Sports executive Pat Williams

The longtime sports executive, who co-founded the Orlando Magic, discusses his new book Coach Wooden, shares his thoughts on the looming NBA lockout and talks about his battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.

Pat Williams is one of America's best-known sports execs. He spent years in major league baseball and worked with several NBA teams, including the Orlando Magic, which he co-founded. Twenty-three of his teams have gone to the NBA playoffs and 19 of his ex-players became head coaches. He is also a motivational speaker who's written more than 70 books and, with his wife, parents 19 children, including 14 adopted from other countries. Recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Williams wants to become a spokesman for the fight against the deadly blood disease.


Tavis: Pat Williams is a longtime NBA executive who co-founded the Orlando Magic following his time in Philadelphia and elsewhere, for that matter. He’s also a noted public speaker and author whose latest book is called “Coach Wooden: The Seven Principles that Shaped His Life and Will Change Yours.” Pat Williams, an honor, sir, to have you back on this set.

Pat Williams: Nice to see you again, Tavis. How you doing?

Tavis: Good to – I’m doing well, you doing all right?

Williams: I’m fine, I’m fine.

Tavis: Good to see you here. I want to start with a clip of John Wooden. I had the honor of interviewing him a few times in his life and career on my radio show, on this set, in this very chair, in fact, and I want to just share a clip.

I asked him a question, really, about how he wanted to be remembered, what he wanted his legacy to be.

Williams: Ooh, this’ll be good.

Tavis: Take a look at this.

[Begin video clip of previous interview.]

“John Wooden:” I’d just like to be thought of as a person that was considerate of others and I think that I’ve spoken in one of my books that the important things to me are your faith, your family and your friends. You have that, you have everything.

[End video clip of previous interview.]

Tavis: I didn’t know John Wooden as well as you do or others, but the thing I loved about him, watching him from afar – and I’m an Indiana guy, you went to school at Indiana University, I’ve been to Indiana, John Wooden is from Indiana, so he’s the pride of Indiana. So I was so honored to meet him because we’re both Hoosiers.

But watching him from afar and getting a chance to meet him up close, he was consistent. What you saw was what you got. John Wooden, the most consistent guy, and that clip just reminds me of his consistency.

Williams: Yeah, I think you hit it right on the head, and it all triggered from his dad. He never stopped giving credit to his father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, who was really his hero, his mentor, and laid the foundation for his life with a little seven-point creed that he handed to his son when Johnny Wooden was 12 years old, graduating from eighth grade, a little country school.

His dad just said, “Johnny, you live by these principles and you’ll do well in life,” and Coach Wooden did, till he was almost 100, Tavis. It’s quite a story.

Tavis: I want to get to some of these principles in just a moment here, Pat, but what is it, you think, that makes these principles enduring? I ask that because all the years he coached, you talk to any of his players even today – if Kareem were here right now, if Bill Walton were here right now, all his former players still tell you about the impact that these principles had on their lives.

Williams: Yeah, no question. He was a teacher at heart, Tavis, and even though those UCLA guys would tell you during the golden years that they were worried about playing time and graduating and girlfriends and all of that, but now as they’re older men they’re saying, “Coach Wooden was really teaching us about life,” and that’s what he was.

He never referred to himself as a coach. He was always a teacher. “I was teaching these young men under my supervision.” That’s how he would talk. Lifelong teacher, and that was his greatest joy.

Tavis: As you know, he despised, and told me this any number of times, he despised that label “The Wizard of Westwood.”

Williams: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: He didn’t like that in part because I thought at least it cut against his belief in humility, but you tell me why he hated that moniker, The Wizard of Westwood.

Williams: Well, he’s the most humble famous person I’ve ever met, Tavis. I remember when I first wanted to write a book about him called “How to Be Like Coach Wooden,” this was 10, 12 years ago. I wrote him a letter asking for his blessing, and a few days later the phone rang. “Mr. Williams? This is John Wooden, the former basketball coach at UCLA.”

Tavis: (Laughter) As if you didn’t know.

Williams: That’s what he said to me. I’m thinking to myself, Coach, I do know who you are. Then he said, “I’m not worthy of such a project,” he said, “but if you would like to do it,” he said, “you go on ahead.” This is a man that always, in every poll, is rated the number one coach in the history of sports in our country, 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, seven in a row.

