ORLANDO, Fla. — So long, Bubba.
Rest in peace, Bubba.
But mostly, thank you, Bubba.
Thank you for literally making Magic.
Thank you for believing in your hometown.
Thank you for bringing professional sports to Orlando.
Jimmy Hewitt — the Central Florida businessman who co-founded the Orlando Magic and fondly called all of his friends and acquaintances "Bubba" — died early Sunday morning at the age of 79.
He had been suffering from advanced stages of dementia and recently contracted the coronavirus.
Hewitt grew up in Orlando in a one-parent home, played running back at Edgewater High School where his nickname was "Shifty," worked his way through Florida State University and became a self-made millionaire. He and his brother, Bob, established themselves as entrepreneurs by founding a chain of daycare centers called "The Child's Place" that eventually was sold to Gerber — the national baby food company.
Hewitt's legacy will be that of a caring father to son, Ben and daughter, Whitney; a loving husband of nearly 60 years to wife Rosemary; and a man of tremendous faith and spirituality, but to sports fans in Orlando, he will always be remembered as the father and founder of the Orlando Magic.
"He was my oak and my mentor," said Ben, a successful businessman in his own right. "He was great in the boardroom, but he was even better as a dad."
Remembers Whitney: "He used to tell us when we were growing up, 'You're going to knock it from here to Bumby Street!' I always just thought that was a common phrase that everybody used, but then I found out my dad grew up a few blocks from Bumby Street (in downtown Orlando). If you knocked a baseball to Bumby Street, that meant you were having a good day. So we grew up trying to do everything from here to Bumby Street.
"My father always had an optimism override button. He taught us if you're going to live, live big. If you're going to go after something, go after it hard."
Which is exactly what Jimmy Hewitt did when he found out the NBA was considering expanding into the state of Florida. He went after it with the determination of Michael Jordan taking it to the hole.
I once visited his office on Edgewater Drive and it was filled with Magic memorabilia. Behind his desk was a painting by famed sports artist LeRoy Neiman showing Jordan going up against the inaugural Magic team. On an adjoining wall was a framed keepsake of all of the game tickets from the first season. On top of a cabinet sat a signed game ball from the Magic's very first game.
"Wonderful memories," Hewitt told me then. "I give thanks every day for the wonderful memories."
Without Hewitt those memories wouldn't exist.
"Jimmy Hewitt is the reason the Magic and professional sports exist in Orlando," Magic CEO Alex Martins said. "It was Jimmy's belief, perseverance, community spirit and vision that ... 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."
Said fellow co-founder Pat Williams when Hewitt was inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame a few years ago: "Without Jimmy Hewitt, there would be no Orlando Magic."
Hewitt met and became fast friends with Williams, then the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, at a faith-based men's retreat in San Antonio in 1984. A year later, there was a similar conference in Orlando and Hewitt and another friend gave Williams a ride to the airport.
Hewitt sat in the front seat with John Tolson, a local minister. Williams was in the back talking about how the NBA was planning to expand. Out of curiosity, Williams asked what part of Florida would be the best location for a potential NBA franchise — "Miami, Tampa or Jacksonville?"
Hewitt turned around and gave Williams a steely, stern look.
"He was really, really insulted," Williams remembered.
That's when Hewitt uttered the six Magical words of Central Florida pride and passion:
"Orlando is the place to be."
He and Tolson then began explaining to Williams all the reasons — growth projections, average income, favorable demographics — why Orlando should be awarded a franchise.
"But you don't even have an arena," Williams said.
"We're building one," Hewitt informed him.
Williams' interest was suddenly piqued. From there, a series of fortunate events began to unfold. It started the very next day when Hewitt drove to Lake Highland Prep to pick up his son Ben at soccer practice. Coincidentally, then-Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick was picking up his son, too.
Hewitt rushed over to Frederick's car, eagerly explained his NBA idea and asked if Frederick could pull some political strings to get the proposed arena built faster than planned. Frederick agreed and set the civic wheels in motion.
Hewitt immediately put together a group of investors. He flew up to New York to meet with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. He convinced Williams to leave Philly and run the team in Orlando if the city was granted a franchise.
And in the end, Jimmy even took one for the team. According to the book "Making Magic" — written by Williams and former Sentinel columnist Larry Guest — the NBA had a problem with the ownership group Hewitt had assembled. Stern didn't want such a large investor group with no majority owner. He wanted a small investor group with a large majority owner. Without a big-money owner, Orlando's NBA dream would have died.
When a meeting was held to decide whether another Orlando businessman, Bill du Pont, should become the majority owner, Hewitt did not stand in the way. In fact, even though he was the brains of the expansion effort and put in all the time and work to get a franchise, he endorsed du Pont even if it meant his ownership role would be reduced to that of minority investor.
"It was emotional," Williams explained in the book. "There was pain and sympathy for Jimmy Hewitt. Here he was being told his deal would fly only if he was not The Man ... . On the half-yard line, he was being yanked out of the game, banished to the bench. Tough stuff. Hard. Jimmy responded beautifully. He said, simply, 'Well, let's do it ... . We have come too far and gotten too close. Whatever has to be done.' "
As I once wrote about Hewitt, "The best fathers often give up their own wants and desires for the good of the children. For his baby to survive, Hewitt, the patriarch of the Magic, had to sacrifice himself."
Hewitt never regretted his decision.
"I just wanted Orlando to have a team to root for," he told me.
Ben Hewitt still has the mask of his father's face that was distributed to the crowd at the Orlando Magic's inaugural game.
Throughout the game, fans at the packed arena would hold up the mask in front of their own faces and joyously scream out the words: "Hey, Bubba!!!"
Whenever I would talk to Hewitt over the years, he'd always end our conversations in the exact same way:
"Hey, Bubba, you're the best."
No, James Lewis Hewitt, you're the best.
So long, Bubba.
Rest in peace, Bubba.
But mostly, thank you, Bubba.
You knocked it from here to Bumby Street.(c)2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC