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Knubia Locker Room: The Book of Silas

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NBA great Paul Silas transitioned into immortality last month. There will never be another like him. If you’re looking for a Sportscenter highlight reel and sound bytes: look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re searching for someone who consistently revamped his teams into contenders and champions and made better human beings of those he encountered, welcome home. 

‘THE MACK’ (McCLYMONDS HIGH) 

The Oakland, California, high school was an epicenter for distinction. The alum list is wondrous (among others): Antonio Davis, Joe Ellis, Curt Flood, MC Hammer, Wendell Hayes, Jim Hines (Olympian), Marty Paich (jazz musician), Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, Ruth Puerner, Lionel Wilson (first African-American mayor of Oakland), Jim Hadnot, David Hilliard (Black Panther Party), Vada Pinson, Aaron Pointer, Fritz Pointer. The Pointer Sisters, graduates of nearby Oakland Tech, are first cousins to Paul Silas. 

Silas gained notoriety as his high school basketball teams went 68-0 from 1958-1960. As a senior, he was named a Parade All-American and “Mr. Basketball” for California. Paul would then move into the collegiate ranks at Creighton University. Silas averaged 20.5 points and 21.6 rebounds (leading the NCAA on the boards in 1964) over a three-year varsity span. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden considered him one of the best scorers and rebounders in the nation. Hall-of-Famer and pro-adversary Wes Unseld was still in high school when Paul was in college. Wes admired Silas due to his similar style of play and the fact that he had been dubbed “Chairman of the Boards.” 

Eventually, his jersey number 35 was retired by Creighton, and ultimately he would be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. 

WELCOME TO ‘STL’ 

Paul Silas had a robust affinity for ice cream. He was thick around the middle early in his career but highly effective. Decades ago, he recalled, “I weighed 251 when I reported for the Hawks’ rookie camp. I had been close to that since I spent the summer of 1962 working in an ice cream factory. I gained 40 pounds in three months.” [1]

The Hawks franchise had high aspirations for Silas and urged him to drop a few pounds. He did. By 1967, he was down to a svelte 220. 

St. Louis (STL) was the NBA’s southernmost and uber-segregated municipality for most of the 1960s. The city had been fraught with racial issues, many of which are well-documented. Brown-skinned opponents generally loathed playing in the old Kiel Auditorium. Furthermore, the last all-white NBA champion was the 1958 St. Louis Hawks. Slowly, however, Melanated players—talented ones—began to take over the roster. More than a smattering of fans dropped their season tickets as a result. One publication stated there’s “not a white hope among them.” Silas arrived at a critical juncture. 

The Hawks were a strong team. Some of the players whom Silas battled alongside included: Lenny Wilkens, Zelmo Beaty, “Pogo” Joe Caldwell, Richie Guerin (player-coach), Bill Bridges, “Sweet” Lou Hudson, Jeff Mullins, Walt Hazzard and Don Ohl. With that degree of artistry, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Despite being a rookie, the 6 foot 7 inches tall Silas made an immediate impact. 

Wilkens knew the chord of being just another guy, having played at Providence University in the shadow of a man he would run circles around at the pro level named Johnny Egan. In his early years as a pro, although soon (by year three) an all-star, Wilkens was initially overshadowed by the “big man” trio of Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette. Wilkens looked out for the young powerhouse from Oakland upon his arrival. 

The late 60s found the Hawks betwixt and between. The Hawks were tough, physical contenders (referred to years later as a “bodybuilding team” with a frontline of bruisers). On the court, they provided formidable opposition but could not get out of the Western Division when the playoffs arrived. Yet, they were also known for needing numerous team meetings (occasionally involving the wives) to keep harmony within their clubhouse. 

Even in those days, the NBA Players Association was united and powerful. As more players began to take on a brown hue, brighter, educated athletes (some politically aware and militant) had a seat at the table. 

RELATIVE OBSCURITY 

It takes an exceptional individual to be mature and selfless enough to play second-fiddle, mired in the penumbra of someone, for the team’s betterment. At every pro stop, St. Louis (Pettit/Beaty), Atlanta (Hudson/Caldwell), Phoenix (Hawkins/Goodrich/Van Arsdale), Boston (Cowens/”Hondo”/White), Denver (Thompson/Issel), Seattle (“D.J.”/Gus/Sikma) he was never the marquee player receiving top billing. He didn’t care! However, if one were to probe further, Silas was considered indispensable. Every team, particularly a championship team, warrants one of those hard-hat guys. Set plays for him were aberrant; he thrived off of the offensive glass. On the floor, he was all about rebounding, setting screens, defense, bringing physicality to the game and playing enforcer when things got out of hand.

