ORLANDO, FLA. -- As he drives past the construction site of his team's new $90 million arena, Pat Williams, president and general manager of the Orlando Magic, proudly boasts of a building that will feature private sky boxes opening onto patios overlooking a man-made lake.

"That's a feature that Cleveland doesn't need in the winter," he says with a sly smile.

At the moment, all there is to see are steel girders, and dirt. Lots of dirt. But Williams and other Orlando officials know the best is yet to come.

It's pretty much the same story for executives in the other three cities that paid more than $32 million each for NBA expansion franchises. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets will begin play in the 1988-89 season; the Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves the following season.

Williams gave up his general manager position with the Philadelphia 76ers last June to move to Orlando, and he still laughs when he thinks about his initial efforts at acquiring the franchise.

"We asked people to deposit money for a team that didn't exist in a league that wasn't sure they wanted us and for an arena that hadn't even begun to be built," he said. "We challenged the town. We told them that Orlando was the largest U.S. city without a major league team. And the people responded."

Each of the four cities has responded, partially because of the NBA's proviso that each have a season ticket base of at least 10,000 before the first basketball is shot. Orlando is in the process of whittling down the 15,000 applications and deposits received for season tickets.

When the news came that a franchise had been awarded to the Piedmont region, applications in Charlotte jumped from 8,000 to 15,000.

"Our biggest problem was that no one in the area had ever considered having major league sports of any kind here," said George Shinn, owner of the Hornets. "I think that's the mind-set of Charlotte. We were building an arena, but it was going to be for normal activities -- maybe college tournaments. Pro sports weren't a consideration."

Chances are that in the first few years at least, the only thing fans in each of the cities will be able to claim is that they're in the big time. Other things, like victories, for example, will be in very short supply.

Orlando has hired a player personnel director and even decided on a logo and uniform colors (black and electric blue). But like the other cities, there is not a single player to outfit just yet. When they do fill their rosters, from an expansion draft as well as the collegiate draft, these teams hope the players will follow the tenets they've already sold to the community.

"Right now, the basketball philosophy has to be extreme effort, with an emphasis on hustle and conditioning," said Williams. "When people are coming out and sitting through losses, they have to know that, even though the team is down by 30 points, the team is giving its all. It just has to be that way."

Although there are no delusions of instant success, there is anticipation of the beginning of play. For one thing, Williams and other basketball people can return to areas they're more familiar and comfortable with, like personnel. For another, the first jump shot taken will mark the end of what has been a maddening experience.

"When we heard that we were one of the cities granted a franchise, my initial reaction was good news/bad news," said Williams. "We got the team but we wouldn't start until 1989 and we didn't know what we would do for two years. Now I don't think we would be able to play at all if we didn't have the extra year."

"Starting a franchise is just a tremendous endeavor," echoed Lewis Schaffel, until last January the general manager of the New Jersey Nets, now the general manager of the Miami team. "I don't think anyone here realized what a tremendous undertaking it would be. When I went to the Meadowlands for a Nets game, the parking lot was there, the scoreboard was already in place. Now I have to build the parking lot and I'm buying the scoreboard and it's, 'Should I pick a dot matrix screen or something else?' I don't have any background in this stuff."

And neither man is receiving much help in efforts to get the teams off the ground. Williams has a full-time staff of six, Schaffel has just one other person in his employ full-time. That makes for some mad scrambling at times. The Magic and the Heat are housed in temporary offices, and more than once, both men have filled in as receptionists and telephone operators.

Shinn already has an entire entourage securely in place, perhaps a reflection of his dealings with the business world. A self-described entrepreneur for 25 years, Shinn said, "I'm more comfortable taking care of all those business things than I am in trying to select the right players for the team.

"It's hard work, sure, but it's fun, too. It's like anything else in business. You establish goals and then you go out and do it."

While Schaffel says that the franchise he would most like to emulate is the Boston Celtics, each of the teams would be pleased if it follows the growth pattern of the Dallas Mavericks. The previous NBA expansion team, the Mavericks are entering their eighth season, last year winning 55 games and the Midwest Division title. The team is now considered one of the NBA's strongest franchises; however, neither Williams nor Schaffel expect their teams to make their mark as quickly, either on the court or in the ledger books.

"People forget that they had all those extra first-round picks from Cleveland," said Williams. "What {former Cavaliers owner} Ted Stepien did was allow them the luxury of failing. They missed a lot of times on players, like Kiki Vandeweghe, Bill Garnett and Terence Stansbury, even Dale Ellis. That's a lot of missses, but the Stepien picks allowed them to take people like Sam Perkins and Derek Harper. They gave them a cushion that we probably won't have."

"The other thing," added Schaffel, "is they were the only team coming into the league their first year, which is easier than what we're doing. They also paid just $12 million, spread out over five years. These four new teams have to pay over $32 million and it has to be paid off before we even begin play. Now, it's a whole new kind of economics."

One positive aspect to the nearly joint entry of Miami and Orlando, located just 300 miles apart, is the fact that a natural geographic rivalry is sure to be developed, one that can be evenly fought on the court. The seeds were probably planted when both cities were lobbying for their franchises and the NBA's expansion committee said that one or the other would be given a team.

That led to public airing of some pretty sensitive community issues. New to the area, Williams nevertheless jumped right into it when he pointed out that, being the home of Walt Disney World, Orlando was viewed as a family destination while Miami was considered a hot spot.

When he called the respective franchise efforts "Mickey Mouse vs. Miami Vice," it unleashed a firefight. The city of Miami got offended.

Miami, already the big kid on the map, "never really saw Orlando as a rival. Things got a little ugly from their end but I never remember us responding to it," said Schaffel, who does admit to hearing some skepticism from some members of the expansion committee regarding the city's large (600,000) Cuban population, and its interest in basketball.

"I found that interesting. If I never came here maybe I would have similar views, too, but it's a great plus for us," he said. "I think 22 percent of the {NFL} Dolphins' season tickets are held by Latins and, really, what's great here in this city is because of the Cubans and Latins."

While stopping short of saying that there are spies scurrying back and forth between the two cities, Williams admits that "we have a great deal of curiosity with what's going on down there." He also readily admits he doesn't want the fences between the two cities "to mend too good. Bill Veeck once said, if you have an intense rivalry and dislike for someone, to not have it silently. It's bad for the health and for the box office."

That won't be a problem, at least initially. The 10,000-seat requirement will probably place all four franchises among the NBA's top 10 in base season tickets. After some early geographic shuffling, Orlando and Miami will wind up in the Atlantic Division (with Charlotte in the Central and Minnesota in the Midwest), where they can more readily carry the fight to each other.

The question is, can any of the new entities sustain interest and endure beyond the initial attraction? Minnesota did lose the NBA Lakers and Charlotte has to deal with the fact that it's located in a collegiate hotbed. There also is the memory there of failed American Basketball Association and World Football League franchises, although Shinn argues that "I wouldn't call either of them professional sports."

Miami also had had a dalliance with the ABA and, try as Schaffel might to be community-oriented, there are concerns about the team's ability to appeal to the populace. He insists he's come too far not to see his effort succeed.

"I believe very strongly in my abilities and I'm looking forward to the challenge," Schaffel said. "Very few people get the opportunity to build something up from scratch, and in the public eye. This isn't like plumbing where you could be very successful and no one at all would know about it. Here, we're talking about an area of 4 million people . . . and I'm a part of that."