitted. “Finally, I needed to quiet the storm, and I was converted.”
The other 12 children were adopted over the next decade, with the final two being adopted on Christmas night, 1993. At one point during their marriage, Williams had 16 teenagers in the house at the same time.
“Then my wife left and my life got really interesting,” Williams said of his 1995 divorce.
He wasn’t a single parent for long when, in 1997, he married his current wife Ruth, who brought to the house a child of her own. They met at a Magic management retreat where Ruth, a consultant with FranklinCovey Co., was giving a time management seminar.
Raising 19 children was a parenting challenge that Williams never could have imagined as he left the Bulls in the summer of 1973 for the Atlanta Hawks, where he spent one season. During that season, though, he boldly traded superstar Pete Maravich to the yet-unnamed New Orleans expansion franchise for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick along with role players Bob Kauffman and Dean Meminger.
“I went to Pete’s house to tell him that he was traded and he asked what I got for him,” Williams said. “I told him and he said, ‘Is that all.’ I said, ‘Pete, it is everything they have.’”
But Atlanta proved to be a short stint for Williams, as back in Philadelphia the 76ers were on their way to a 9-73 season during the 1972-73 season, setting an NBA mark for full-season futility that still stands. After the 1973-74 season, Kosloff, who still held Williams in high regard, brought him back to Philly.
“It was rock bottom,” Williams said, “but I was back home.”
Now in control of the team as general manager, Williams went to work retooling the franchise. His biggest player deal came in 1976 when he convinced Julius Erving, then a star for the ABA’s New York Nets, to sign with the Sixers. The struggling Nets needed cash and allowed Erving to depart for a then-astronomical sum of $6 million, $3 million of which was paid to the Nets and $3 million given to Erving.
Williams sealed the deal after he convinced the Sixers’ new owner, Fitz Dixon, to pay the $6 million to acquire one of the game’s greatest players.
“Fitz called me and asked who Dr. J was, and I said he was the Babe Ruth of basketball,” Williams said. “I put my reputation on the line.”
Williams handed Dr. J a uniform with the No. 6 on the back, a nod to honor Celtic hall of famer Bill Russell, and the team was on its way. Under Erving, the Sixers made three trips to the NBA Finals in six years, from 1977 to 1982, but always came up short, failing to win a title despite having such talented players as Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. By the 1982-83 season, Williams went all in, building the Sixers into a massive powerhouse by trading for Moses Malone, and the franchise finally landed the NBA crown that year — marking the city’s first basketball championship since 1967, and its only NBA title in the last 30 years.
“Pat knew what he didn’t know and that was a great trait,” said Billy Cunningham, who coached the Sixers’ championship team. “Pat didn’t play [NBA] basketball and he didn’t coach it, but he knew talent and he had a good relationship with the players. He wasn’t one to come into the locker room and be upset. That was my job. He was about putting people into the seats and running a first-class organization.”
But the good times wouldn’t last long in Philadelphia. Williams quickly grew frustrated as the team failed to win another championship despite its talented roster that by 1985 also included future hall of famer Charles Barkley.
“We couldn’t become a dynasty, and I was getting itchy,” Williams said.
|Williams (far right) poses with original Orlando Magic co-owner James Hewitt (left) and current owner Richard DeVos, in 1990.
“When Pat came down, Jimmy asked him if the NBA would work in Florida,” said Alex Martins, the Magic’s CEO today. “Pat said that it might work in Miami or Tampa. When Jimmy said he was thinking of Orlando, Pat looked at him like he had four eyes.”
But Williams was intrigued and he signed on as the front man. He was promptly put in charge of selling the idea to the league’s team owners and Commissioner David Stern.
“We needed Pat from the standpoint of knowing the NBA,” Hewitt said. “I was born and raised in Orlando and I knew all the people here. We needed to put a package and get it to Stern, and Pat knew the NBA inside and out. He was also a great speaker, and I knew his personality would work alongside me.”
It would be the biggest challenge of Williams’ already storied career.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Williams said. “There was a pioneering spirit to it.”
After drumming up fan support and beefing up the group by elevating Bill DuPont as the lead investor, Williams sold NBA owners on Orlando, and in 1987 the group paid a $32.5 million expansion fee to be one of four franchises to join the league in the late 1980s. It was the professional triumph of Williams’ career, and he was named general manager of the newly named Magic, a job he held until 1993.
True to form, Williams built the Magic into a winning team. Much of that was aided by his uncanny knack for winning the NBA draft lottery in consecutive years, delivering to the franchise Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 and Penny Hardaway in 1993, via a trade with the Golden State Warriors for Chris Webber and future draft picks. The top picks helped build the Magic into a championship-contending franchise, culminating with the team’s appearance in the 1995 NBA Finals.
And though the Magic failed to win an NBA title under Williams, they were the first among that four-team phase of expansion to make the Finals, reaching the championship series in just six years. The Magic made the Finals again in 2009, and out of the league’s seven expansion franchises in the last 30 years, Orlando is one of only two to reach the NBA Finals (Miami is the other).
Though Williams has not been involved in the team’s day-to-day operations for years, he still holds a senior vice president title and serves as a front-office mentor.
“The DeVos family would never have owned the Orlando Magic if not for Pat, who presented me with the opportunity to buy the franchise before I ever considered being an owner of a professional basketball team,” said Magic owner Rich DeVos, who bought the team in 1991 for $85 million. “Once my family bought the Magic, Pat played a key role in sharing his expertise to help us become effective owners.”
Free from the daily grind of running an NBA franchise, Williams has become a highly regarded motivational speaker and a prolific author of leadership-related books. He has written 80 books, has run 58 marathons between ages 55 and 70, and routinely gives more than 150 speeches each year. A voracious reader, he also has a home library stuffed with more than 7,000 books, most of which he says he has read.
“I am an extremist,” Williams admits.
Despite an ongoing battle with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, Williams these days still keeps a full schedule.
“It is not curable but treatable, and I feel good and am making good progress,” Williams said.
And with four more books due out in the near future, Williams isn’t planning on slowing down any time soon.
“When I think about Pat, I am always blinded by the shine on everything he does, whether it is his motivational speaking, his adoption of children, his record in the league with Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Orlando,” the NBA’s Stern said. “Then I remember he is a baseball guy on top of everything else.”