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30 for 30 Shorts: Our Tough Guy

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Paul Silas, NBA Lifer

Reflections on guarding Wilt Chamberlain, coaching LeBron James, and calling Michael Jordan “boss” from the player and coach whose career has spanned six decades

There is not much to see on the drive from Charlotte to the western banks of Lake Norman along North Carolina Highway 16. Around a few bends and past a couple of empty fields, a community springs up where the homes resemble castles and the lake is the backyard. Paul Silas settled here before Michael Jordan appointed him four years ago to coach the Bobcats (rechristened this year as the Hornets). Before getting the job, Silas had been attending games as a fan and built a relationship with Jordan, the team owner. “You know, you might become the coach,” Jordan once said, and Silas wrote it off as polite flattery. Until he got the job.

The appointment made sense. It’s hard to think of another NBA figure who can match Silas’s résumé, his connections, his longevity, and his influence within the league. Over a career that has spanned six decades in the NBA, Silas’s experiences have run the gamut of success and failure. As a player, he won championships with the 1974 and 1976 Boston Celtics, where he was an interior force alongside John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. He won another title with the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, where Silas served as the veteran sage on a team led by the backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. Silas was an undersize, relentless rebounder at 6-foot-7, a rugged forward who embraced his era’s physical style of play and still ranks among the league’s all-time rebounding leaders. As a coach, Silas had the misfortune of being at the helm of the 2011-12 Bobcats group that bumbled its way to an NBA-worst 7-59 record during the lockout-shortened season.

Most of the game’s one-namers  Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron  have crossed paths with Silas in one way or another. The NBA has undergone dramatic changes since Silas entered the league in 1964, and he has witnessed it all. His memories span from the time in his rookie year when St. Louis Hawks general manager Marty Blake told Silas he could sign with the Harlem Globetrotters if he wanted to hold out for a salary increase from $9,000 to $10,000, to the time Silas coached Cleveland some 40 years later and confronted a disgruntled player by calling him a “hip-hop motherfucker.”

On a recent afternoon in his Lake Norman backyard, Silas kicked back and reflected on his career. “I’m 71 and I don’t remember names that good,” he said before launching into vivid recollections of the stories and names from all corners of the NBA, past and present. He was the coach of the San Diego Clippers in 1981 when a businessman named Donald Sterling purchased the franchise. At the introductory press conference, Sterling promised to construct a winner. The Clippers were cruising to a win over Houston on opening night in 1981 when Silas noticed Sterling approaching him with 11 seconds left to play. The elated owner had dropped his coat and unbuttoned his shirt halfway down his chest. “He ran across the court and jumped in my arms,” Silas recalled. “I said, ‘What are you doing? You don’t do this.’ They gave a technical foul, but [the Rockets] couldn’t beat us anyway.”

Was that the most memorable moment of Silas’s career? No, it wasn’t even the most eventful part of his time coaching Sterling’s team.

“You’ve just got to be positive,” Silas said, distilling the wisdom he’s built over the years into a simple motto. “Players and coaches look at basketball and they don’t think it’s a business, but things happen. Whether you believe they’re right or not, things happen. And you can’t be negative. You’ve got to believe that something else is going to come about and you’re going to make it.”


All the serious players convened at West Oakland’s DeFremery Park. As a kid in the mid-1950s, Silas would watch Bill Russell play three-on-three all day. Russell, who is about nine years older than Silas, was a star for the University of San Francisco back then. “Nobody could beat him the whole day,” Silas said, “until the end, someone could beat him maybe one game when he was tired.” Silas would eventually follow in Russell’s footsteps at McClymonds High School, which Silas led to a 68-0 record in three varsity seasons. But Silas’s beginnings in basketball and in life were humble.

His family moved often during his childhood. Silas was born in Prescott, Arkansas, in 1943. They relocated to New York and Chicago before returning to Arkansas by the time Silas was 6. His father, Leon, drank often, and Silas had few meaningful interactions with the man he became accustomed to seeing at home, slumped on a couch. When Silas was about 8, his family moved to Oakland, a far more integrated place than Arkansas, and Silas found that most people there, despite racial differences, got along with one another. “I got used to having white teachers and playing with white guys,” he recalled.