For successful teams, the locker room is where someone is looked upon to keep the house in order. That was often Paul Silas. 

As he had done in St. Louis, Paul Silas would become the de facto chief of the Phoenix Suns. The team endured and suffered for the first half of the 1969-1970 season with a coach cherry-picked by management (Johnny “Red” Kerr) because he was a fraternity friend of the GM (Jerry Colangelo). Although a 12-year veteran center, Kerr offered little or no guidance during practice or games, preferred drinking beers with the white players afterward and seemed uncomfortable around the African-Americans on the Suns’ roster. As a result, an uneasy fissure existed in addition to cultural contrasts in the clubhouse. Even though the white players had scant respect for his coaching capability, many took advantage of the fact that there was an undercurrent of favoritism. Eventually, after a closed-door conclave with the players, management made a coaching alteration (to Colangelo) and the Suns surged to the postseason. 

Management, especially, begged the bear-like Silas to continue to lead. The new assistant coach (Scotty McDonald) told him, “Big Paul, my fat forward, you should be the captain of this team.”[2] 

Paul Silas was the glue that held it all together. He was always the first to devise solutions and provide suggestions or constructive criticism if the new coaching staff said something wrong. While he could elicit brute force when warranted, he was no forerunner to Draymond Green. Silas was revered by his colleagues league-wide. Paul was one of the guys, but one to whom all deferred for guidance, regardless of skin tone. On road trips, he could be serious about his sense of awareness. Rather than running the streets, the happily-married power forward read a lot: Betrayal of the Negro, Soul On Ice, and any African literature he could grab. 

“The Black [man] must learn he doesn’t have to be nice. White people are all right. No sense hatin’ them. But [many of them] don’t respect niceness; they respect strength.” ~Paul Silas (1969) [2] 

TAMING A “VALACHI” 

Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins coined the term in the 1960s. It was not one of endearment. The “Valachi” was an informant or snitch. He may perform well on the court and exhibit an affable and approbatory veneer on the surface toward his teammates. But in reality, he saw the best way to endear himself to management, bulwark his job, or perhaps receive a few perks was to divulge everything he heard to coaches and administration. Every franchise, in nearly every sport, had one someone considered too friendly with ownership (i.e., Bridges [Hawks], Happy Hairston [Lakers]). Players often look at them with a discerning eye but usually–until there’s concrete proof–there’s no major conflict. There were several murmurs regarding Bill Bridges on the Hawks; secrets leaked out previously held in confidence by the

players. Despite his solid play on the floor, he also had the propensity to utter things to the press. In addition, when contract disputes cropped up, Bridges, appointed the captain by the head coach, often allied with the front office. When veteran point guard Lenny Wilkens was “[feuding] with management and head coach Ritchie Guerin, Bridges sided with the bosses.”[2] 

Due to the Hawks’ predilection for offering insufficient compensation, they would lose several all-stars: Wilkens, Beaty, Caldwell, and later in an exhibition of karma, Bill Bridges. 

Silas made it clear to all that Bridges was too tight with the front office. On the hardwood, their physical style of play was similar. However, their cerebral divergence could not have been more distinct once the final buzzer sounded. This perception was reinforced by Reverend Jesse Jackson, friendly with many of the Hawks after their relocation to the Peach State, who stated, “[Bill Bridges]…as a Brother…he ain’t ready.” [2] 

For nearly the entire decade of the 1960s, until the franchise moved to Atlanta (1968), Hawks ownership had a reputation for being the most frugal organization in the NBA. Contract negotiations were tantamount to enduring a root canal without a local anesthetic. Although a relative newcomer compared to some Black veterans on the Hawks, Silas still stepped in and made his voice heard. He would soon do the same thing in Phoenix with another “team captain” commissioned by management named Gail Goodrich. 

VALLEY OF THE SUN 

Long ago in the NBA, especially amidst the early ‘60s, it was a foregone conclusion that the number of roster spots for Black players was often finite. In addition, that total (usually four) could also be partially dependent upon the franchise location to placate fans and thus keep the nearby arenas full. The Boston Celtics and Chicago Packers/Zephyrs had been two indelible and heralded anomalies. 

In 1969, the expansion Phoenix Suns were in the process of making their latter round of roster cuts. The final player released was the hulking and intimidating Dave Lattin (Texas Western’s [UTEP] menacing enforcer in Glory Road). He was a 6’7″, 240-pound power forward who–by most accounts–had a fantastic training camp. Lattin threw elbows, grabbed rebounds with verve and dunked ferociously at every opportunity. When he was axed, the remaining players with melanin got together and spoke on it. They were angry and dismayed. 

Paul Silas boiled down the state of the entire league to his brethren, “They prefer whites to balance it for the fans. They’ll pay more to get white guys too. But it’s stronger on some teams than others. Baltimore keeps a lot of Black dudes; San Francisco [Warriors] don’t. Atlanta’s got all Black starters, so they try to get white dudes for the bench!” [2] 

A glance at any NBA media guide during those days evinced that Silas was not being facetious.

Regarding fans, the city of Phoenix was considered by many Black players as the “snakepit of the league.“ A group of whites threatened to shoot all-star Philadelphia guard Archie Clark and stalked the arena corridors post-game in a “hunt” of Seattle’s Walt Hazzard. During the timeframe (the 70s) when many athletes were embracing Islam and changing their names, the city was known for being inhospitable toward individuals who would dare do such a thing (Walt Hazzard [Madhi Abdul-Rahman], Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], Charlie Scott [Shaheed Abdul-Alin], Don Smith [Zaid Abdul-Aziz], Spencer Haywood [Abdullah Haywood]). They supported the home team, as the state’s only big-league franchise then, by “[berating] refs for the most obvious calls, blaring horns, and showering the court with garbage.” [2] 

Paradoxically, the Atlanta franchise (under new management), still cheap under most circumstances, gladly shelled out more than $2 million for the rights to LSU Tigers’ legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich in 1970 to attract white fans in the area. Unfortunately, the Hawks could only afford to play in an old-fashioned collegiate field house laid over concrete.” [2] Silas, an established force, had been traded to Phoenix (1969) for a nondescript (non-melanated) player named Gary Gregor. This supported the narrative. According to Phoenix management, the Hawks were hellbent on “lightening up” their roster. 

Silas became an NBA legend; Gregor lasted one season in ATL. 

Phoenix was an up-and-coming expansion franchise. The grizzled power forward was not only the voice of reason; he would provide glimpses of tough love in leadership. No one (including future Hall of Famers), if not performing up to speed, was exempt: to Connie Hawkins (“You played a f***ed up game, man!”, “Change your clothes, [look the part] you’re the ‘face’ of the franchise.”, “Be on time ‘Hawk’!”), to the shot-happy and still maturing Gail Goodrich (“He was the captain, but he didn’t lead or take charge. He was just given the title.”, “Pass the ball ‘Goody,’ you’re the ‘quarterback’”). [2] Both were all-stars. They fell in line without retort. 

Despite some early season struggles, Silas was a requisite component of a mid-to-late season surge and team coalescence that not only put the second-year team in the playoffs but gave them a commanding 3-1 lead and a near-upset of the defending Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers. Silas averaged 16.1 points and 15.9 rebounds during the seven-game series. Not known for his vertical leap, Silas (much like Unseld) would tell anyone that rebounding was all about positioning, angles and desire

QUIET AS IT’S KEPT 

In Boston, ethical culture, conducive to winning, was seemingly invariable. However, after the retirement of the iconic Bill Russell (1969), management slowly refurbished the franchise. Silas, by this juncture an all-star power forward, was coveted by the Celtics. In 1972, they acquired his services to help alleviate some of the burdens of a big, budding youngster named Dave Cowens. The strategy worked as Cowens became the league MVP (‘73), and the Celtics won two titles (‘74, ‘76) in three years. Even during the regular seasons in which they did not win the title (‘73, ‘75), Boston was an absolute buzzsaw, winning 68 and 60 games, respectively. Still, the elder statesman was a guru off the court. His teammates included many eventual Hall of Famers: Cowens, JoJo White, John Havlicek, Charlie Scott, Paul Westphal and Don Nelson. 

Silas was again the highly-revered workhorse, the integral segment of a winning franchise. How gangsta was the Oak-town native? During the offseason in 1973, college all-stars prepped for international competition. En route, they would scrimmage the Celtics. Before the tip-off, a 6 foot 9-inch foe, originally from the rougher side of Pittsburgh, lined up beside him and offered a verbal greeting. Silas mumbled something inaudible and then, as the ball was in the air, caught the youngster flush with a vicious elbow to the head, knocking him out cold! That player–inspired by Silas–would later become one of the meanest competitors to ever step on an NBA court. His name was Maurice Lucas. 

