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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

In Williams' wondrous life, cancer a means to ... another beginning


ORLANDO, Fla. -- It has been a decidedly charmed life for Pat Williams, and this was just another episode in the grand, adventurous scheme of things as he strode into Sam Snead's Tavern carrying a beaming smile and a book.

Always a book.

This was his latest -- and there's always a latest -- on the late, great John Wooden and his Seven Principles That Changed His Life and Will Change Yours. With all due respect to the Wizard of Westwood, I had all the wizardry I needed in my presence on a steamy summer afternoon in central Florida. Williams had answered my call with his bottomless supply of good cheer and energy -- though with a bit of a cough -- and had enthusiastically agreed to amble across the parking lot from the Magic's RDV Sportsplex to drink the place bone dry of iced tea and tell stories.

Pat Williams says listening to his doctors and living a normal life are the keys to dealing with his condition.  
Pat Williams says listening to his doctors and living a normal life are the keys to dealing with his condition.    
Williams, 71, a prolific author and motivational speaker, is one of the great storytellers in sports and life, especially when the subject is someone else. This story, though, would be about him. This story would be about the next chapter of a remarkable journey, the chapter that commenced six months ago with a jaw-dropping medical diagnosis -- the chapter that Williams believes to his core will be his most important, meaningful and prolific yet.

This is the chapter on cancer.

"One thing I learned is there's a tendency with this to sit, mope, reflect, and ask, 'Why me?'" Williams said. "And I probably went through some of that early on."

But not for long.

Williams, the senior vice president of the Magic and one of the key figures responsible for hatching the improbable dream of bringing an NBA franchise to Orlando 25 years ago last month, had gone in for his annual physical in late January with his usual, not-a-worry-in-the-world attitude.

"It was a Friday," he said. "The Disney Marathon was on that Sunday. I had signed up to run it, and I did. Little did I know that I had multiple myeloma coursing through my bone marrow."

His physician had spotted high levels of protein in his blood and told Williams it needed to be checked out. Williams thought little of it; during a half-century career in sports, nothing had ever succeeded in slowing him down.

"Three days after the marathon, my back exploded with pain -- pain that I never could have imagined," Williams said. "And I learned later that is a very common tipoff on multiple myeloma."

There was a trip to an oncologist, Dr. Robert Reynolds, who sat Williams down for the staggering diagnosis.

"You've got an illness," the doctor said, and Williams remembered sort of chuckling and asking, "What's the illness?"

"It's multiple myeloma," Reynolds said.

"I said, 'I've got to be frank, I've never heard of it. Explain. What is that?'" Williams said. "And he said, 'It's cancer.' And that'll get your attention. That definitely sobers up the conversation."

And it awakened powers of positive thinking and endurance that Williams, a deeply religious man who has won an NBA championship, brought pro basketball to the Florida hinterlands and touched most branches of the sports world along the way, didn't even know he had.

He's heard from the deans of sports and basketball during his health crisis. Billy Cunningham, hired by Williams to coach of the 76ers in 1977, has been the most frequent caller, while cancer survivor Arnold Palmer penned the most meaningful note.

"Take one day at a time, and listen to your doctors," Williams said. "That was Arnold at 81. So I'll go with that. That makes sense."

But the most lasting message of inspiration came from a nurse at the hospital where Williams is being treated with chemotherapy.

"She said, 'Go on with your life. Live as normal a life as you can,'" Williams said. "And that was great advice. ... Ever since, I have kept my regular office hours, continued to write books. I haven't canceled any speaking engagements -- kept all of them -- and have navigated the airports, which is encouraging. So that little piece of advice probably was the most important I got."

Sound advice and motivation for a man who is accustomed to dispensing both in overwhelming doses. And now, a new challenge upon which to focus his extraordinary well of optimism.

Catching up with Williams by phone this week, I found him in Milwaukee, where he was ordering a healthy lunch and preparing to give a speech to 6,000 delegates of the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co. at the Bradley Center. His 40-minute speech was titled, "What does it take to be a winner in the insurance business?"

Cross out "insurance business" and replace it with any aspect of work, life or faith, and Williams can dispense motivational wisdom with the best of them. Only now, he has the ultimate personal challenge to call upon for material. After a four-month chemo war waged on this cancer of the bone marrow -- the manageable but incurable disease that claimed the lives of advice columnist Ann Landers, retail titan Sam Walton, NHL coach Roger Neilson and this year, the first female vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro -- Williams' doctors told him in June they'd seen good progress.

"But they wanted more progress," Williams said. "And they wanted it faster."

So his chemo concoction, delivered through a port in his chest, was altered and the docs will check on him again in mid-September. If they can get him to sit still long enough, that is.

Even in his eighth decade, with angry, unpredictable drugs coursing through his veins, Williams still has the gait of a man who had somewhere to be five minutes ago. The cancer drugs have not taken his wavy hair, nor his velvety voice, which once upon a time seemed to have been his ticket to all the dreams a man could ever have in sports. And that's where the journey began, when Williams was a 22-year-old graduate student at Indiana University and happened upon a broadcast chair vacated by someone who'd go on to quite glorious achievements in that field.