When Silas took up basketball, he was already tall and lanky, but he had no idea how to play. He stayed with the sport, watching Russell at the park before he was old enough to join the games. “I wasn’t that tough at that time,” Silas said. “Players used to come at me and beat the hell out of me.” Those physical tests turned out to be crucial for Silas’s development. He learned to strike back when another player got rough with him, and before long he discovered that being the aggressor could prevent opponents from ever challenging him to begin with.

By his senior year at McClymonds, Silas was averaging more than 30 points a game and was named the best player in California. Yet despite his achievements, it hurt him that his father didn’t watch him play. “I just didn’t understand why he wouldn’t come to games,” Silas said. Still, Silas wanted his father to be proud of him, so he let Leon decide where he’d go to college. Leon, who worked as a train porter and often passed through Omaha, Nebraska, instructed his son to attend Creighton.

Silas starred as soon as he got on the court for his sophomore season (it was still customary in the early 1960s for recruits to sit out their freshman year). He amassed 22 points and 29 rebounds in his first game, against Colorado College (three more boards than the entire opposing team). Silas could score, but rebounding became his calling card. Iowa’s Don Nelson had not heard much about Silas before playing him. “He was the best I ever played against,” Nelson said. “He kicked my butt good.” Silas figured he had to focus on one aspect of the game to impress professional teams. He chose rebounding partly because a knee injury in college hampered his shot. “I didn’t have the power in my knees that I needed and my shot started going different,” Silas said. “I couldn’t shoot a straight shot, [so] I used to try to shoot hooks, go to the hoop.”

Silas was Creighton’s only black player his second year. He laughed while relaying a memory about an away game in Memphis. Silas climbed into the back of a taxicab with a couple of teammates. The driver didn’t look at his passengers before taking off. “Look at that darn n​-​-​-​-​- right there,” the driver said, not realizing the black man in his rearview mirror was sitting in the backseat. “He’s coming at me. That n​-​-​-​-​- shouldn’t be driving that fast.” The driver then glanced back, noticed Silas, and understood his mistake. “He just looked and turned around,” Silas recalled. “Didn’t say another word.”

In college, Silas averaged 21.6 rebounds a game. He didn’t know that representatives of the St. Louis Hawks had been scouting his games until the team selected him 10th overall in the 1964 NBA draft. St. Louis featured Bob Pettit, one of the game’s premier interior players, and Silas credited Pettit with helping him hone his talent for rebounding. Silas liked to start on the baseline, often out of bounds, before boxing out. This gave him more room to maneuver and a chance to put himself between his man and the basket; once Silas used his boulder-like hindquarters to back his man out of position, the rebound could be his. Pettit added new levels of refinement and expertise to Silas’s technique. “He was one of the guys that really taught me how to rebound offensively,” Silas said. “To turn my body and put my shoulder on a player and just hold him there and keep your hands up.”

Silas’s game translated well to the NBA. He was bulky and well suited to bang bodies near the rim. In those days, many teams lacked outside shooting, and it was common to stack the paint in an effort to limit Wilt Chamberlain. “Wilt was not a guy that would just knock you on your ass,” Silas said. “He was tough, but he wouldn’t do you in. He wouldn’t kill me because I wouldn’t play in back of him, I would play in front of him. And it really worked out and I rebounded well against him. He wouldn’t block me out hardly at all and I’d rebound offensively, but once he would catch the ball, there wasn’t nothing I could do.”

[Silas] allowed me to expand as a perimeter player because he could take care of business inside. He was a relentless offensive rebounder, [and] whoever was guarding him was busy all the way through the [possession]. Nobody was helping off him.” — Dave Cowens

Silas loved playing for the Hawks. He grew close with teammates Lenny Wilkens, Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beaty, Joe Caldwell, and others. The Hawks made the playoffs in all five of Silas’s seasons with the team, but they could never make to the Finals, falling short year after year against the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Francisco Warriors. In 1968, the Hawks moved to Atlanta. Silas played a season there before being traded to the Phoenix Suns. He played three seasons in Phoenix, where coach Cotton Fitzsimmons encouraged Silas to shoot more. “I worked on it and I got better,” Silas said. “Not really good, but better.” His scoring average jumped nearly six points to 17.5 points per game in 1971-72, his third year in Phoenix. That season, Silas made his first All-Star team.

Later that year, however, Silas was stunned to learn he had been traded to the Boston Celtics. He was comfortable in Phoenix. He had bought a home. But the Suns were forced into the deal. They had negotiated for the rights to sign guard Charlie Scott, who had been playing for the ABA’s Virginia Squires. But this only meant that the Suns had acquired Scott’s ABA rights. The Celtics, who had drafted him, still controlled Scott’s NBA rights, and Red Auerbach would send them to Phoenix only in return for Silas. “It was difficult,” Silas said. “I just didn’t want to go, so Red Auerbach started talking to me and whatnot and I just didn’t have much to say. I did not want to go.”

slias-paul-celticsDick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images

Despite Silas’s initial reluctance to start over in Boston, Auerbach remained committed to helping the big man find his comfort zone in the new city. “I’d talk to him about basketball, about this, about that, whatever,” Silas said. “It was just special. He was so smart and I began to love being there.” Russell had told Silas that living in Boston was tough for black players, but Silas settled outside the city in Needham and lived happily in the quiet neighborhood. He also learned that many Celtics fans cared more about the color of his jersey than the color of his skin. “We were a good team,” he said. “People just admired you.” The Celtics were in the midst of constructing their first post-Russell championship team with the core of Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Cowens. At the beginning of Silas’s first season in Boston, coach Tommy Heinsohn informed the All-Star big man that he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. “Paul, I know this situation here is something that you didn’t expect,” Heinsohn recalled telling Silas. “I’ll tell you this: Everybody in this town understands what the role of a sixth man is, and you are the quintessential sixth man. I guarantee you one thing  you will always be in at the end of the game when it’s most important.”

Heinsohn’s vision for Silas turned out to be a success. “By the end of the year, even though he was grousing about it at the beginning, he ended up being on the cover of Sports Illustrated for being the sixth man,” Heinsohn said. “He wasn’t a great shooter, but he was such a solid player. He could pass and rebound and defend. In an up-tempo game, he could score as well as anybody. What he did in his career is really max out what he was.”

The Celtics won 68 games in Silas’s first year with the team, but they fell to the eventual champion New York Knicks in the 1973 Eastern Conference finals. Silas found his ideal frontcourt mate in Cowens. They were both undersize, with Silas at 6-7 and Cowens just 6-9, and they shared the same relentless approach to the game. “It’s not all about personnel,” Cowens said. “It’s about people playing into a particular comfort zone and being in places where they can do what they do best. [Silas] allowed me to expand as a perimeter player because he could take care of business inside and he was a relentless offensive rebounder. Whoever was guarding him was busy all the way through the [possession]. Nobody was helping off him.” Cowens’s outside touch pulled opposing centers out to guard him on the perimeter, which left the paint open for Silas to clean up the rebounds. “Me and Dave began to just wear teams out,” Silas said. “I mean wear them out.”

Boston’s win total fell to 56 in Silas’s second season there, but even though they won fewer regular-season games than the previous year, the Celtics managed to get past the Knicks in the Eastern Conference to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals. The teams traded victories throughout the series, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s game-winning hook shot in double overtime garnering Milwaukee a pivotal win in Game 6. Before Game 7, Auerbach, Heinsohn, and retired Boston legend Bob Cousy gathered to discuss strategy going into the final game. “I can’t understand why you don’t do what everybody else does and double him,” Cousy said, referring to Abdul-Jabbar.

Decades later, Heinsohn explained how he’d hoped to have the Celtics defend Abdul-Jabbar in the series: “I believe that Kareem had a stamina problem and that he might wear down toward the end of the game. We played them one-up so we could play everybody else tight and stop worrying about Kareem.” For Game 7, however, Heinsohn decided to alter his defense, “not because I believed it was the strategy that was the most productive,” he said. “But I knew we would catch him by surprise and they wouldn’t be prepared to deal with it.”

Abdul-Jabbar still managed 26 points and 13 rebounds, but Milwaukee never came close in Game 7. “He could not get it done, man,” Silas said. “[When] we won that game, everybody was out and pouring drinks on each other, and me and Dave were sitting there just staring at each other, and we didn’t say a word. It was just wonderful, I got up and told them how great it was to be a Celtic and I never wanted to be nothing else but a Celtic.”

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The following season, Boston fell short of winning back-to-back titles, bowing out in the Eastern Conference finals to the Washington Bullets. But the Celtics found themselves in another nip-and-tuck NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns in 1976. The fifth game of that series has gone down as one of the most memorable in NBA history. With the score knotted at 95 at the end of regulation, Silas tried calling a timeout when Boston no longer possessed any. Fortunately for the Celtics, the referees failed to grant it, and Boston was spared a technical foul call that would have given Phoenix a chance to win the game at the free throw line. Instead, the game went into overtime, when several more miscues and controversies would unfold. The Celtics appeared to be on the verge of winning in double overtime after Havlicek sank a jumper at the buzzer that put Boston ahead, 111-110. The Boston Garden diehards streamed onto the court to celebrate, but officials decided that a second remained on the clock. This enraged some fans, one of whom attacked a referee while others flipped over the scorer’s table.

Phoenix guard (and member of the Celtics’ 1974 champion squad) Paul Westphal then called timeout, even though the Suns had also used all of their timeouts. White sank the technical free throw, giving Boston a two-point lead, but the play allowed Phoenix to advance the ball to half court.

“Tommy, we’ve got a foul to give, so when they throw the ball in, let’s foul them and the game’s over,’” Silas said in the huddle. Heinsohn decided against it. “And what happened?” Silas said. “They threw that ball in [and] bam.” Gar Heard sank a turnaround jumper from the top of the key and the game headed to a third overtime. “I walked off the court,” Silas said. “I was so mad.” Even though Silas fouled out late in the third extra period, Boston held on to finally win, 128-126.

Boston claimed its 13th title in the next game, an 87-80 win in Phoenix. It would be Silas’s last championship in Boston. He wanted a new contract — one that would pay him more than what Havlicek and Cowens were earning. “Red told me that he was going to pay me good money, but I got a whole lot more with Denver,” Silas said. “That was the only reason I couldn’t stay there. Years after that, I told Red I should’ve just stayed with them and won more championships.” The Celtics dealt Silas to Denver in 1976. His departure was one of the reasons Cowens chose to take a break from the game at the start of the 1976-77 season. Cowens worked at a raceway and even spent time as a taxi driver before returning. “I wasn’t excited about [Silas’s departure], because I thought we had something going on,” Cowens said. “We’d just won a championship in 76, so it’s like, why screw around with a good thing? I was a little bit upset at everybody. I was upset at Paul and I was upset at the Celtics for allowing that to happen.”

Silas’s stint in Denver was short and forgettable. In May 1977, 13 years into his NBA career, Silas was traded to Seattle with Marvin Webster and Willie Wise for Tom Burleson, Bob Wilkerson, and a draft pick. The Sonics began the season 5-17 before Lenny Wilkens left his general manager position to make himself the team’s head coach. The team was young, built around Webster, Jack Sikma, and Dennis Johnson. Silas played the role of a bridge between Wilkens, his former Hawks teammate, and the younger members of the Sonics. Silas helped straighten out Johnson, a talented yet troubled guard. “He went after Lenny Wilkens sometimes,” Silas said of Johnson. “One time, Lenny was talking to him and he looked at Lenny and started talking back to him. I pointed my finger at [Johnson] and said, ‘Don’t you ever talk to the coach like this again.’”