By all rights, he could be arrogant and impossible to get along with and pompous, but there was just a sweet, humble spirit to him, and that was so endearing. Every time you left him, Tavis, there was this desire, boy, I want to be more like Coach. I really want to be more like this man.

Tavis: One of the things I found fascinating about him, Pat, is that he was an unapologetic and an abiding Christian.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: One of the seven principles, in fact, talks about the bible and loving literature and loving the bible above all other books that have ever been written.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: Yet again, when you talk to the folk who knew him, his players, principally, you got amongst all these players, obviously, over these years, Christians, agnostics, atheist, Kareem becomes Kareem after he’s Lew Alcindor, so he goes another direction where his faith journey is concerned.

Yet I never got the sense from his players or anybody else that he was into proselytizing.

Williams: No, he would not pound his beliefs down anybody’s throat, but every one of those players, Tavis, would tell you he lived his faith out in front of us. We never heard him curse, we saw great consistency in his life, we saw an incredible marriage before our eyes with the only woman he ever had in his life, we saw a wonderful father, a wonderful grandfather, we saw him as a great-grandfather, just missed being a great-great-grandfather by two months.

So they saw this wonderful consistency in all areas of his life and I think that really touched him about his faith, that this is how a Christian should live. I think the other thing we need to point out, and Bill Bennett at UCLA made this clear. He said, “We tend to think of Coach Wooden as this loving, gracious grandfather figure,” he said, “But let us never forget he was an intense competitor and he loved to win.”

He could work the referees. He had that program rolled up and he got his shots in, (laughter) but he was never out of control. You didn’t see him racing and whipping up and down the floor and just completely berserk. But he was a competitive man and he wanted those Ws as much as any of us.

A few years ago there was a wonderful story. He was speaking to a group and the evening was over, it was time to go, and he said, “I’m very much aware that if we hadn’t won all those games,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here tonight.” He was in his nineties at that point.

Then one night over dinner, Tavis, I said, “What was the key, Coach, to your UCLA success?” and he said, “Talent, talent, talent.” He said, “I never wanted to go into my game with my opponent unless I had better players than he did.” So we tend to think of Coach as this supernatural guy, but he knew what the score was. He knew exactly what it took to be a productive coach and to win.

Tavis: Does that in any way, Pat, diminish his accomplishments? What I mean to suggest is there are those who knocked Phil Jackson for years, and other coaches have been knocked, even though they’ve racked up winning records, because of the talent.

It’s easy to win when you got Michael Jordan. It’s easy to win when you got Kobe Bryant. It’s easy to win when you got Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton – let’s run the list – and Jamal Wilkes, et cetera, et cetera. Does that in any way diminish his accomplishment, even though he acknowledges that it was the talent that he happened to have?

Williams: We got into that over dinner one night at the Valley Inn, his favorite little dinner spot, and he said, “No coach can win without talent,” he said, “but not every coach can coach talent.” So, Tavis, I would argue coaching Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin as Phil did, that’s not the easiest job in the world, and Kobe and Shaq?

Tavis: We know that story.

Williams: Oh, it would take the Wizard of Oz to handle all that. So Lew Alcindor in his day and all those guards, Hazard and Gale Goodrich and gifted players, but that’s not an easy job. And then Bill Walton came along and Coach, to his last breath, would always kid and joke about Bill Walton and those years. They were not easy, with all that was going on with Vietnam and the protests and Bill’s in the middle of all of it.

They ended up as close as a coach and a former player could get, but Bill was not easy. So I would argue that Coach Wooden knew how to get along and make talent work together, and above all, Tavis, to play as a team. That’s the big job.

Tavis: Are there one or two of these principles that most resonate with Pat Williams?

Williams: Well, I’ve got to talk to you about make each day your masterpiece. I love the way Mr. Wooden, the father, not formally educated, farmer in the Midwest, but boy, he had a way with words. Isn’t that beautiful? “Make each day your masterpiece.”

So I think about that every day, that the start of this day, we’re going to make this day the best it can be. Coach would say, “Strive for perfection this day.” He said, “You probably won’t hit it,” but he said, “Be striving.”

I would simply add you do that for 99 years like he did, you’ll have a really nice life. Make each day your masterpiece. That sticks with me all the time.

Tavis: Let me, since that’s one of your personal favorites, let me get personal with you for just a second –

Williams: Sure.

