More than 50 years ago, a baseball catcher-turned-baseball executive was recruited by Dr. Jack Ramsay to join the Philadelphia 76ers. Luckily for Orlando, Pat Williams was convinced in the mid- ‘80s to move to the City Beautiful to lobby for an NBA expansion team. He may be retiring from basketball (and ping pong balls), but he’ll remain extremely busy with the three R’s: reading, writing and grandkids.
You’ve been working in professional sports all your life, so it’s no surprise that we think of your career and life with some statistics. You spent 51 years in the NBA, including more than three decades with the Magic. You ran 58 marathons and just published your 110th book. Fourteen of your 19 children were adopted. At least one mountain climbed.
What do you think the most notable statistic is?
Oh, the children without question. I think when my epitaph is finally recorded, I think that’ll be the No. 1 item.
The children are all adults now. The oldest is 47; the youngest is 33. And we’re approaching grandchild No. 18 in August. And they’re all scattered, scattered around the country. One of the reasons that I thought it was wise to get on with the next chapter of my life is to be more available to them and be more involved in their lives.
In the sporting world, you are known for approaching games as an entertainment opportunity, not just as a competition between two teams. What do you see as the balance of entertainment and sports these days, especially as it pertains to the NBA?
I was a disciple of Bill Veeck, baseball’s maverick
innovator. His book came out in 1962, “Veeck As In Wreck.” Still the best sports book ever written, I think.
I was able to build a relationship with him for 25 years, and I bought into his argument that do not sell your games on the won and loss column. It’s too risky. You have a 50 percent chance or greater of losing that night, and if that’s the case, the whole evening is a failure.
Veeck would argue that if we have provided you with a night of fun and entertainment, if we have kept your
attention throughout the evening, whether win or lose, you leave fighting the traffic with a good memory. I bought in as a young baseball promoter, and I bought in hard.
I heard that the dog and pony shows are fine in Spartanburg, but, as far as majorleague cities, that’s never going to fly. I was determined to prove that that was not the case. It all went with me from Philadelphia for that one year, then to Chicago and then to Atlanta and then back to Philly. And down here. That philosophy has gone with me that you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. Or in this case at the old arena.
How else did he influence your approach?
He was always visible and available. He’d be roaming around his ballparks. And when the game was over, he’d be at the gate saying goodnight to you. If you wanted him during the day, you just called, and he picked up his own phone. He opened it and answered his own mail.
At one point where he was, he didn’t have a door on his office. He had the door removed.
That was what I bought into. For all these years, I never screened my phone calls. And I stand at the gates at night and say goodnight to people as they leave.
Bill Veeck had a huge influence on me. And I have, in turn, tried to pass that on. I wrote a book a few years ago, “Marketing Your Dreams: Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Promotional Genius.”
Another example was his passion to read. He was not a college graduate, but he was a voracious reader. He said, “I have reading habits of a garbage disposal.” I bought into that, and I’ve saved my books. They number now close to 30,000.
Wow. Where are they?
All of them are in boxes except for the 700 that made the move to College Park into my man cave. That’s one of the things I will do in my new life. I’m determined to finish those 700.
The rest are going to First Baptist Orlando. They have agreed to house all my books and my memorabilia. It’ll be
part museum and part library and part teaching center.
That’s a lot of books. Do you have a favorite author?
Oh, that’s a tough one to answer. In the world of history, David McCullough is tough to beat. I’m a big Stephen Ambrose fan before he died. H.W. Brands is a remarkable historian. The late Bruce Catton, who is probably the greatest Civil War writer of our time. Douglas Brinkley, who is a friend, continues to write beautiful history.
On baseball history, I’ve got about 2,000-plus books in that area. Probably one of the largest private collections. We reached out to see if the Baseball Hall of Fame would be interested in housing them, but then I thought I don’t want them that far away from me.
I want to be able to go in and talk to them and visit with them. See how they’re doing. See if they’re happy. Ask them some questions. You know, just
stay up to date with them.
Your latest book, “Character Carved in Stone: The 12 Core Virtues of West Point That Build Leaders and Produce Success,” was inspired by 12 benches in a park at the military academy, each one carved with a different word.
If you were asked to come up with some words for benches around Lake Eola for Orlando, what would you suggest?
Dreams. Leadership. Beauty. Growth. Energy. There’s great energy here in this community. You can feel it.
Unique. Joy. Magic. And that’s not Orlando Magic — it’s Orlando’s magic.
I’ve been asked often, “How do you describe Orlando’s magic?” Sunshine. Golf. Vacations.
Mickey Mouse. Shamu. Fresh orange juice. Happiness. Growth. That’s Orlando’s magic.