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Friday, March 27, 2009

Interview with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President and Co-Founder Pat Williams, Part I

Pat Williams has been involved with the NBA since 1968, working for several different franchises. As the General Manager for the 76ers, he acquired the talent that helped the Sixers reach the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982 before winning the title in 1983. In 1989, Williams helped to launch the Orlando Magic and he is currently a Senior Vice President with that organization. Williams has written more than 50 books and he is the co-editor of the recently released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. The Chicken Soup books generally contain 101 uplifting stories but--as he explains in my interview with him--Williams successfully lobbied the publisher to include 15 bonus stories in the basketball edition. You can find out more about the Chicken Soup series and order a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball here:

Chicken Soup for the Soul

I recently spoke with Williams about a wide range of subjects. Part I will examine the Chicken Soup basketball book, Williams' collegiate/minor league baseball career, the grace of Julius "Dr. J" Erving and some stories about the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers championship team; part II will discuss similarities and differences between Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, the Julius Erving-Larry Bird rivalry, Andrew Toney and Williams' take on the proper use of basketball statistics.

Friedman: "How did you become affiliated with the Chicken Soup for the Soul project and end up doing the book about basketball?"

Williams: "I got a call about two years ago from the publishers of Chicken Soup and the message was pretty much this: We've done close to 200 versions of the Chicken Soup brand over 17 years but for some reason we've never gotten to the basketball version, so would you be interested in taking it on? That was the extent of the discussion. I said immediately that I would, because I have been a Chicken Soup admirer from afar. It truly is the publishing brand phenomenon of all-time I'd guess; when you've sold well over 100 million books in a series that is pretty good. I accepted it and I had no idea how I was going to get into it or how the thing was going to unfold but I decided the best way to attack the process to come up with 101 stories would be to send a letter of invitation out to everybody in basketball at the college and pro level: every coach, every women's coach, every player, every former player, every NBA player, every executive, referees.

So off go the 15,000 letters and you are kind of hoping for a one or two percent response. That is pretty much exactly what happened. Chicken has about 15 readers who critique every book and they've developed an eye for what is a Chicken story and what isn't. We had to go through that screening process. Then I had a thought about a year ago from my 40-plus years in basketball; I guess I've always been a story reader and a story collector. I thought that there are a lot of germs of stories that I know about, like Chris Paul's grandfather being murdered at the service station in Winston-Salem and that incredible story about Chuck Daly and how he became a college coach at Duke. I began to think that I could run down some stories here--Moses Malone and the lunch box salute. Towards the end I came across the Jim Jones, Jr. story, which ended up being the first story in the book. So I began to track down some stories individually. Then, when we got to the 101 mark there were 15 stories that I just couldn't let go of. I pleaded with the editor to let us have a bonus section because I couldn't cut them. So, the Chicken Soup people let us have a bonus section for the first time in history; we prevailed and people get 15 more spoonfuls of soup."

Friedman: "Which story in the book inspired you the most? I know that is a difficult, open ended question but if someone would ask you about the book and you could only tell them about one story which one would you single out?"

Williams: "I told you about that mass mailing that we sent out to everybody in basketball. I had no idea if we'd hear from anybody but very quickly thereafter--in probably no more than a week--I got my very first response, in an email. I read the story and before I got to the end of it I was crying. It was sent in by the women's coach at UNC Asheville, Betsy Blose. The story just broke me down and I was in tears before I got to the end of it. I thought to myself if they are all like this then I am going to be a basket case. That story really encouraged me because someone cared enough to respond to the mailing and it was an awesome story that made me cry. That is what the Chicken Soup thing is all about. A little footnote to that, David, the next week I was scheduled to speak at a convention in Asheville, North Carolina. I got a hold of this woman--the basketball coach who sent me the story--and I told her where I was going to be. I said that I would like to meet her. She came over for breakfast that morning before the convention started, so within a week of getting this story that absolutely touched me deeply I met the author. The worst case here, David, would be if the 15 person board did not like the story that made me cry. Fortunately, they all loved it and Betsy Blose's story is in there."

Friedman: "Yeah, that would not have been good if you met her and had that interaction and then did not include her story in the book."

Williams: "Oh, my, I've broken down and sobbed and then I go meet her and tell her what a great story that is and then the 15 person board says it doesn't pass the test. Fortunately, it passed the test."