In San Diego, Sterling began cutting costs. “We had no practice facility,” Silas said. “He didn’t want to spend money for anybody to do any taping [on players’ ankles]. We fired the guy and then I had to do it.”

Wilkens used Silas off the bench in Seattle, a demotion that the 34-year-old big man welcomed. The Sonics finished 47-35 in 1977-78 — only fourth in the Western Conference — but rallied to make the NBA Finals, where they fell to Washington in seven games. Payback came the following season, when Seattle beat Washington in five games for the 1978-79 title. Johnson played marvelously. Silas and Lonnie Shelton took turns limiting Washington center Elvin Hayes, who shot 40 percent and scored just 14 fourth-quarter points in the series. Still, the Big E made a powerful impression on Silas. “Let me tell you,” Silas said. “He could shoot that thing so good. I would hit him. I would do whatever I could to make him stop, but he just wouldn’t stop. I would try to front him, but they would run things where he caught the ball down on the post and all he did was fade away and bank that jumper.”

Silas played one more season in Seattle. The SuperSonics won 56 games in 1979-80 but bowed out to the Lakers in the conference finals. Silas hadn’t thought much about coaching at that point, but he had enjoyed the leadership role he played in Seattle and wanted to stay involved in the sport. Silas received two offers. He could play one more season in Dallas and become an assistant the next season or be a player-coach in San Diego. Silas decided that if a head-coaching job was being offered, he needed to take it, so he accepted the Clippers job. He had no idea when another such opportunity would come along.

silas-paul-davis-baron-charlotte-hornetsSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

The league had undergone a near-complete transformation by the time Silas started coaching the Clippers in 1980. Professional basketball was still seen as a struggling sport that had trouble filling arenas and attracting large television audiences. But Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had already begun changing the face of NBA basketball. “Before them, you had a star player, but [those stars] were just a part of the team,” Silas said. “[Announcers] would not point to them and say, ‘This is Magic Johnson and the Lakers or Larry Bird and Boston. When those guys came in, the whole media aspect changed.”

In 1981, Sterling purchased the Clippers for $12.5 million. Billboards of Sterling’s face were soon plastered around San Diego County. Sterling pledged to build a winner, but following his original unsuccessful bid to move the franchise to Los Angeles, he began cutting costs. “He wanted to be the guy where everybody looked at him and he’s the man,” Silas, who coached the Clippers during Sterling’s first two years as owner, said. “It’s his club and he’s running it. I just didn’t want to be that much around [him]. If I could get up and leave, then that’s what I would do.” Sterling failed to make deferred compensation payments to players and coaches, he missed payments into the players’ pension fund, and he skimped on the franchise’s operating costs. “We had no practice facility,” Silas said. “He didn’t want to spend money for anybody to do any taping [on players’ankles]. We fired the guy and then I had to do it.” Silas once left for China on a National Basketball Players Association exhibition tour. When he returned, he found that all of his belongings from his office had been moved into a hallway. His office had been given to Patricia Simmons, a former model and Sterling companion whom the boss had hired as an assistant general manager.

“That was a trip, man,” Silas said. “She knew nothing about basketball. Then the newspaper guys started writing about her, so she started calling me into her office, trying to get me to explain what offense was, how does shooting go and dribbling and all that. I just said, ‘I can’t talk about this. I can tell you, but you’re just not going to know.’”

Sterling also refused to act when Clippers forward Joe Bryant complained that the team wasn’t flying first class, as was required by the player contracts. Bryant said the players planned to skip their next road game in Seattle if their flights were not upgraded, but Silas managed to talk him out of leading a walkout.1 Silas asked Bryant to have the team play that game against the Sonics before refusing to play further road games without flying first class. They played in Seattle and the issue was eventually resolved without forfeiting any games.

