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Friday, March 27, 2009

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

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

Part I of this interview covered 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: "Even though Julius Erving could score just about as well as anyone who ever played, his desire to be the top scorer or to maintain a certain scoring average did not seem to be the same as Michael Jordan's. I don't think that one player wanted to win more than the other but it seemed like it was also very important to Jordan to maintain a certain scoring average and that he had the right coach in Phil Jackson, who acceded to that and structured the team for that to happen. From your experience with Julius, would you say that of all the star players who had the ability to average 28 or 30 ppg that scoring was probably less important to him than it was to most of those guys? He would score 28 or 30 if the team needed him to do that but it just wasn't that important to his ego."

Williams: "Sure. I think that your question relates to the two personalities. Julius is a little more mellow, he has a gentler personality. Michael was a savage. Michael would absolutely carve your heart out and then hold it in his hands watching it beat its last beat. He would just humiliate guys. I wrote a book a few years back called How to be Like Mike. I did about 1500 interviews, David, to try to get to the heart of Michael. I talked to everybody I could get to and that is what came through to me, that he was just a savage--great guy, great persona, great with people, great with media, he was absolutely charming, but once he walked between those lines it was a war and he was going to do whatever he had to do to absolutely beat you and humiliate you."

Friedman: "I asked that same question to Rod Thorn, who was an assistant coach with the Nets when Dr. J played there and then he ended up drafting Michael Jordan with the Bulls. Thorn told me that Dr. J's competitiveness is underrated or not appreciated, that when he was on the court he was extremely competitive but he just expressed this or conveyed this in a different manner than Jordan. Doc was obviously not the type of player who would yell at his teammates or be demonstrative but he was competitive in his own right.

This question fascinates me, because when Julius needed to take over, like in the last season in the ABA when his team was not as talented as the first Nets team to win a championship, the numbers he put up in the ABA Finals were astronomical--and he did something similar for the Sixers in the 1977 Finals to a lesser extent, even though you lost to the Blazers. It is interesting to me that he did not seem to have his ego tied up in scoring quite the way that Jordan did, not that either approach is bad, but it is interesting that the competitiveness of two of the greatest players in the NBA found expression in such different ways. That fascinates me."

Williams: "Julius, obviously, was a great competitor and had an intense desire to win but, like I said, he was a little kinder between the lines than Michael. Michael would absolutely chop your head off. He wanted to beat you, he wanted to annihilate you, he wanted to turn you into dust. That was Michael. Then, off the court, they tell the story--and I used it in the book--about how they bring handicapped kids to meet him, Make-A-Wish kids, kids that might not live another week. He'd meet them before the game, the p.r. people around him would be absolutely distraught, they'd be in tears, just wiped out emotionally from these kids and Michael would do his thing and the kids would be thrilled and then Michael would run out on the court and go get 40 and just destroy you. That always fascinated me about Michael."

Friedman: "Yes, the focus that he had was just amazing.

I sent you the article that I wrote about Julius Erving and Larry Bird and their rivalry. I think that their rivalry is overlooked now because it took place before the big TV contracts and because Magic and Bird were closer in age and they eventually met in multiple NBA Finals. You were the Sixers GM at that time, so I have to ask you what memory sticks out for you of their rivalry, of Erving and Bird and the Sixers-Celtics rivalry. That was really a tremendous rivalry and I think that it was seen that way at the time--and it should not be forgotten because it is an important part of basketball history."

Williams: "Bird arrived in 1979, so they competed against each other for eight years--Julius retired in 1987. That would have taken Larry Bird to age 31, through the meat of his career. The Philly-Boston rivalry then as always was the most intense in sports, I felt. I understand Duke-Carolina and Alabama-Auburn and the Cowboys and the Redskins and the Yankees and the Red Sox--I understand all of that but for my money Philly-Boston was the top. It started of course with the Wilt-Russell era and then it moved into the 70s; before Doc got there we were starting to get better. Then Bird came along and took it to new heights. We go from the Russell-Chamberlain era to the Bird-Erving era and there was nothing like it. You know, the old Spectrum and the old Boston Garden--two relics. The thing that fueled it, David, was we ended up playing each other in the playoffs seemingly every year."

Friedman: "In the Eastern Conference Finals (in 1980-82, 1985), no less."

