REMEMBERING A BASKETBALL LEGEND: I was blessed to have long relationship with Paul Silas

By Richard Walker

One of the most significant people in my professional life died on Saturday.

Richard Walker (third from left) along with (left to right) Hornets trainer Terry Kofler, Hornets media relations director Harold Kaufman and Charlotte Observer reporter Rick Bonnell behind head coach Paul Silas in a picture shown in the May 21, 2001 edition of Sports Illustrated accompanying a story on the Hornets’ playoff run that season.

Paul Silas, who died at 79, is easily one of the most accomplished people I ever worked closely with in my long career as a sports reporter and website operator.

I was a travelling beat reporter for eight seasons covering the Charlotte Hornets in the 1990s and 2000s and have written about the franchise every year since it was born in 1988.

My first Hornets’ game was current owner Michael Jordan’s first visit to Charlotte on Dec. 23, 1988 as a Chicago Bulls’ All-Star – a thrilling 103-101 Hornets’ win on Kurt Rambis’ buzzer-beating shot in a game that started the franchise’s 371-game season sellout streak that didn’t end until Nov. 25, 1997.

Silas joined the organization as an assistant for head coach Dave Cowens in the 1996-97 season. The staff also included former Charlotte 49ers’ head coach Lee Rose.

I have to admit I was in awe of Silas, Cowens and Rose as I’d grown up a huge basketball fan and remember all three in their “glory days.”

A relationship was formed with each largely because all three were gracious with their time with me as a reporter and shared countless stories.

Perhaps because of his storytelling ability and possibly just because he enjoyed sharing, Silas filled up my notebook more than anyone else.

Whether it was telling the stories of his family’s move from rural Arkansas to Oakland, Cal., where he played for the legendary McClymonds High athletic program that also produced basketball star Bill Russell, baseball stars Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and Vada Pinson and football star Wendell Hayes, or stories about his famous music family – the R&B group Pointer Sisters are his first cousins – Silas shared many tales that had nothing to do with his professional life.

And while the Basketball Hall of Fame has made a terrific oversight (so far) in failing to recognize him, Silas was one of the best players of his era.

The NCAA record-holder for rebounds in a three-year career at Creighton, Silas seemed most proud of having met heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali during a Creighton road trip to Miami, Fla.

A 16-year NBA player for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Seattle SuperSonics, Silas was a two-time NBA All-Star, four-team NBA All-Defensive team selection and three-time NBA champion.

That career included a significant role in one of the most famous games in league history – Boston’s 128-126 triple overtime win over Phoenix in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals.

Silas’ memories of that game were extraordinary starting with self-criticism; Silas said veteran referee Richie Powers saved him from a lifetime of criticism for failing to grant a timeout he was calling (Boston was out of timeouts) late in regulation.

He also said he never quit marveling at the unconventional strategy of Suns’ guard Paul Westphal – a future NBA head coach himself – for calling a timeout his team didn’t have in hopes of forcing the third and final overtime period. Westphal knew the timeout would give Boston a free throw for a 2-point lead but also knew the Suns would get possession at midcourt for a final frantic heave – one that Garfield Heard converted – to force the third overtime period.

“To have the presence of mind to know the rules that well in that situation says a lot about Paul’s understanding of the game,” was a quote Silas game me one time in retelling the story of the game of a series that gave him a second NBA title; Boston also won in 1974 with him on the team.

Silas’ 1979 NBA title in Seattle’s win over Washington, he felt, was more impressive than his first two titles simply because Boston had won many NBA titles previously and the 1979 championship remains the only NBA title in that franchise’s history. (Silas was so proud of his Seattle roots than an annual highlight for beat writers was Silas’ invitation to us to show off his favorite seafood restaurant in town.)

Paul Silas during his Creighton University basketball career.

After his playing career ended, Silas immediately was hired as one of the first head coaches hired by infamous San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. (Silas once shared with reporters that Sterling wanted to charge his players for their game socks.)

After taking time off, Silas was an assistant for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, New York Knicks and Suns before joining Cowens’ staff in 1996.

Silas was considered a key staffer due to his help in highlighting multi-talented Anthony Mason’s game in addition to pushing Vlade Divac to be a more effective low post offensive weapon. (The Hornets’ 54-28 record in 1996-97 and 51-31 record in 1997-98 are the winningest seasons in franchise history.)

But Silas became more effective as a head coach after the roster changed following the 1998 NBA second round playoff run was ended by Jordan’s Chicago Bulls’ “Last Dance” team.

Cowens, saying he was “underpaid and underappreciated,” resigned after a 4-11 start to the lockout-shortened 1999 season in which he also was frustrated by the free agent departure of Divac, free agent acquisition of Derrick Coleman and injury/holdout of All-Star Glen Rice.

Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn and general manager Bob Bass turned to Silas to become “interim” head coach – and the change in fortunes was obvious from the start as the Hornets. After acquiring All-Star Eddie Jones and center Elden Campbell for Rice from the Los Angeles Lakers, went 22-13 the rest of the season and finished just one game out of the playoffs.

When Silas was retained, no one was surprised, but his best moments lay ahead of him – and not just on the court.

Sure, Silas guided the Hornets to three straight playoff berths and two postseason series victories, but his best work came in steering the team to the playoffs after Bobby Phills’ unexpected death in 2000 and into the postseason again in 2001 and 2002 behind All-Star Baron Davis as Shinn was looking to move out of Charlotte.

Silas dealt with his own team, heartbroken family members and reporters after Phills’ death on Jan. 12, 2000 in a car accident while racing with teammate David Wesley less than a mile from the old Charlotte Coliseum located on Tyvola Road. And his handling of Wesley, Phills’ best friend, was nothing short of amazing.

The next two years, Silas was equally effective having to answer reporters’ questions about the impending move of the team – Hornets’ co-owners Shinn and Ray Wooldridge weren’t talking publicly – and gained the respect of media nationwide.

Silas, along with Shinn and Wooldridge and the rest of the Hornets, would move to New Orleans for another playoff season before Silas was fired on May 3, 2003.

Paul Silas (left) with his son Stephen Silas on the Charlotte bench.

Silas would then work as head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers for two years – LeBron James’ first two seasons – and as an ESPN analyst before returning to this area.

He interviewed for Charlotte’s NBA head coaching job in 2007 – then-nicknamed Bobcats, the team would hire Sam Vincent – before later being named as the replacement for Larry Brown on Dec. 22, 2010. After 1 1/2 seasons as Charlotte head coach, Silas was replaced and remained with the organization in a consulting role.

In recent years, he’s seen his son Stephen Silas (an assistant to him and other with the Hornets and Bobcats) become a NBA head coach with the Houston Rockets and he and his wife Carolyn have maintained a residence in Denver, N.C., while frequently watching Hornets games at Spectrum Center.

Upon learning of his death, Jordan released the following statement from the Hornets:

“Our Hornets family mourns the passing of Paul Silas. Paul was an incredible leader and motivator who served as our head coach on two occasions. He combined the knowledge developed over nearly 40 years as an NBA player and coach with an innate understanding of how to mix discipline with his never-ending positivity. On or off the court, Paul’s enthusiastic and engaging personality was accompanied by an anecdote for every occasion. He was one of the all-time great people in our game, and he will be missed. My thoughts, and the thoughts of our entire organization, are with his wife, Carolyn; his children, Paula and Stephen; and the entire Silas family.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.