The Clippers’ best player at the time was one who seldom played. San Diego had made a splash in 1979 by acquiring Bill Walton from Portland. Walton had won a championship with the Trail Blazers in 1977, but soon thereafter foot injuries began forcing him to miss games regularly. Walton grew to mistrust the Portland medical staff, which he felt pressured him to play, and the tension between Walton and the franchise grew until the center demanded a trade. When Walton arrived in San Diego, he tried challenging his new coach. At the beginning of practice one day, Silas directed the team to shoot layups. Walton pulled up for jumpers. Silas then told the team to shoot jumpers, and Walton drove in for layups. At this point, Silas understood that Walton was testing him. He confronted Walton immediately.

“We went at it like you could not believe,” Silas said. “The players couldn’t believe that any coach would do that to him. They loved that I had done that, and me and Bill, after that, he wanted to do as well for me as he could. [But] he got hurt that year and didn’t play and he didn’t play the next year.” Another time, Walton and teammate Tom Chambers got into an argument. “Bill Walton slugged him upside the head and [Chambers] started running away,” Silas recalled. Silas talked to Chambers the next day and told him that if he saw Chambers run away from another confrontation, then he would no longer be needed on the team. “Then when Bill would come at him, he’d go right back at his ass,” Silas said. “It just changed Tom’s game.”

The Clippers fired Silas in 1983, after his third season as head coach. “I knew I was going to get fired,” he said. “We were driving [one time] and my kids were young and I stopped the car and just started crying like a baby. They always remember that.” He went 78-168 with San Diego. Silas left basketball for a couple of years. He moved to New York, where he ran a fast food restaurant and a health club. Eventually, however, Silas felt the urge to reenter the game. He joined the Nets in 1985 as an assistant coach for one season before moving to the Knicks in 1989, where he coached under Stu Jackson, John MacLeod, and eventually Pat Riley.

“Pat had a thing about me and I’m not sure exactly what it was,” Silas said. “When we would have practice, I was working with the big men, and I would see him walking my way and then he would take over for me. I didn’t really understand that. When I was working for him, I just knew I wasn’t going to keep my job.”

In 1992, Silas returned to New Jersey to serve on Chuck Daly’s staff. He then spent two more seasons as an assistant in Phoenix before heading to Charlotte in 1997, where the head coach was Silas’s former Celtics frontcourt mate, Dave Cowens. After years of working under the direction of other head coaches, Silas began to worry he would be labeled a career assistant and never receive another chance to run his own team. “For about 10 years, I couldn’t get a head job. I felt that eventually I would get something, but it was hard. I interviewed a lot. I interviewed for the job in Sacramento and didn’t get that. I interviewed for Seattle, Atlanta. I just couldn’t get a [head-coaching] job.”

silas-paul-ref-coachingAP Photo/Bob Leverone

It took an unexpected turn of events for Silas to finally land another head-coaching gig. After the Hornets lost 11 of their first 15 games in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, Cowens suddenly decided to quit. His trademark passion had vanished, not unlike what had happened in Boston after Silas left for Denver. “It shocked us,” said David Wesley, a Hornets guard from 1997 to 2004. “No one saw that coming. You could see the grind on the face. We never really knew the full reason why that happened.” Whatever drove Cowens to resign, Silas was tabbed to replace him. Even though his recent assistant coaching experiences had kept Silas updated on how the NBA had changed over the years, he found that being an NBA coach in 1999 was vastly different from being one in 1983. It was no longer a coach’s league, and the players, with their multimillion-dollar contracts, held more power within franchises than the coaches did. Still, Silas’s achievements as a player gave him a pedigree that few other coaches could match, and he used the respect it earned him to be both stern and friendly with his players. Under Silas, the Hornets finished the 50-game season 22-13 after the 4-11 start.

“He understood there was a time to laugh and have fun in the grind of an 82-game season,” Wesley said. “But when it came time to work, you knew not to mess around … Baron Davis played behind me at the point guard position for the whole year [Davis’s rookie season in 1999-2000] and then that next summer, [Silas] walks up to me and he says, ‘You know the young fella is going to play, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I kind of assumed that.’ He said, ‘But I’d like to try you at the 2’ … A lot of times a coach wouldn’t give you that opportunity, but he wanted me on the floor and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

On January 12, 2000, Charlotte guard Bobby Phills lost control of his Porsche and slid into oncoming traffic. The crash killed him instantly. He was 30 years old. Wesley, who was driving on the same road at the time of the accident, would later be convicted of reckless driving. Wesley was acquitted of charges that the two had been racing. The crash occurred less than a mile from Charlotte Coliseum. Within minutes, Silas and most of the team had gathered at the scene of the accident.