Tavis: – and ask you about something that you’ve been open about, you had a press conference about this.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: You have cancer. You’ve learned that since you were last on this program. I could be wrong, but I’m told it’s incurable cancer. There is about a 70 percent chance that it might reverse itself at some point.

I’m reveling in your humanity and in your courage, because you get up every day, still trying to make each day your masterpiece, knowing that you have something that’s incurable. How do you do that, Pat?

Williams: Well, I was diagnosed in January through my yearly physical – and by the way, if I can just put in a word particularly to men, Tavis, do not neglect your yearly physical, guys. Many men just put it off; I don’t want to know, I’m afraid, I’m too busy. Boy, don’t do that.

I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is cancer of the bone marrow. That was about six months ago, so I’ve been getting the treatment, and one thing I’ve learned, Tavis, is just keep on with life. That’s the one thing I’ve learned. You battle it and get the treatments.

I feel good and we’re striving for remission, but it triggers to that sixth principle – build shelter for a rainy day by the way you live your life – and that rainy day is going to come to all of us at some point. So the doctor said to me right away, “Your fitness and all those marathons you run and your faith and your optimistic spirit and the strength of your family, that’s all going to come in handy when this storm hits.”

So Mr. Wooden, way back in 1922, is saying to young John, “There are going to be storms in your life, son. Do you have a foundation that’s going to hold when the storms hit?” So I really feel that the foundation is holding and we’re determined to come out of this victorious.

Tavis: Well, can I say we’re praying for you?

Williams: Oh, please, I’m grateful, and I feel the prayers of so many. The Lord’s still in the prayer-answering business.

Tavis: He is indeed. You mentioned storms – a storm has hit in Los Angeles (laughter) in the Laker organization, and one of the things that we think might make that storm go away sooner (laughter) – you see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Williams: Oh, yes, oh, yes.

Tavis: One of the things that we think might make those storms disappear would be to land a player, say some guy named Dwight Howard.

Williams: Yeah, Howard (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) What do you make of the fact that there are those in this town who would love to see him leave your town and make his way west?

Williams: Well, Tavis, about 15 years ago it happened, in 1996.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s happened before.

Williams: Big old guy came out, and my first year in the league we had another big center – I was in Philadelphia – by the name of Chamberlain. He ended up out here. (Laughter) So you’ve been pilfering big men from my teams for years.

Here’s what I can say – Dwight said, I guess he said it twice now this summer, that his first choice is to stay in Orlando, that his roots are there, that that’s the town where he really feels at home, but he’s also – the free agency thing is tempting.

Once these guys get to that point they do want to play it out, and they have the right to do that. But we’re hopeful and confident that it’ll all work out. He’s had a wonderful seven years in Orlando. He’s all of 25 years old, Tavis, at this point, but I think he’s got Orlando, Florida just stamped on his forehead, Tavis. That’s kind of my read.

Tavis: It is possible that he won’t be in Orlando or Los Angeles. For that matter, it’s possible that none of these guys will be anywhere in a matter of days. We are just hours away from what may be showdown in the NBA. Mr. Stern, the commissioner, sounds like he’s optimistic, but we’ve heard that before, of course, during the NFL strike.

What do you make of it and what would happen to the American sports fan to have the NFL and the NBA out at the same time on lockout?

Williams: Well, Tavis, it’s a sensitive issue and the commissioner has made it very clear that he does not relish or welcome comments from other people, but they are working hard right to the end, and I’m an optimist by nature so I remain permanently optimistic.

So let’s hope for the best. We’ve had a wonderful year. I think the NBA just this year – I’ve been in the league 43 years. Boy, the TV ratings were good. The finals just turned out beautifully. What a series it was. It was a really nice year – maybe as interesting a year as I can remember in the NBA.

Tavis: Yeah, turned out really beautiful if you’re a Cleveland fan, but I digress on that point. (Laughter)

Williams: And Miami stirred a lot of it. There was so much interest and antagonism and anti-Miami stuff, it really stirred a lot of talk, more than I’ve ever remembered.

Tavis: The book by Pat Williams is called “Coach Wooden: The Seven Principles that Shaped His Life and Will Change Yours,” and I will attest to that. Pat, as I said earlier, we are praying for you, we wish you all the best. An honor to have you on this program.

Williams: Always good to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Williams: Thanks for inviting me.

Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: July 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm