The Reader

Pat Williams hasn’t put a book down since he was a kid with a newspaper route, using the money he made from it to fund what became his passion—reading. Now 71, the Orlando Magic executive has read about 7,000 books and has a home library packed with all of them, including rare first printings. In other rooms are hundreds of other tomes anxiously waiting to be read. Be patient, Williams tells them, your time will come.

The books cry to him, complain to him, cajole him, all clamoring for his attention. “It can get noisy,” Pat Williams says, as he walks among the some 400 books spread through three rooms in his Winter Park home. Some stand sentry in bookshelves in the foyer, others in his bedroom, and more in his home office. As he passes them, touching some, taking others off their shelf, he says he understands their desire, how they all want his time, his affection. Maybe the Orlando Magic executive will pick one of them to accompany him to a home game at the Amway Center, or perhaps on a road trip, traveling to some distant city. Mostly, they just want to go from one of those three holding libraries into the Big Library that sits center in Williams’ home, with rows of custom-built, soft-white shelves housing upward of 7,000 books.

Rules are rules, though. In order to graduate to the Big Library, you must be read. The books understand that rule, but then again they don’t. One recent night, unable to sleep after an afternoon date with chemotherapy, Williams slept fitfully in spurts—two hours awake, two hours asleep. He didn’t waste those hours awake fretting over multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable blood disease that has invaded his body. Instead, he spent that time reading Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady, polishing off the tome by morning’s light and placing it into the Big Library.

Williams would have preferred a quiet, peaceful evening of reading. But it wasn’t to be. You see, the Pat Nixon book was new to the three holding libraries, and there are books there that have been waiting months to be read, some even years. Needless to say, they weren’t pleased to have been passed over by a book that had just arrived in the mail.

“Oh, the commotion,” Williams says, grinning. “You never heard such a racket.”

You likely have never seen such a house either. Williams’ eye for décor is simple: Where can he put more books? His wife, Ruth, recently conceded an area of the foyer, and he quickly put bookshelves just inside the front door, to the right and left. He also has a “tentative agreement” with Ruth for an entire foyer wall, but only when he absolutely needs it. In the meantime, he eyes the top of the bookshelves that flank the front door, noticing faux plants spilling off them. “Knick-knacks,” he says, shaking his head with disdain. “That’s what I call knick-knacks. That space could be used for books. That top row has potential.”

Williams, senior vice president for the Magic, admits his passion for reading books is an obsession, but he’s happy to have it. He still has the first book he ever read. It’s in the Big Library, a room situated between the foyer and the family room, a sort of fulcrum for the sprawling two-story home. When he was raising 19 children through two marriages—14 adopted, four biological and a stepchild—the Big Library was a big playroom, a family activity center that once housed a pool table as its showpiece. But now the children are all grown and gone, as is the pool table.

Williams walks into the Big Library and pulls from a shelf Pop Warner’s Book For Boys, copyright 1934, first edition. He rubs his hand across the cover, as if caressing it, before randomly opening to a page. Slipping into an authoritative voice, he reads, “Get plenty of sleep, at least nine hours every night. Go to bed early, and don’t lie in bed in the morning. A sleepyhead never makes an alert, smart player.” Williams’ voice rises as his tone deepens. “Eat at regular hours. Eat sensibly. Lay off the stimulants. That means alcoholic drinks and tobacco. Keep healthy mentally. By that I mean be a gentleman. The best athletes are always clean, wholesome fellows. Hit the books. Be a good sportsman. Play a hard, clean game, and take the results gracefully whether you win or lose.”

Finally, peering up from the pages, he says, “This was the first book I read. Can you imagine me as a 7-year-old diving into this? I bought into it like it was the gospel.”

Soon, he was buying something else—more books. Well, initially it was Mom and Dad buying him books, and gladly doing so. His father was an educator and a coach, and his mother, aside from being a homemaker, was “a reader of great note,” Williams says. “We were a book family. There were books throughout the house.” So buying books to feed young Pat’s appetite for printed words wasn’t a problem. One thing did concern his mother, though. All the books were baseball books. “She called me a monomaniac—a person with one
interest. She was worried to death I’d go through life with one interest—just baseball.”
It was baseball, though, that earned him a scholarship to Wake Forest and then a brief minor league career as a catcher. At 23, Williams shifted from the playing field to the front office and eventually to basketball and its operations, where he has spent most of his professional career.

Although Williams is 71 and fighting cancer, he remains youthful looking and energetic. He still travels extensively as a motivational speaker—usually with about a half-dozen books in tow—while waiting for his own book, Extreme Focus: Harnessing The Life-Changing Power To Achieve Your Dreams, to be published in July. Coincidentally it will be his 71st.

Yes, he has manifold interests now, but baseball still holds a special place in his heart, not to mention in the Big Library. He walks to a section of that room and runs his left hand down a row of shelves. Then he walks about 15 feet to another row of shelves and runs his right hand down it. “This is the baseball section,” he says as he spreads his arms wide. He counts a row of books on a shelf and arrives at 32. He counts the number of shelves and arrives at 38. “So how many is that?” he asks.


And that’s just baseball.

There’s the basketball section, the football section, the general sports section, the African-American section, the public speaking and humor section, the presidential history section, the Civil War section, the World War II section, the leadership and success section, the Christian inspiration section, and on and on. Some sections have subsections. He points to a cluster of books in the Civil War section and proclaims that all are on Abraham Lincoln. Another section, within Christian inspiration, houses Billy Graham’s books. Beyond that, Williams doesn’t get too organized.

“I wish I could tell you it’s done with the Dewey Decimal System, but it’s not,” he says. “A librarian would not be happy with this.”

You’d think that his wife, Ruth, wouldn’t be happy with it, either. But she is.

“It’s a passion of his, without a doubt,” says Ruth, who doesn’t mind the library that occupies such a prominent position in their home. In fact, she sees some benefits. “I’m working on my Ph.D. in organizational leadership . . . and I find it tremendously beneficial to be able to walk out of my office and there’s a thousand books on leadership that I can use for research.”

It also spawns topics of conversation between the two. There are endless discussions on endless topics. Oh, he teases his wife that part of her literary penchant is for what Williams calls “storybooks,” which is his playfully derisive term for fiction—the mysteries, thrillers and espionage books that Ruth also enjoys. But there is no shortage of topics for them to talk about. Nor, says Ruth, is there ever a problem extracting her husband’s nose from the written word.

“Pat is really, really good at focusing,” she says. “When he’s in a book, he’s entrenched in a book. But when you want his attention, or you just want to talk with him about something, you have his full attention. He’s very good with relationships. That’s never a problem.”

If there is a problem, it’s one that Williams perceives as a good one, and it started when he was in high school. That’s when he realized he was a “bookaholic,” using most of his newspaper route money to purchase books. It wasn’t until years later that his mania made perfect sense to him. That’s when he came across this quote from the Dutch theologian Erasmus:

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Williams made two annual trips during his high school years to New York City’s Madison Square Garden to watch basketball games. Those trips were also pilgrimages to the plethora of used bookstores that once populated the area. By the time he’d walk into games at the Garden, Williams would be carrying paper bags filled with books. Those books are now housed in the Big Library, and Williams locates one of them, Pitching In A Pinch, by the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Christy Mathewson.

“I plucked this off one of those used bookstores in New York City,” he says as he checks the copyright date. “Look at this—1912! My goodness, it’s almost 100 years old!”

He finds another book, a memoir written by another Hall of Famer, Cap Anson. Again, Williams checks the copyright, his head jerking back and eyes widening as he sees 1900.

“I wonder how much this is worth?” he asks.

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Pat Williams couldn’t care less how much the book is worth, because it isn’t for sale. Besides, as far as he’s concerned, the book is priceless. They all are—the books and the memories they’ve given him, not to mention the knowledge. Which is why he doesn’t do fiction. “No, no, no,” he says, emphatically. “You only have X amount of time to read, so you gotta make choices. When I finish a book, I want to have gained something, learned something. I want my brain stimulated. The brain is a muscle. It needs exercising. It needs to be pushed. I want to learn. It’s an absolute thrill to be a lifelong learner. I’m also looking for information for books I’m writing.”

Of the 71 he’s written, most deal with leadership, success, motivation and like topics, tapping into the wisdom of people as diverse as Bear Bryant and Solomon.

It was in 1962, while playing for the minor league Miami Marlins, that Williams met one of the wisest men he’s ever known—Bill Veeck. Williams had seen a book in a Burdines department store window that intrigued him. It was titled Veeck–As In Wreck. When he read it, Williams was overwhelmed. Shortly thereafter, he arranged to meet Veeck, spending five hours with the colorful and irreverent on-again, off-again Major League Baseball team owner in his Maryland home.

Seven years later, at 29, Williams became general manager of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Veeck was from Chicago, and on visits to his hometown he often met Williams for lunch. The two became good friends, with Veeck, a legendary MLB figure who was known for his promotional and marketing genius, assuming the role of Williams’ mentor and lodestar. Whenever the two got together, either for lunch or at Veeck’s Maryland home, Williams noticed Veeck was always with books, always reading; it impacted him greatly. The two remained friends until cancer claimed Veeck in 1986.

These days, Williams is usually reading seven or eight books at any moment, completing, on average, a book a day (it takes him about four hours per book). Not only doesn’t he read one book at a time all the way through before starting another, he doesn’t read books from start to finish, either.

Instead, he starts a book, reads about 25 percent from the beginning and then reads from the end. If there’s an epilogue, he’ll read it. If not, he’ll read the last few pages of the final chapter, or the entire final chapter if it’s short. Then he resumes reading where he left off at the front of the book, progressing for a while before passing over chapters to return to the back of the book. And so it goes, back and forth, with the front and back dust-jacket flaps serving as book marks. Eventually, Williams finishes at a point about three-quarters through the book, then deposits the volume in the Big Library.

“It’s almost like little ceremony,” Ruth says, laughing. “He’ll talk to the book as he’s carrying it, telling it that it now gets to join the other books. It’s pretty funny.”

Williams reads everywhere, too. He watches Magic games from one of the Amway Center tunnels, always with a book under his arm, reading a page or two or three during timeouts, commercial breaks, between quarters and at halftime. “If someone wants to talk to you, of course you’re not rude,” he says. “But you’d be surprised how much reading you can get done with just a couple of minutes here and there.” When he was raising his 19 kids, Williams was always at their school sporting events, but never without a book. He didn’t miss any key moments, but he also didn’t miss opportunities to get in some reading.

Recently, at a regular-season Magic game, a fan approached him.

“You probably don’t remember me,” the man said. “Our kids played Little League baseball together. You were always reading then, and you’re still reading!”

One of Williams’ greatest pleasures is dining alone. He knows that might sound odd, because most people hate going into a restaurant by themselves. But he isn’t really alone. He’s always with a book. “If given a choice between lunch with, say, Colin Powell or reading his autobiography, take the book,” he says, “because he has poured hundreds of hours into that book. Always take
the book.”

And then make time to read it.

“People tell me they don’t have time to read, but I don’t buy that. You can read while waiting at a red light, while stuck in one of those traffic jams on I-4. We have all these trains in Central Florida. Sometimes you’re sitting there for seven or eight minutes, waiting for that train to go by. You can get a lot of reading done in seven or eight minutes. What about in the waiting room at the doctor’s office? You want to sit there reading a 3-year-old magazine, or a good book?”