In 1962, Williams had wandered over to the campus radio station, WFIU in Bloomington, and was hired along with a guy named John Gutowsky to broadcast Indiana basketball and football games. Gutowsky would later be known as John Gordon, who announced his retirement recently after 25 years as the play-by-play man for the Minnesota Twins. The broadcaster they'd both replaced was a guy by the name of Dick Enberg.

"Oh, my," Williams said on the phone the other day, doing a spot-on impersonation of Enberg's signature line. "I was 22 years old, traveling around the Big Ten. Next door was Ernie Harwell doing Michigan State football, and the next week it was Milo Hamilton doing Northwestern football. What a magical time."

And it was only beginning.

A few years later, Williams was hired as general manager of the minor-league Spartanburg (S.C.) Phillies -- heady stuff for a kid in his mid-20s, with another life-changing opportunity on the way.

"In July of 1968, which is now 43 years ago this summer, I walked into the office in the little ballpark and there was a message to return a phone call from a Jack Ramsay in Inglewood, Calif.," Williams said. "And I thought, 'The basketball Jack Ramsay? St. Joe's Jack Ramsay? The GM of the 76ers?'"

Despite growing up in Wilmington, Del., and living in the Palestra during the heyday of the Big Five, Williams had never met Ramsay, a luminary and treasure of Philadelphia and of basketball.

"So I returned the call, and sure enough, it was Jack Ramsay, who was in Inglewood completing a trade sending Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers," Williams said. "And he informed me that he was going to take over the coaching duties in addition to the GM duties, and he needed someone to run the front office. And would I be interested. I was 28 years old, in my fourth season as the GM of the Spartanburg Phillies. So that was a staggering phone call."

Williams, who had basketball in his blood, agreed to a three-year contract paying him $20,000 a year -- "a staggering amount of money in my world," he said.

He'd been around basketball before, attending Wake Forest on a baseball scholarship when Bones McKinney was the basketball coach and Billy Packer played guard on the 1962 Final Four team that beat Wooden's UCLA Bruins in the consolation game. But this was the big leagues. This was Philadelphia. On his first day at work, Ramsay turned to Williams and said, "It's yours," then promptly walked out the door, headed for training camp.

Next up was a four-year stint running the Chicago Bulls, but Williams would return to Philly in 1974 and stay for 12 years, sharing in the Sixers' only NBA championship in 1983 -- but not before losing to Ramsay's Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and then twice to the Lakers. It was Williams who brokered the trade that brought Moses Malone to the Sixers.

"He absolutely provided that missing piece," Williams said.

As sweet as that Philadelphia championship was to him, bringing an NBA franchise to Orlando -- a preposterous plan for which he called heavily and equally on his inner Bill Veeck and P.T. Barnum -- may have been Williams' most fulfilling moment in sports.

"I look back to Orlando in 1986, it was a wild step," Williams said. "No downtown skyline, no Universal Studios, no big convention center. The airport was just a little shack out there. No Animal Kingdom. It was just a small central Florida community, but with big potential. And that was our pitch: 'Don't look at us now. Look at us down the road in 10 years, 20 years.'"

A quarter-century later, the Magic inhabit a new downtown arena and have been to two NBA Finals. And the man who brought them there still has somewhere to be, and plenty of wisdom to share.

His greatest achievement? In life, it was raising 19 children -- 14 by international adoption -- with his wife, Ruth. (Yes, Williams has written a book about that, too, titled, Raising Kids with Character.) Professionally, Williams said, the best is yet to come.

"I think it may be this chapter that's unfolding now," he said. "Coach Wooden, what he did in that last decade really fascinates me. So in your 70s, 80s, 90s -- if we can get this thing into remission and more medical advances take place, those last 20 or 30 years of your life should be your most productive. Children raised, career established, you're not fighting for recognition, you're not fighting for that next job, you're not fighting to climb the ladder. I think you can be a little more relaxed."

Despite authoring dozens of books, Willams said he's "still waiting for one to explode. ... I think any writer is waiting for that day." And Williams can't shake the hunch that a transcendent success will emerge from his most daunting challenge -- that cancer will be no match for the most positive man in sports.

"I've just got an anticipation that there's something brewing out there," Williams said. "I'm not quite sure how it'll come off. Do I become the Jim Valvano of this decade in this whole cancer battle? I know my strongest message is to men: Do not neglect your yearly physical. I think that's the strongest message I've got. So many men say, 'I'm fine. I feel good. I don't want to know. Oh, it's too scary. I don't have time.' Medical science today can spot everything. But they can't spot anything if the guy doesn't show up for his physical. So I'm barking at men: Don't neglect it."

His final tumbler of iced tea drained at Sam Snead's, Williams pushed down on the crushed ice and mint leaves with a straw -- producing a gentle jingling in a glass that he, no doubt, still viewed as half full.

"So I think I'm being called into that whole field, and I do want to take advantage of that platform," Williams said. "That may be a bigger platform than anything I've been asked to do up until this point."

And that's saying a lot, coming from a man who still has plenty to say -- and do.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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