Stern: Pat ‘refused to take no for an answer’
Local investors paid a $32.5 million expansion fee in 1987 to bring the NBA to Orlando, but just as valuable for Pat Williams was a pair of Mickey Mouse ears and a jar of central Florida dirt in pulling off the biggest sales job during his illustrious career.
Williams, who in June 1986 joined local businessman Jimmy Hewitt in leading the effort to land an NBA expansion team in Orlando, was the promotional mastermind behind the then-improbable deal. In September of that year, Williams kick-started the process by giving a 30-minute speech alone, without notes, in front of NBA owners, stressing the future growth of the Orlando area. The owners were impressed by the speech, but little did they know it was just another day at the office for Williams.
“That was a huge day, and I heard later that the owners were quite taken,” Williams said, “but the bottom line was that I had already given that speech about 100 times at bar mitzvahs, blue-light specials at Kmart and to Rotary clubs. I had it perfected.”
But it was Miami and Tampa that were viewed as likely Florida expansion cities, not small-town Orlando, which at the time lacked a major airport and a suitable arena to sustain significant NBA interest.
While Hewitt and his local investment group took care of the arena issue, Williams aimed at convincing some doubtful league owners.
“I must say that we knew [Orlando] was a wonderful Disney destination, but we were not sure that those visitor days would translate into support,” NBA Commissioner David Stern conceded. “We were not sure about the enthusiasm of the area for NBA basketball.”
Using two key props — a pair of Mickey Mouse ears that Williams thrust on Stern’s head while presenting the league a $100,000 check needed to secure the expansion effort, and a jar of the soil scooped up from the arena groundbreaking presented to NBA owners — the Orlando sales job was under way.
“David took the first pair of ears off,” Williams said, “but I had a second pair and I got the photo, which we needed.”
With Stern sporting the Mickey Mouse look, Williams set out to build local support. The league required at least 10,000 season-ticket deposits, and Williams hustled to prove to Stern the viability of the central Florida market.
“Pat knew the owners had expressed doubt for support of the season-ticket base,” Stern said. “We were targeting 10,000 season-ticket deposits, and then he showed up one day with 14,000. He made each meeting into something of an entertainment and public relations spectacle, from bringing in a jar of dirt to assaulting me with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. He just refused to take no for an answer.”
So effective was Williams in selling Orlando that the league decided to grant the city a franchise along with Miami, Minnesota and Charlotte, despite its underdog status.
The Miami Heat and the then-Charlotte Hornets joined the NBA for the 1988-89 season, with the Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves joining the league a year later.
“Pat energized every element of the community,” Stern said. “With Miami having the early lead, he made it into a no-brainer to have both.”