Pat Williams feels your Dwyane Wade pain. Squared.
He was in the Orlando Magic's front office in 1996 when franchise mainstay Shaquille O'Neal decided not to stay. Twelve years later, replacement franchise mainstay Dwight Howard also decided not to stay.
Now carrying the title of senior vice president with the Magic, Williams, 76, found himself in a similar place, if not with the same emotional tie, when he heard about Wade, after spending the first 13 seasons of his NBA career with the Miami Heat, leaving in free agency for the Chicago Bulls.
Been there. Seen it. Done that. Twice.
"I think people in the NBA thought, 'You know, he's a lifer. He'll end up there. He always does. They'll build a monument to him outside the building, and he will always be Mr. Heat,' " Williams said.
Just as he envisioned with O'Neal. Just as he visualized with Howard.
Instead, Williams found himself where those with emotional ties of their own now stand with the Heat, after the contentious negotiations and breakup with Wade.
"Well, step number one is the grieving period," said Williams, author of numerous motivational books. "And believe me, it is real. There is a period where your heart is broken. You can't believe that somebody would reject your franchise, your city, your team. And it takes a while to come to grips with that.
"Secondly, then you've got to wake up and paint a positive picture to your community that, 'This is not the end of the world. Life will go on. We will have a team in the fall. We will continue to look to ways to improve our team, even if it's Rony Seikaly. We're not going to fold. We're not going to quit.' "
Williams didn't, quipping how sometimes you wind up with a Seikaly (as he did) as your fill-in Shaq.
But Williams also said there are pronounced differences with what the Magic endured and what the Heat are working through. Having worked on the personnel side with the Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and Magic, he said there is an appreciation for the tough decisions Heat President Pat Riley had to consider.
"I think the way to sell it here is Dwyane Wade is 34 years old. When Shaq left he was 24. When Dwight left he was 27," Williams said. "They were young and that made it even harder. I think in this case, Dwyane Wade did not have a whole lot left in the tank. You're going to rebuild with youngsters. It was going to have to happen anyway. And this just started it maybe a year early."
At that moment, it was as if Williams dialed back his own clock.
"So it's not the end of the world," he said, as if conjuring what Riley must invoke in coming days. "And we're going to be a good, young scrappy club. And we just weren't in a position to give Dwyane everything he wanted and we're committed to building with young players. And plus the injury factor with Dwyane, you just did not feel comfortable."
Williams said because Wade stuck it out for so long that he still expects the Heat to construct the statue for Wade at AmericanAirlines Arena that might not be coming at the Amway Center for O'Neal and certainly won't for Howard.
But even then, seeing Wade move on to the Bulls reminded him of what twice had gotten away from his own team, most recently just four years ago.
"One of our arguments with Dwight," he said, "was just that, 'Dwight to have one franchise linked to your name, you're always identified. You're Ernie Banks. Or you're John Havlicek. Or you're Bart Starr.' I said there's got to be something meaningful with that ... and it didn't register. But I think Dwyane will remain Mr. Heat."
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com