Titles notwithstanding, “Father Time” and a contract dispute curtailed his tenure in “Beantown.” Despite becoming the unquestioned backbone of the Celtics franchise, Silas landed in Denver. Boston Celtics teammate John “Hondo” Havlicek summed up the importance of Paul Silas: “A lot of people recognize players by points and statistics. You can’t do that with Paul. Statistics do not list the picks he sets, the times he keeps the ball alive, his awareness, and his defense. When he left Boston, he left a big hole in the Celtics. They had no one to replace him and do the things Silas did.” [3] 

As anticipated, Silas proved very popular with several of his teammates, as he was with most of the league’s players (he became president of the National Basketball Players Association). The young members of the squad looked up to him, and there were reports that Larry Brown, the coach, was jealous of Paul and felt threatened by him. To this day, Larry Brown denies this. [3] 

“Denver was no place for me,” said Silas. “There was too much of them being the big shots of the ABA, and it caused a lot of conflicts. My contract had a clause that I could only be traded to the Knicks or the Lakers. But when the opportunity came to go to Seattle, I just got away from the ABA‐oriented Nuggets. They didn’t want me, and I didn’t want them.” [3] 

Feeling abandoned by Boston and after spending what he considered a “useless” season in Denver, Paul strongly considered retiring. Lenny Wilkens, with an assist from Silas’ wife Carolyn, convinced him otherwise. 

Wilkens, his former St. Louis teammate and coach of the young up-and-coming Seattle Supersonics, needed a veteran presence on the roster. “He has helped to steady Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson. They are talented, if sometimes flaky guards. Silas’ presence manifests most in the play of Seattle’s big young men, Lonnie Shelton and Jack Sikma. Silas helped Shelton cut down on excessive fouling and put them [both] through a definitive course on rebounding. [When Sikma] moved from forward to center, Silas gave the youngster his well-researched “book” on how to play defense against various centers.” [4]

“He has been the heart and soul of this team,” says Marvin Webster, the 7’1” Sonic center, who arrived with Silas and Willie Wise last May in a trade that sent Tom Burleson, Bob Wilkerson, and a draft choice to Denver. “Our fans know number 35, always battling for rebounds on both ends of the court, but that’s only half the story. [We look up to Paul] at practices, in locker rooms, planes and restaurants. He has become our teacher, our confidant, our inspiration.” [4] 

The result was another NBA Championship–Slias’ third–in 1979. 

Cotton Fitzsimmons, who coached him for two seasons at Phoenix, described him as “an athlete of rare intelligence, intestinal fortitude, and a sense of purpose.”[4] Paul would become head coach of the San Diego Clippers and later the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers (LeBron James’ first professional coach), and Charlotte Bobcats. His son–Stephen Silas–is the current head coach of the Houston Rockets. 

Genteel but authoritative, this Oakland native made his presence known at every locale while keeping order, exhorting and encouraging others. You would miss him if you blinked during his old highlights or riveted only on dunks and long-range jumpers. Nearly every championship team necessitates an unequivocal jefe, an esteemed behemoth capable of being a steely, physical, yet unselfish, highbrowed presence: Wes Unseld, Wayne Embry, Jim Chones, Byron Beck, Otis Thorpe, Luke Jackson, Satch Sanders, Clifford Ray, “Mr. Mean” Larry Smith, Udonis Haslem. Someone inclined to do the dirty work, unconcerned with point totals, whose value doesn’t always materialize in boxscores, and who provides unyielding stability. 

Silas was no statistical wallflower. In his sixteen-year career, he collected over 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. The veteran was an All-Star (twice) and a five-time selection to the NBA All-Defensive Team. As a coach, he was fair but demanding. Some of his fundamental tenets: play hard at all times, no on-court fraternization, and the use of the “N-word” was strictly prohibited. 

Paul Silas answered the bell 24/7. His legend would be even more illustrious if social media existed in his day. Still, he was in the vanguard of social change and protecting the rights of his brethren, and he also had a multi-generational impact. Those who have become conversant with the game’s chronology know that every team needs one like him. 

The human race needs more like him. 

REST IN POWER, Mr. Paul Silas 

Words by Dr. Eric Hawkins (“Dr. Hawk”) 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

(1) Tamasik, Mark. “Board Game: Paul Silas Made Right Moves With Hawks.” RetroSimba. (Retrosimbo.com). December 28, 2022 

(2) Wolf, David. “Foul.” Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. New York (1972) pp. 288, 291, 299, 325 (3) Goldaper, Sam. “Paul Silas: Spirit Of The Sonics.” The New York Times. May 22, 1978

(4) Papanek, John. “Big Daddy Shows The Kids.” Sports Illustrated. May 28, 1979

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