People often ask him what to read, so three years ago Williams wrote a book titled Read For Your Life. It goes into why, when, what to read, how to navigate a big bookstore and how to benefit from what you read. “I tell people, ‘Whatever floats your boat. Read what you like. Read in your field. Read what interests you. Just read.’ The average American spends four hours a day watching TV. Four hours! That’s 28 hours a week. Think of how much reading you can accomplish with 28 hours.” (Williams turns on the TV only to watch an occasional sports program. He hasn’t tuned in to regularly scheduled programming since All in the Family was aired in the ’70s.)

His interests are constantly growing. With world events being what they are, Williams in recent years has become fascinated with the Islamic religion, and tomes on the subject now occupy a shelf in the religion section of the Big Library. His main interests, though, are Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Back in the 1980s, Williams visited Gettysburg, the site of the pivotal Civil War battle, and “was absolutely overwhelmed. It captured me.” Soon he was reading every book he could get on the Civil War. Later, he went to Washington, D.C., and was transformed again by touring Ford’s Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. “I defy anyone to go to Ford’s Theatre and then to the Peterson House across the street where Lincoln died and not come away asking yourself what book can you read about it.”

The first one Williams read was Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot. He now reads almost any book published on the Lincoln assassination. Six years ago, Williams even commissioned John Wilkes Booth author and historian Michael Kauffman to take him on the assassin’s escape route, minute by minute, step by step. The two men started at 9 a.m. and finished that night at 10:30. Williams calls it “a day I’ll never forget.”

In fact, forgetting things isn’t a problem. Rather, he has a remarkable memory for the estimated 7,000 books he’s read, and he’s eager for more.

Back in the late ’90s, when the Magic offered him a pay raise, Williams instead asked for a $500-a-month stipend to buy books. He still receives it. He figures he also gets about another $500 to $1,000 a year in bookstore gift cards from friends and family—“I’m the easiest guy to shop for; just get me a bookstore gift card”—so he annually has about $7,000 at his disposal for books. He was ecstatic when the neighborhood Borders “made the cut,” as he calls it, and wasn’t one of the bookstores the chain decided to close. He jokes that he probably kept that Borders in business.

Williams also hosts three radio shows—one sports, one general interest and one Christian—and estimates that 95 percent of his guests are authors promoting their latest books, so he constantly has publishers mailing him the latest releases. On average, about six books flow into his home daily, and they head straight for one of the three holding libraries, waiting for their entry into the Big Library. Of course, a chunk of his collection could fit onto the latest trend of publishing—eReaders. But Williams will have nothing to do with them. Not that he has anything against Kindles, Nooks or any other form of the eBook phenomenon; nor does he eschew audiobooks. He’s happy with anything that gets people into books. They’re just not for him.

You see, Williams describes himself as “an aggressive reader” and he recommends that for others, often telling people to read with a pen or a highlighter, marking passages and folding pages. He’ll bracket sentences or sections in books, marking them with an X and writing notes in margins. He also collects quotes and has them professionally typed front and back on 3×5 index cards, which he later has laminated. He estimates he has hundreds of such index cards, perhaps even thousands. When he ran in marathons (he’s up to 58) before his cancer diagnosis earlier this year, Williams would pull those index cards from a fanny pack and read the quotes for inspiration, usually around the 12-mile mark, when mental and physical fatigue set in.

There are other reasons why he wants an actual, tangible book.

“When a book makes the Big Library, it’s like a trophy,” he says, explaining how that’s also why he never gets rid of books, nor lends them. “You don’t get rid of your trophies. But beyond that, just think about it—you’ve invested X amount of time of your life in that book. I don’t want to throw that part of my life away.”

So he keeps the books; and he keeps getting more.

“Look at them, perched there,” he says, pointing to books clustered next to his bed. “Can you hear them? They’re crying out. They want to be read. It gets so noisy sometimes. And more are coming in every day. The problem is getting worse.”

As he says this, Pat Williams is smiling.

Peter Kerasotis is a sports columnist for Florida Today.

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