Williams: "Yeah. We played them several times in the playoffs and that is always where rivalries are built in the NBA. I think that the two of them had great respect for each other but, let's put it this way, Chamberlain and Russell would go out for dinner the night before a game and Wilt would have Russell over for Thanksgiving dinner--I don't think that the Birds and Ervings were dining together the night before a game. I think that there was a respect there but there was also a distance. They competed and they admired each other but they were not the best of friends."

Friedman: "Did you see the show that was on NBA TV on Wednesday night about the last night at the Spectrum?"

Williams: "No, I missed that show and I was sorry that I could not go to that game. I was invited to go but I just couldn't make it. I had a speaking engagement that night and I regret that but they tell me it was quite a wonderful evening."

Friedman: "I did a post that recapped what happened on the show. The show covered the last game that was played at the Spectrum when the Sixers beat the Bulls but they also brought Julius back and they had him going through the Spectrum talking about his reverse layup against the Lakers and his memories of his first game there. I put almost everything that he said verbatim into the post, so anyone who missed the show can read what Doc had to say about his Spectrum memories. It was a real trip down memory lane.

I think that there is a similarity between the way that LeBron James attacks the basket--the one footed leap that he takes, the full extension of the one arm in the air, the elevation that he gets--and the way that Julius Erving attacked the rim, particularly in his prime. Do you agree with that comparison?"

Williams: "Yeah, except that LeBron probably is even more ferocious because he is so much bigger. What is he, 6-9? Julius was 6-6. LeBron is like 270; Julius was nowhere near that, so LeBron is probably even more physically imposing but, yeah, there are some similarities--minus the Afro (that Erving had in his prime). I think that the Afro had a lot to do with Julius' persona in those days. That just added to the mystique, the way that he wore his hair.

There has never been an acrobat like Julius. That would be my argument. Even Jordan, as fun as he was to watch, nobody in his prime did it like Julius. David, we never saw Julius in his prime, because from age 21 until he got to the NBA at age 26--those five years in the ABA when physically he was absolutely at his zenith--he was invisible. He was literally a creation of the dark. Nobody ever saw him, unless you were a diehard ABA fan--and there weren't many of them. You weren't going to see him on television, you weren't going to see him on SportsCenter--nobody saw him."

Friedman: "I've written about that and tried to bring that point out. In the 1976 ABA Finals, he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocked shots and steals. He was going against Bobby Jones, the best defensive forward in either league. The Nuggets had Hall of Famers David Thompson and Dan Issel plus Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown. The ABA All-Star Game that year consisted of the Nuggets versus the best players from the rest of the league--and the Nuggets won. Dr. J went in there with a Nets team that was depleted compared to the 1974 championship team and just completely dominated. Sports Illustrated's John Papanek called it 'the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere--ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA.'

I know that you have said that if Doc were playing in the current era he would be a bigger media sensation that anybody, including Jordan."

Williams: "Oh, yeah. If he were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."

Friedman: "Some people seem like they are destined for greatness but then something happens and they get sidetracked. Of course, I'm speaking about Andrew Toney, who seemed to have Hall of Fame talent and seemed to be on that path but it just didn't work out. What are your memories of Andrew Toney, particularly what he was able to do in his prime?"

Williams: "I wrote a book last year on the 25th anniversary of our championship, Tales from the Philadelphia 76ers."

Friedman: "I have that book. It's a great book."

Williams: "I had a great time putting it together. I got to everybody, trying to get their thoughts and memories and when I talked to the former players--opponents from that era--I was just blown away, David, by the awe and the wonder and the fear that they had to this day of Andrew Toney. You talk to these guys and they're still afraid of him. Danny Ainge said that his two most sleepless nights were before he had to guard Jordan and Magic but that a close third was Andrew. Close third was Andrew! Yet, today, David, nobody remembers him. He's all but forgotten except in Philly or Boston. Players and people from that era will never forget him. It is a tragedy, because he basically had a five year career. He had Hall of Fame talent, he had that kind of greatness about him. He definitely earned that 'Boston Strangler' nickname. I think about him a lot, just what he meant. We got him as a result of a first round pick that we got in a trade that I had made many years before. We had Indiana's pick and that was the one that produced Andrew."

Friedman: "Was that part of the World B. Free trade or am I confused?"

(Note: the Sixers actually traded Free in 1978 for the draft pick that became Charles Barkley in 1984)

Williams: "No, that was Melvin Bennett. We had drafted Mel Bennett out of the ABA and Slick Leonard in Indiana wanted him and gave up a future first round draft pick to get him. That 1980 pick turned out to be Andrew. I remember that the night before that draft, Charlie Theokas, the General Manager of the Nets, had two straight first round picks and he whispered in my ear, 'You're going to get Toney. We've just handed you a championship.' I wasn't quite sure what he meant but to make a long story short, they took Mike Gminski and Mike O'Koren back to back."

