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All because this man believed.
All because Pat Williams believed in Orlando.
Believed in Magic.
And now, as Orlando gets ready to have the time of its life during this NBA All-Star Weekend, Pat Williams continues to fight for his own survival.
"I've got a lot more life to live," says Pat, the co-founder, father and senior vice president of the Orlando Magic. "I've got more books to write, more speeches to give and all my grandchildren to educate."
He is sitting out by his swimming pool in Winter Park as three of his granddaughters — Audri, Ava and Laila — are frolicking in the sun down near the banks of Lake Killarney. It was almost a year ago to this very day when Pat sat at this same table and told me he had cancer.
The disease is called multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer that infiltrates the blood plasma in the bone marrow. It is inoperable and incurable but sometimes can be treated with chemo to the point of inactivity.
"The Mission is Remission!" Pat declared that day a year ago.
"Well," Pat says now, "the chemo didn't work."
For most 71-year-old men, this might have been a death sentence. Not Pat, the ultimate optimist who, along with local businessman Jimmy Hewitt, had this silly notion 26 years ago that they could team up and bring the NBA to a basketball-illiterate city in the middle of a football-fanatical state. They were scoffed at and called foolish dreamers by all the good ol' boy football helmet-heads.
Well, guess what? Here we are a quarter-century later and this no-horse sports town has become a thriving NBA city. Without Pat and Jimmy, there would be no All-Star Game this weekend. There would be no sparkling new state-of-the-art arena. And there wouldn't be all of those nights and Dwights to remember.
"Pat's always been the ultimate optimist," Hewitt says. "He's always been the one guy who believes anything is possible — whether its bringing an NBA franchise to a football town or fighting cancer. His motto has always been, "We can do it! We can get it done!"
It's this attitude that has allowed Pat to live and fight the next battle with multiple myeloma. After nearly a year's worth of chemo failed, doctors at Florida Hospital have taken it to the next level. It's known as a stem cell transplant. Or as Pat — the ultimate baseball junkie — calls it, "the out pitch."
"I wanted them to throw me everything they had in their medicine cabinet," Pat says and smiles.
And, so, doctors went in and harvested healthy stem cells from his bone marrow, froze them and then nuked the bone marrow with heavy doses of chemo to try and kill everything that was left over. A nurse told Pat it was like "preparing the soil to plant new seeds in your garden." Twice, in the last several weeks, he had to endure 96 continuous hours of noxious, nauseating chemo to prepare for this medical reseeding.
His 4.9 million healthy stem cells were then thawed and infused back into his bone marrow, where they began multiplying and producing even more healthy new blood cells. It is the hope that the multiplying healthy cells will outnumber and take over the myeloma cells.
So far, so good. Pat's hair is gone, but his hope is flourishing. And so are his healthy blood cells. The fastest anybody has ever been released from Florida Hospital after a stem cell transplant is 14 days. Pat was out in 10.
"I wanted to break the record," says the man who has run 58 marathons and climbed Mount Rainier since he turned 55.
Not only was he out in 10 days, he went straight from the hospital to give a speech about leadership to local Boy Scouts. That's Pat. Always doing something to motivate or inspire. Even when you call up his voicemail, he'll always end the pre-recorded message with some sort of philosophical quote. "Leave a message," he'll say, "and remember this statement from Erma Bombeck: 'Dreams have only one owner at a time. That's why dreamers are always lonely.' "
A profound quote from the late Ms. Bombeck — but blatantly untrue. Pat Williams has been a dreamer his entire life and he is the most unlonely person I know. He and his wife, Ruth, are the parents of 19 children — 14 of whom were adopted from four different countries. He has the love of his wife, his kids, his grandkids, his Magic family and, yes, his God. He has the respect and support of a team, a town and an entire sport.
This weekend, Pat will be honored at an Athletes in Action Breakfast, an NBA Legends Brunch and then given the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Understandably, Dwight Howard and his trade request to leave Orlando will be the major story line over the next few days.
But let's not ever forget why Dwight and the Magic are even Orlando to begin with.
It's because this man believed in us.
Pat Williams will forever be the Magic's ultimate All-Star.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.