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Pat Williams '58: NBA Executive and Tower Hill Graduate Keeps Churning Through Life

Pat Williams' typical day begins with a 30- to 60-minute workout on an exercise bike. He travels regularly to make motivational speeches. And he keeps a full schedule as senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, the team he co-founded in 1986.

Williams is 71, and has written exactly that number of books. "Extreme Focus: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power to Achieve Your Dreams" came out last spring.

He hopes to finish two more by the end of the year, and come out with No. 75 next spring.

Williams has also run 58 marathons, all in the past 15 years. But he's taking a break from that to battle multiple myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.

That is the only concession he is making to the disease.

Everything else, including his daily workouts, has remained the same.

"It's important to me to live as normal a life as I can," said Williams, a Tower Hill graduate and former 76ers general manager. "I really haven't changed. That's important mentally, more than anything."

"Normal" for Williams, of course, is quite different from the "normal" of everybody else. Williams raised 19 children, 14 of whom were adopted from four countries.

He took over a 76ers team that was one season removed from the 9-73 disaster in 1972-73, which still stands as the worst record in NBA history. By 1977, the Sixers were in the NBA Finals.

Williams started the Magic franchise -- the first season was in 1989-90 -- in a city without a major professional sports team. Within six seasons, it, too, was in the NBA Finals.

There is no comparing building an NBA team to battling cancer. But really, Williams sees his illness as a chance to live out the words he speaks during many of his motivational speeches about leadership, teamwork and overcoming obstacles.

"I think Pat revels in challenges," said Sixers coach Doug Collins, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the Sixers in 1973 and remains a close friend of Williams. "Pat is a guy who loves to build. He did it in Philadelphia. He did it in Orlando. He sees opportunities where the crowd is not very good, and he says, 'Can I go in there and change it, turn things around?'

That's when Pat is at his best."

So when Williams found out in February that he has multiple myeloma, he took it as a challenge that cancer can be beaten, that it's not going to be a death sentence. He held a press conference wearing a T-shirt that read: "The Mission is Remission."

Then he kept on living.

Making progress

Multiple myeloma, which mostly strikes those over 50, is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. Most patients have it in multiple places in the body.

There is no cure. But recently, doctors have been able to combine chemotherapy with new drugs to get patients into complete remission.

That was virtually impossible a generation ago.
Williams said he's "not quite there yet," but added that he's making progress and that he is as determined as ever to get into remission.

"It's a pleasure for me to stay engaged, with a full platter on my schedule," he said. "That's the main lesson in all of this: Keep living your life.

"If you make cancer your top priority, it'll overwhelm you."

Williams' attitude is not surprising to those who know him best.

That includes Ruly Carpenter, whose family owned the Phillies from 1943-81. Carpenter befriended Williams during their years at Tower Hill, where Williams' father was a history teacher.

"He's still going full-speed ahead," Carpenter said. "I wouldn't expect anything different."

Williams and Carpenter, after all, learned about overcoming challenges at an early age.

Their fathers, Bob Carpenter and Jim Williams, started the DFRC Blue-Gold All-Star High School Football Game in 1956 to benefit mentally challenged kids. Carpenter and Williams had siblings who were mentally challenged.

Both Carpenter and Williams played in the 1958 game.

Williams also had to overcome his fear of public speaking.

As a senior at Tower Hill, every student in their English class had to give a 10-minute talk in front of the upper school.

"I remember Pat telling me that he was scared to death," Carpenter said with a laugh. "We all were. But when he got up there, he sounded like a grade-school kid. Now, of course, he's such an accomplished public speaker. He's so eloquent when he talks."

Getting started

The Carpenters gave Williams his first job running a professional sports franchise when they hired him as general manager of the Phillies' minor-league affiliate in Spartanburg, S.C., in the mid-1960s. This came after Williams spent two seasons in their minor-league system as a catcher.

"He was a very creative and innovative general manager when he ran the team in Spartanburg," Carpenter said. "He was a disciple of Bill Veeck, and he would do just about anything to get fans to the stadium. He was very [public-relations] minded."

In the summer of 1968, Jack Ramsay, who was then the Sixers' general manager, called Williams out of the blue and said that he was going to trade Wilt Chamberlain, and that the team's coach, Alex Hannum, wasn't coming back. Ramsay said he was going to be both coach and general manager, and he would need someone to become the team's business manager. Williams, then 28, said he was interested.

Williams stayed for a year, then became general manager of the Chicago Bulls in 1969. He was GM of the Atlanta Hawks in 1973-74 before taking over the Sixers in the summer of 1974.

The 76ers drafted Collins in 1973. He remembers Williams' promotional skill.

To get fans to come the games, Williams would hire acts like "Victor the Wrestling Bear" to perform at halftime.

"Pat was the master salesman," Collins said. "Pat [knew] about relating to the fans, about getting them to the games, promoting the game, especially when the team is down, and getting people to watch your product. He was a very high-energy guy back then, and he still is. He's a very positive guy who sees the glass as half-filled. When you're around him, you feel the passion he has for life and for sports."

But Williams knew to keep the fans coming back, the Sixers had to win. So he would sign or trade for players to make the Sixers relevant as quickly as possible.

That included getting Julius Erving in the fall of 1976 from the Nets, who then played in New York.

Williams convinced skeptical owner Fritz Dixon that Erving was worth the $3 million buyout fee from the Nets, who were moving
from the ABA to the NBA and desperately needed money, plus the $3 million contract needed to sign Erving.

Williams told Dixon that Erving was worth signing, calling him "the Babe Ruth of basketball."

That season, the Sixers reached the NBA Finals. They had a 2-0 lead in the series against Portland before the Trail Blazers won the next four games and the championship.

That led to Williams' slogan for the following season: "We Owe You One."

That didn't work out so well. The Sixers also lost in the NBA Finals in 1980 and 1982. Then Williams traded for Moses Malone, and that finally got the Sixers over the top in 1983.

"I think he would like to take that [slogan] back, because then it became one and two and three and we kept going until 1983 when 'Paid in Full' became the statement," Collins said.

"But that was Pat."

Sign of hope

So is this: Williams admitted that he knew nothing about multiple myeloma before he was diagnosed with it.

He had his annual physical just days after running the Disney Marathon in January. He was diagnosed shortly thereafter.

Williams delved into research and realized that former major-leaguers Mel Stottlemyre and Don Baylor both have had it for several years.

Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro succumbed to multiple myeloma earlier this year after living with it for more than a decade.

Williams took all of that as a sign of hope.

"If they spot it early, they can deal with it a lot better," he said.

Williams recently completed a five-month regimen where he had chemotherapy daily for a two-week cycle before getting a week off.

He was on a similar cycle with oral medication.

Last week, he started a new cycle that will continue into September.

But really, Williams sees this as just another challenge, such as taking over as general manager of a 9-73 team, or co-founding an NBA franchise that no one thought would ever succeed.

If it were easy, Williams probably wouldn't do it.

"There are a lot of people who like to take over something good and keep it that way," Collins said. "There are a lot of people who like to take over something and build it. Pat has that personality.

"He's one of those guys where his feet are never going to stop moving. He's always got to be on the move."

Williams is determined to make sure cancer doesn't change that.

Written by Martin Frank.
Reprinted with permission by The News Journal