Friedman: "I take it that was not his decision."

Williams: "Well, I think that they felt that they needed a center and O'Koren was a local Jersey guy. Both of them were very highly touted, big time ACC players, Duke and Carolina--they were hot. He said, 'We've decided to take O'Koren and Gminski, so you are going to get your guy. We've just handed you a championship.' That was the 1980 draft. Sure enough, there was Andrew and we took him. He could play right away. He was a good player right away. That's one other thing I've learned, David, what you see in the first day of training camp--if your guy can play, generally you know he can play the first day."

Friedman: "Some scouts and some personnel guys have said that kind of thing to me. You can see--even if a guy needs coaching or needs to polish certain things--whether he has the basic requirements to play at the NBA level. If he doesn't have it, unfortunately, you are going to see that, also. You can improve every year and refine your game but at some level you either have it or you don't."

Williams: "Yes and you know right away. That first day at practice, we knew that Maurice Cheeks was going to be really good and we knew that Andrew Toney was very special. In 1971, we drafted Howard Porter and after the first practice (Coach) Dick Motta came up to me--after all we went through to get Porter--and said, 'Howard Porter can't play.'"

Friedman: "That's discouraging."

Williams: "He said, 'You saw it. He can't dribble twice--'"

Friedman: "This is when you were with the Bulls, right?"

Williams: "Yes. 'He can't pass it from here to the wall. He can't guard anybody. He can shoot from out there, he can jump and he can run.'"

Friedman: "That is why he was successful in college, right, those attributes?"

Williams: "Yes. Howard had a seven year career and I don't mean to speak poorly of the deceased but I'm just telling you that what you see is what you get. If they can play on the first day, then they are players. If they can't, generally they are not going to make it or at least not make it big."

Friedman: "Since you have been in front offices for so long and been involved with drafting and evaluating players, what is your take on the whole basketball statistical revolution and the use of 'advanced' stats and the whole question of whether you should rely more on stats or on what you see visually when evaluating players? Where do you sit on that continuum or what is your take on that issue?"

Williams: "I guess the Bill James school has moved into basketball, huh? There is certainly nothing wrong with advanced science but I am still a firm believer in judging horseflesh, you know? Dollar Sign on the Muscle, the old baseball scouting book. You've got to line guys up, you've got to evaluate, you need tons of experience from doing it for many years. You have to go into the gym and you have to study the product. Given a choice of the modern way or the old fashioned way, David, I'll go with the old fashioned way."

Friedman: "Without giving away any trade secrets, would it be fair to say that the way the Magic have been currently built and currently constructed is based more on that old school approach that you are describing as opposed to the new school? Would that be a fair statement or not?"

Williams: "Probably so. I would say that our guys are probably more old school, yes. We would be more traditionalist. That doesn't mean that one way is right or wrong. I certainly know that in baseball, David, you have to have both. There is nothing wrong with the modern approach but in the baseball world those old grizzled scouts still have to get in their cars and drive. They have to get to the games early and they have to watch batting practice and infield practice and study it in person."

Friedman: "Also, I think that you can appreciate this because you played baseball at a high level: baseball is more of a station to station, individual encounter game of pitcher versus batter with stoppages of play but basketball is continuous motion of multiple players and when you are trying to derive stats to explain what is happening with 10 moving parts that is a lot different than trying to quantify what is happening when a pitcher throws the ball, the batter hits it and then the fielder plays it. Those are discrete, separate actions that are stop/start and can be quantified; basketball is a totally different game."

Williams: "That's right."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:18 PM



At Friday, March 27, 2009 5:25:00 PM, Blogger JLK said...

There's a nice video of Toney here. It's about 2.5 minutes long, quality is surprisingly good:


At Saturday, March 28, 2009 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That video is great; it gives a little taste of all aspects of Toney's offensive game: the crossover move, the pullup j, the three point shot, the moves in the post, the explosive first step.

At Monday, March 30, 2009 8:52:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

That Sixers book is wonderful. Toney....just wonderful. Coming down the court with the left hand dribble then the jumper off the glass is something no one does now. Just pretty and so basic. I would rather see that now than a 360 dunk since we dont that anymore. And he was posting Bird, scoring over Wilkes, and posting on guys 4 and 5 inches taller than him with ease. He was scary good.


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