Friedman: "Is there any possibility that there will be a volume two and if there would be are there certain stories that were left out of this book that you would want to include or certain individuals who didn't respond who you would like to hear from and get their stories?"

Williams: "David, perfect question. As a result of doing this and learning on the run the bottom line is we are a hell of a lot shrewder and know a whole lot better how to do this. The Chicken people have asked me to do another book and I've agreed to do it--Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith. That is the next one they've asked me to do."

Friedman: "So that extends beyond basketball, obviously."

Williams: "That will be all sports, all levels--an athlete or coach or somebody in the sports world who shares their faith journey. Answering your question, I have a full file and I am well on my way to basketball version two, which at this point is not anything that they are interested in because they are focused on basketball version one. I've got a manila folder full of stories that would absolutely pass the test. I probably don't have 101 of them at this point but I'll bet you I've got 50.

In answer to your other question, I would be more aggressive this time chasing down stories on my own. I did some of that this past year. I chased down, for example, Sam Smith to give me a Michael Jordan story. I chased down Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News and he shared a Julius Erving story. At this point, I would chase down Terry Pluto--the Cleveland writer--to give me a LeBron James story. He covered LeBron growing up in Akron. I would chase down Bob Ryan because he is one of the world's great storytellers and I know he's got a story somewhere."

Friedman: "What did you learn from your baseball career at Wake Forest and the time that you spent in the minor leagues that helped you to become successful in your endeavors as an executive, author and speaker?"

Williams: "I think that as a result of playing in college and then playing two years of minor league baseball riding the buses, learning the life of a professional athlete, that gave me such a foundation to at least have some understanding and awareness of the emotions of a pro athlete: what they think, how they interact. I think that having that experience was a huge, huge break for me. That gave me much better insight into the mindset of an athlete.

The other thing that hit me was how hard it is, how difficult it is to be good in sports. We have a tendency to sit and watch and think it's easy or should be done 100% every time, but whether it is hitting a 95 mph pitch or maneuvering your body to get a shot off in the NBA with some super athlete in your face--it takes an enormous amount of skill and endurance and effort to do it. These guys we are watching are freaks of nature, I fully believe that, to move their bodies on the basketball court like that or take the pounding of a pro football season or wing your way up on a sheet of ice, maintain your balance and hammer a puck all over the place or try to keep up with a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James. That really has hit me over the years.

The other thing is, it's meant to be fun."

Friedman: "Sports should be fun."

Williams: "Yeah, it's meant to be fun."

Friedman: "Would it be accurate to say that in high school and college you were a star athlete? I'm not asking you to toot your own horn but I'm trying to make a point that in high school and college you were a star on your team or at least one of the better players but in the minor leagues you were more of a role player. If that is an accurate statement, then talk about what you learned about sports from seeing that from both perspectives--of being the best or one of the best players on a team and then being a role player--and how that affects you as a team executive in your interactions with players and coaches. You have had the opportunity to see both sides, whereas some people were only stars or only role players."

Williams: "In high school, I did have success and was one of those stars, I guess. In college I played every game for four years. I caught every game just about for four years and then I got to the pros and I was definitely a journeyman. I was a backup catcher for the two years that I played in the minor leagues. I guess what it taught me, David, was that if you are going to have any success in life we all have to play a role. Not everybody can score 30 points a night. Not everybody is going to be the cleanup hitter. Not everybody is going to get all the playing time. If you are going to have any success as a unit--be it a family unit, a business unit or a sports team--everybody has to know their role and they have to accept it. That doesn't mean that you don't work to try to improve your lot in life, but everybody has to understand where they fit in the overall scheme of things. If you don't, if you can't get that established, then you have absolute chaos, total chaos, in any endeavor in life. I guess that's what I learned going from a regular, play every day guy in college to a backup guy in the pros: you better accept your role--and be grateful for the opportunity; I think that also hit me. I was thrilled to be part of a team, thrilled to be part of a professional athlete's life. It's what I dreamed about since I was seven years old and it became a reality. Enjoy what you are doing, David, I think that is the message here. We can't all be Kobe Bryant or Junior Griffey or Ben Roethlisberger, so enjoy where you are and enjoy what you are doing."

Friedman: "Unselfishness and teamwork are essential parts of success, whether it is your own individual success or the success of the team. I'd like to ask you about a specific example of this from your time as the Sixers' General Manager. Right after you brought in Julius Erving--you've talked about this, Erving has talked about this and I've even spoken with him about it--you conveyed the message to him that the philosophy of the team was that it is better to have three guys averaging 20 ppg each--obviously, Erving, McGinnis and Collins--than to have one guy averaging 30 ppg while the other guys average much less than that. Erving immediately and without hesitation embraced that idea, even though he had been a 30 point scorer in the ABA. Talk about Erving's willingness to do that as a star player and how that contributes to the chemistry of the team and the success of the team."

Williams: "Julius was probably the most gracious, sharp and humble superstar who I've ever been around, David. I think that's one of the reasons everyone admired him so much. He was in the limelight, he had an enormous level of skill and he had great flamboyance and great flair. His public persona was Dr. J but the private Dr. J was Julius Erving. He cared about his teammates and he cared about the sport. He always had time for people, including the media. He would stay as long as it took to make the media members happy and it didn't matter whether it was the columnist for the New York Times or the editor of a high school paper. He treated them all the same. He gave them as much access; he didn't differentiate at all.

When he joined us, we had a three ring circus--you add Julius to McGinnis and Collins who were All-Stars, plus a young Darryl Dawkins and a young Lloyd Free and a young Joe Bryant. Oh boy, we were a traveling circus. As Chuck Daly has said many times, NBA players only want three things: 48 minutes, 48 shots and $48 million. If they get those three things they are fine but it obviously doesn't work that way. It's impossible.

A little footnote to that, David, is that in 1982 when we added Moses Malone prior to the championship season there was great concern about how Moses was going to fit in and whether we would end up with just chaos but when Moses was asked about that in the first press conference he responded, in his inimitable way, 'This Doc's team. This Doc's team. It's not Moses' team, this Doc's team. I'm just here to help Doc win a championship.' That was true. That was Moses' mission."

Friedman: "The flip side of that is that prior to that season, for most of his career Julius had operated a lot on the low left block in the half court offense. He basically ceded that area to Malone and he relied more on his outside shot and he attempted fewer shots per game. Just like he accepted going from 30 ppg to 21-22 ppg when he came from the ABA--and then his average increased again later--he accepted that when Moses came instead of averaging 24-25-26 ppg he would go back to averaging 21-22 ppg."

Williams: "Yeah, there is no question that the two of them had to make some adjustments. But, David, at that point in their lives and their careers they were so focused on winning a championship. Julius had been frustrated ever since he joined us, starting in the spring of 1977, then in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982--disappointment after disappointment. Moses had never been able to get over the hump, either. He had gotten to the Finals once with Houston against Boston but that didn't last long. He was at that point, also, where he was desperate to win. Those two guys at that point in their careers were very amenable to doing whatever it took to work with each other.

For that one year, David, we were pretty much flawless. That was as close to a perfect season as you are going to see, from the first day of training camp with enormous focus and great confidence. They knew almost from the get go that this was the year. Other than a little slip at the end of the year when (Coach) Billy (Cunningham) started resting guys, we could have won 70 games."

Friedman: "I remember the SI cover that said, 'The Sixers are Going for Seventy' and you were on that pace for most of the year."

Williams: "We were on target for that and that would have been something but at that point Billy started resting some guys and backed off a little bit preparing for the playoffs."

Friedman: "The Bulls team that won 72 games had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who had already won championships, whereas Doc and Moses had not won an NBA title. Coach Jackson kind of rode Jordan and Pippen all the way to the end and they reached that target. For the Sixers, if you guys had won 70 games but gotten fatigued and lost in the playoffs it would have been a disaster."

Williams: "That's true--or if somebody had gotten hurt. Moses was having a little tweak in his knee and that was a concern, so Billy backed off and started gearing up for the playoffs. Then, of course, Moses made his famous 'Fo, fo, fo' pronouncement and we came close. That was as close to perfection as you'll see in a pro sports season. We thought that it was going to go on and continue but as it turns out those guys--all of them--peaked at the right time for that one year. The next year there was just enough slippage. They weren't quite as hungry and they weren't quite as driven and they were one year older and they weren't quite as good athletically and we failed to ever get back to those heights."

Friedman: "I talked to Billy Cunningham and Bobby Jones separately about that. You had expended so much energy, you had an older team and a lot of different factors came into play during that next season."

In Part II, Pat Williams will compare Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, talk about the Julius Erving-Larry Bird rivalry, reminisce about Andrew Toney and give his take on the proper use of basketball statistics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:08 AM

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