Orlando was barely on the map when Jimmy Hewitt believed in its potential. That belief became the Orlando Magic. The team’s first believer died Sunday.
During the 1995 Finals run, Orlando Magic fever overtook the entire city.
It finally felt like the city had arrived. This small, growing town no one believed in now had signs everywhere saying “Believe in Magic.” Their team was the most popular team in the league — with young stars in Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway leading the way. It is a team that is still so popular in the NBA memory.
It was all a dream. An amazing story of how a team in a small market rose from nothing within five or six years to become championship contenders, dethroning (or angering) Michael Jordan in the process.
The Magic were always an impossible dream. Orlando was merely an airport to get to Disney in the late 1980s. The dream of professional sports was a pipe dream. But someone had to believe.
To make the impossible happen first takes someone believing the impossible is possible. And then convincing others to join the crusade.
For the Magic, that man — that first believer — was Jimmy Hewitt. It was through his will and determination that he sold the NBA on Orlando and made the Magic a reality.
He truly believed before anyone else would and converted the city, its residents and the NBA into believers.
Thirty-one years later, the Magic are still going strong, firmly entrenched as representatives of this community. They continue to play and Orlando has expanded and grown beyond anyone’s dreams. It might have been inevitable, but Jimmy Hewitt certainly sped that process along.
Jimmy Hewitt died Sunday at 79. He was suffering from the late stages of dementia and had recently contracted the coronavirus.
"“Jimmy Hewitt is the reason the Magic and professional sports exist in Orlando,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a statement released by the team. “It was Jimmy’s belief, perseverance, community spirit and vision that ‘Orlando is the place to be,’ which brought NBA basketball to Orlando and Central Florida. He is truly the founding father of the Orlando Magic and for that we will be eternally grateful. He was like a father to all Magic fans and we will miss him dearly.”"
It seems silly now because of what the Magic have accomplished and how firmly entrenched in this community’s culture they have become that the Magic were always considered a long shot for expansion.
The quote from Martins’ statement: “Orlando is the place to be,” is a now-legendary quote and a prescient one from Hewitt.
As the NBA sought expansion into the Southeast and into Florida, they had their eye on Miami (of course) and a few other cities. Then-Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams toured the state, he stopped in Orlando and was picked up by Jimmy Hewitt to give him a tour.
Williams asked the Orlando businessman whether the NBA should look at Miami, Jacksonville or Tampa for expansion. Hewitt scoffed and declared, “Orlando is the place to be.”
It was a preposterous statement at the time. But Hewitt’s unwavering belief in his hometown and his belief that Orlando could be a big-time sports town generated a groundswell.
He was able to get Williams to buy in. That gave the bid some NBA cache. And the two got to work selling the community on the idea. They assembled the ownership group and feverishly sold season tickets to eager residents.
Orlando was the dark horse in that race. Those other three Florida cities were much more established.
But Jimmy Hewitt and Pat Williams eventually sold David Stern on the vision too. He came around to seeing the potential in Central Florida. The decision was certainly close — the NBA originally intended only to put one team in Florida. But the rest, as they say, is history.
By the time the Magic made their final bid, Hewitt was more behind the scenes. He was the driving force for getting the team there. But he had to step back as the principal owner. The NBA wanted a lead man with a strong financial base. Jimmy Hewitt ceded that floor to Bill Du Pont, who would then sell the team to Rich DeVos two years later.
But founding the Magic was truly a community effort. Hewitt firmly believed sports could bring a community together. This was a team that was built from the ground up and placed in a city still looking for its identity and something to call their own.
The Magic became that thing. It was the first thing that made Orlando a big city on its own.
Hewitt believed it was possible. He convinced so many in this community to dream big. And sold this plucky little citrus town with a theme park nearby to others. Soon, they too were believers.
Hewitt was all about that belief in his hometown. Anyone who interacted with him could feel the confidence and optimism radiating from him. He was personable and unwavering in his belief in this city.
He dreamed an impossible dream. But he believed in it first. And that was the first step to making Magic.
He will undoubtedly be missed.