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Jimmy Hewitt believed in Magic when nobody else would

Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

And once again -- speaking on behalf of all the sports fans in Orlando -- thank you for believing in us all those years ago.

Every time the Orlando Magic have a significant anniversary, I always give Jimmy a call just to let him know we haven't forgotten about him. And I always get him to tell me the story about how he did it and why he believed in Magic. Like listening to your favorite uncle telling stories of fighting battles in faraway lands, Jimmy's historic play-by-play account of what happened never gets old. Never, ever. Not on the 1-year anniversary, the 10-year anniversary or this 25th anniversary season of the local NBA team's inaugural season in Orlando.

If you don't know the story of how Jimmy Hewitt literally made Magic, sit down on old grandpappy's knee here and let me tell you what went down in this city a generation ago. If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: Jimmy will go down in history as the father of the Orlando Magic. He not only conceived the idea of the team, he hatched it, nurtured it, supported it, protected it and, yes, put up his money to help pay for it.

"It wasn't me," Jimmy will tell you humbly. "It was the people of this city coming together for a common cause. I am just blessed to have been a part of the effort."

Without Jimmy, there would have been no effort. Without Jimmy, there would be no Orlando Magic. Without Jimmy, we would still be that two-bit sports town where fans congregated every Tuesday night for the weekly pro 'rasslin' matches at that old barn known as the Eddie Graham Sports Stadium.

But the entire sports landscape changed when Jimmy uttered those six Magical words to team co-founder Pat Williams on that September day back in 1985.

"Orlando is the place to be."

Jimmy and Pat are both spiritual men and they met when Jimmy went and saw Pat speak at a faith-based convention in Austin, Texas back in 1984. Pat, then the general manager of the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers, and Jimmy, a prominent Orlando businessman, became fast friends. A year later, in September of 1985, Pat contacted Jimmy when he came to Orlando to speak at a basketball clinic. After the clinic was over, Jimmy and local minister John Tolston drove Pat back to the airport.

At the time, Pat was one of the most prominent executives in the NBA and had the ear of new commissioner David Stern. He sat in the backseat on the way to the airport while Jimmy and Tolston sat up front and listened to Pat's chatter about how the NBA was planning to expand into the rapidly growing State of Florida. "So," Williams asked out of curiosity, "which location in Florida would be the best location for a potential NBA franchise – Miami, Tampa or Jacksonville?"

That's when Jimmy puffed out his Orlando chest and uttered the proud, passionate words that would change the course of Central Florida sports history.

"Orlando is the place to be," Jimmy told Pat.

And then Jimmy went on to explain to Pat about how Orlando was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States and was being populated by transplants from the Northeast and Midwest; a demographic perfect for basketball.

"But you don't even have an arena," Pat pointed out.

"We're building one,"Jimmy said.

"When will it be done?" Pat said.

"Sometime in 1990 or '91," Jimmy replied.

"Too late," Pat said.

"Then we'll build it quicker," Jimmy said. "Our mayor is very progressive and likes to get things done."

Williams told Jimmy to get back to him if the city could get the arena built by 1988 or '89. Honestly, though, Pat never really expected to hear back from Jimmy. But Jimmy had other ideas.

The very next day, when Jimmy was picking up his son from soccer practice at Lake Highland Prep, guess who else was there picking up his son? Yep, it was Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick. Jimmy nearly sprinted up to Frederick's car, eagerly told him about his conversation with Williams and convinced the mayor to set the political wheels in motion to move up the start date of the new arena.

Jimmy then put together a group of investors and flew up to New York to meet with Stern, who told Hewitt the stipulations that must be met and the hoops that had to be jumped through before Orlando would be awarded an expansion franchise. Jimmy met every stipulation and jumped through every hoop. He even convinced Pat to leave a championship organization with the 76ers and become the basketball brains of Orlando's expansion effort.

In the end, Jimmy even sacrificed his dream of being the majority owner of the team in order to get the deal done. According to the book "Making Magic" -- written by Williams and former Sentinel columnist Larry Guest -- the NBA wasn't enamored with the ownership group Hewitt had assembled. The league wanted a smaller investor group and a majority owner with deeper pockets than Hewitt. The league identified local businessman Bill du Pont, whose financial empire was worth nearly $100 million at the time, as the man to be the expansion franchise's majority owner.

"It was emotional," Williams explained in the book. "There was pain and sympathy for Jimmy Hewitt. Here he was being told his deal would fly only if he was not The Man. . . . On the half-yard line, he was being yanked out of the game, banished to the bench. Tough stuff. Hard.

"He responded beautifully. He said, simply, "Well, let's do it. . . . We have come too far and gotten too close. Whatever has to be done.' "

A quarter-century later, Jimmy sits in his office surrounded by Magic memorabilia like the framed letter from Stern officially granting Orlando an expansion franchise. Or the game ball from the first game signed by every member of the Magic's first team. Or the painting of famed sports artist LeRoy Neiman showing Michael Jordan going up against the inaugural Magic team.

"It's been a great 25 years," Jimmy says, "but the next 25 years are going to be even better."

Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

And thanks for believing in us as a sports town when nobody else would.

What you said all those years ago is even truer today.

"Orlando is the place to be."

mbianchi@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740-AM.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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