Earlier that day, Silas had been upset with the team over some bit of poor execution, the details of which he has long forgotten. To teach them a lesson, he held the players for hours longer than they expected that day, forcing them to review video over and over again. Phills approached Silas after the session. “Paul, we can’t do this,” Silas remembers Phills saying. “I said, ‘Bobby, you’re right. I’m sorry.’ And that’s when they went out and they started driving and he got killed. I even think about it today when I drive in that area down there. I just think about him.”

It was Phills who, shortly after Silas had been given the interim job, asked Silas if he wanted to be Charlotte’s permanent coach. Silas answered yes, and Phills assured him, “OK, you’re going to have it.”

Silas allowed his players to grieve for Phills before nudging them to a 49-33 record and into the playoffs. “It hit us all hard, maybe in different ways, but it hit us hard,” Wesley said. “We got together through it with Paul Silas as a team.”

Silas coached the Hornets until 2003, piloting the franchise through its move to New Orleans. He was fired after leading the team to a strong 47-35 record, but then falling to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. Silas laughed when he recalled how he found out about the firing. Reporters had arrived at his door to ask about it, and Silas simply walked next door to team owner George Shinn’s house. “You don’t want to kick my ass, do you?” Shinn asked, according to Silas. “I grabbed him and said, ‘George, you gave me nothing but a great career. I love you man.’ We became buddies after that, but he thought we were going to go at it.”

silas-paul-james-lebron-cavaliersDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

This time, Silas was not out of a job for long. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who had won the first pick in the 2003 draft and planned to select LeBron James, hired Silas to be the first head coach of the King James era. Silas’s reputation for toughness and leadership made him the right man to guide the early portion of James’s career. “I saw him handling the ball and he learned how to play really, really well and learned my system, so I made him my point forward,” Silas said. “But we had a lot of players that did not like him that much because the media would talk about him, how great he was going to be.” One practice, Silas noticed James’s mood seemed down. It was routine for Silas’s Cavs to shoot 100 free throws before every practice, and James was refusing to shoot. Silas called the star rookie to his office. From his days with the Celtics and Sonics, Silas knew that respect among players had to be earned. If James was to become a leader on this team, he needed to prove it. The older players wouldn’t follow him just because of his talent.

“You’ve got to change,” Silas told him. “What they’re saying means nothing to you. You’re going to be one of the best players ever.

“He changed,” Silas said, noting how James embraced his leadership role on the team. “He changed his attitude and then we got a chance to trade Ricky [Davis] and those guys.”

The Cavaliers did not make the playoffs in James’s first season. They were on track to make it the following year, starting out 21-12 through the first two months of the season, but the atmosphere changed when Dan Gilbert purchased the team in January 2005. Like many new NBA owners, Gilbert wanted to put his stamp on the organization. “He had a partner, and the partner said, ‘How long do you want to be here?’” Silas recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be here as long as I can.’ [Then] I went home and told [my wife], ‘We’re not going to be here for long.’” Gilbert would sometimes have notes delivered to Silas on the bench during games. “It was about what he felt the players should be doing,” Silas said. “Not X’s and O’s so much, [but] wanting to know how I felt about situations. I can’t remember exactly what the notes were about. I would just go see him or write him back and let him know what he wanted to know.”

After the Cavs struggled through a 3-9 stretch in February and March, Gilbert fired Silas with 18 games left in the 2004-05 season. The Cavs were four games over .500 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. Assistant coach Brendan Malone was elevated to interim head coach, and the Cavaliers finished 8-10 and fell out of playoff contention. “If I had kept that job, we would have made the playoffs,” Silas said. “I think that’s the one reason they wanted to get rid of me, because if we had made the playoffs, it would have been tough for them to let me go.”

Michael Jordan came after Silas next. The Bobcats brought Silas back to Charlotte following Larry Brown’s resignation in the middle of the 2010-11 season. When Silas took over, the Bobcats were 9-19. They started out 6-2 under Silas, then fell back to playing slightly better than .500 ball. By then, the Bobcats had grown tired of keeping pace on the NBA’s infamous “treadmill of mediocrity.” They had been good enough to sneak into the playoffs (and get swept in the first round) the previous season, but heading into the February 2011 trade deadline, Charlotte was 22-30 and unlikely to rally for a second consecutive playoff berth. The team decided to rebuild, trading Gerald Wallace near the 2011 deadline and then shipping Stephen Jackson to Milwaukee the following summer. The deals netted Charlotte mostly draft picks and salary-cap flexibility.

Silas was left with a depleted roster made up of young talents like Kemba Walker, young busts like Bismack Biyombo, and career role players. “[They] played as hard as they could, but we just didn’t have the talent that we needed,” Silas said. “The coach, he is the one that the finger is pointed at. He didn’t do a good job. But it’s just business. The people that make the decisions wanted to have a good team with very good players and they wanted a very, very good draft pick.”

Bereft of much NBA talent, the Bobcats slogged through a historically bad, lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Through it all, Silas remained as demanding and competitive as ever. He was constantly upset that Boris Diaw failed to get in shape, and like many coaches before him, Silas was bedeviled by Diaw’s penchant for passing up shots. Yahoo reported that Silas became agitated when Bobcats forward Tyrus Thomas began chatting up Celtics players during warm-ups before a late-season game in Charlotte. Silas, the report read, “lashed out at him in the losing locker room afterward. Eventually, Thomas snapped back at Silas, and the coach warned him to say no more or risk a suspension. Once Thomas stood up, Silas pushed him toward his locker stall.”

Everyone has a line. It’s just not wise to cross it with a coach who had earned the nickname Ol’ Grizzly Bear. The Bobcats let Silas go after the season. By then, Silas understood the gift and curse of being an NBA head coach: You are hired so you can be fired. Silas was just one of many to ride the Charlotte coaching carousel. The franchise has cycled through six head coaches in the past decade, and it seems to have found stability with Steve Clifford, although that may change if the Hornets, off to a 3-5 start, can’t live up to playoff expectations this season. Still, when Jordan spoke recently about the franchise’s search for a long-term leader on the sideline, he expressed confidence in Clifford.

“Unfortunately we had to go through two [coaches] to get to this point,” Jordan said. “And sometimes it’s hard trying to find the right person with the right mix for the right team and the right relationship between management and the coaching staff. I think we did a good job this time.”

It’s fair to say Silas got the short end of the stick in Charlotte, as far as “the right team” was concerned, but he remained gracious about his time with the team and he remains involved with the franchise. “It was difficult losing, but I didn’t say it was whoever’s fault,” Silas said. “I talked to Michael and he let me do some speaker engagements the last couple of years, so life is good.” Over four teams and 12 seasons, Silas ended with a career 387-488 coaching record.

“He was a lot better coach than his record, that’s for sure,” Don Nelson said. “There’s only one guy that wins it every year. There’s 29 other guys that are going to end up in a lesser position. His teams always played hard and competed. He was tough, but respected.”

silas-paul-walker-kemba-charlotte-bobcatsBrock Williams-Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

Would Silas ever coach again?

“No, I don’t want to coach anymore at all,” he said, laughing hard at the thought. “It was just too tough. Seventy-one years old and all the travel that they do? I don’t need all that.”

After 12,357 rebounds, 16 years of playing, and 12 years of head coaching, Paul Silas is done with the court. But he may have time for one last line of work in the game. A lifer is a lifer, after all: “I wouldn’t mind being in management.” 

Filed Under: NBA, Paul Silas, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Seattle SuperSonics, Lenny Wilkens, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Russell

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams