Opinion

Paul Silas, N.B.A. Defensive Star and Head Coach, Dies at 79

Paul Silas, a rebounding and defensive pillar on three N.B.A. championship teams, who went on to a coaching career that included presiding over LeBron James’s professional debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers, died on Saturday at his homein Denver, N.C., outside Charlotte. He was 79.

The cause was cardiac arrest, his daughter Paula Silas-Guy said.

Silas was known for his tactical approach to rebounding, especially on offense. A robust 6 foot 7 inch forward, he studied the arc and spin of his teammates’ shots to compensate for his lack of vertical skills.

“I used to tell him that you couldn’t slip a sheet of paper under his feet but he was still an incredible rebounder,” Lenny Wilkens, a teammate with the St. Louis Hawks when Silas entered the N.B.A. in 1964, said in an interview for this obituary earlier this year. “Once he was in position, you just couldn’t move him.”

Silas played for five N.B.A. franchises, the last of which was the Seattle SuperSonics, where he was reunited with Wilkens, who coached the team, and became a valuable role player during a 1978-79 championship season.

Silas shoots against the Houston Rockets in 1975. He enjoyed his most prominent role playing for the Celtics, where he formed a rugged frontcourt tandem with Dave Cowens.Credit…Dick Raphael/NBAE, via Getty Images

But it was with the Boston Celtics, after five years with the Hawks and three in Phoenix, that Silas enjoyed the most prominent of his 16 playing seasons. Acquired in 1972 from the Suns by the Celtics’ patriarch Red Auerbach in a trade for the negotiating rights to Charlie Scott, Silas formed a rugged frontcourt tandem with Dave Cowens, a 6-9 center.

Auerbach pursued Silas after he had his best overall statistical season, averaging 17.5 points and 11.9 rebounds. “The main reason that Red wanted Silas was to deal with Dave DeBusschere, who had been wearing them out,” said Bob Ryan, who covered the Celtics for The Boston Globe, referring to the rival Knicks’ star forward.

Cowens and Silas quickly cultivated an on-court chemistry, with Cowens’s ability to shoot from the perimeter leaving the interior open for Silas to outmuscle opponents around the basket, where he also had a deft tiptoe push shot.

“Me and Dave began to just wear teams out,” Silas told the sports digital publication Grantland in 2014. “I mean wear them out.”

Coached by Tom Heinsohn, the Celtics occasionally deployed Silas as a starter and in the role made famous by his teammate John Havlicek, as the first sub off the bench, or sixth man.

In the 1974 playoffs, they avenged a 1973 defeat to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, then outlasted the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Milwaukee Bucks in the league finals, winning the last game on the road.

With a core of Cowens, Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Silas and Scott, whose rights were reacquired by Auerbach in 1975, the Celtics also won the 1976 title, defeating Phoenix in six games.

Auerbach then made what The Globe’s Ryan called “his greatest blunder,” trading Silas to the Denver Nuggets after a salary dispute. Aligned with Larry Fleisher, the sport’s most powerful agent and executive director of the N.B.A. Players’ Association, Silas insisted on being paid like the Celtics’ stars — especially the team’s white stars.

With Fleisher’s help and some locker room sleuthing, Silas found N.B.A. team salary lists and discovered that Black players tended to be paid less than white players of similar, and sometimes inferior, ability.

In negotiations, Auerbach would tell players, “I’m giving you this, don’t you tell anyone else,” according to Don Chaney, another Black Celtic who left the team in 1975 for more money in the rival American Basketball Association.

“No one ever talked until Silas arrived,” Chaney said in 1991. “He started going around asking guys, ‘What are you making?’”

Silas’s departure triggered a late 1970s Celtics’ decline and upset Cowens enough to prompt him to take a two-month sabbatical at the start of the 1976-77 season.

“We’d just won a championship in ’76, so it’s like, why screw around with a good thing?” Cowens said in the 2014 Grantland article. “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 in 1977 playing with the Denver Nuggets.Credit…Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Silas admitted to some regret about leaving the Celtics when his playing time in Denver diminished. He welcomed the reunion with Wilkens, the star guard who in St. Louis had encouraged the young Silas to shed 30 pounds, to an eventual playing weight of 220.

“I would make him play me one-on-one,” Wilkens said. “Paul liked to eat, and I’d tell him, ‘You’ll never be able to guard me unless you get on that diet,’ which he did.”

Paul Theron Silas was born on July 12, 1943, in Prescott, Ark., and at age 8 moved to Oakland, Calif., with his parents, Leon and Clara, and two brothers. His father worked as a railroad porter. In Oakland, the family initially shared a home with Silas’s cousins, three of whom grew up to form the rhythm & blues group the Pointer Sisters.

Silas sang with his cousins in the school choir but spent most of his free time at West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, watching and idolizing Bill Russell, the future Celtics’ great, dominate the competition. At McClymonds High School, where Russell had played nearly a decade earlier, Silas led the varsity to a 68-0 record over three seasons, earning a scholarship to Creighton University. His brother, William, accompanied him to Omaha, Neb., but died of cardiac arrest while Silas was in school.

As a junior, Silas led the nation in rebounding, averaging 20.6 per game. He was the 12th pick, or third of the second round, by St. Louis in the 1964 N.B.A. draft.

After Silas’s N.B.A. playing career — during which he averaged 9.4 points and 9.9 rebounds, played in two All-Star games and was twice voted first-team All-Defense — he had a long run as an assistant and head coach.

Having come of age during the N.B.A.’s rough-and-tumble foundational era made him a logical choice in 2003 to mentor the 19-year-old LeBron James in Cleveland as James, from nearby Akron, Ohio, made the leap from high school prodigy to the pros.

In the carnival atmosphere that greeted James, Silas became a tough-love enforcer, barring James’s vast entourage from practices and notifying official sellers of Cavs merchandise that people other than the rookie phenom played for the team.

“Once LeBron sets foot out here, he’s got to come with it like everybody else,” Silas told The New York Times in 2003.

In 2005, when the Cavaliers lost nine of 12 games, Silas was fired, even though he and James had seemed to form a strong bond, The Times reported.

“I loved Paul Silas a lot — he gave me a chance to showcase my talent early,” James told The Times. “Coach was always upbeat, even after a loss.”

Silas in 1999 while coaching the Charlotte Hornets to a 49-33 record.Credit…Sporting News, via Getty Images

The best of Silas’s 12 head-coaching seasons was in 1999-2000 in Charlotte, where Silas directed the Hornets to a 49-33 record. The season was marred by the death of Bobby Phills, one of the team’s best players, in a car accident that involved a teammate, David Wesley. Both were reportedly speeding in their Porsches near the team’s arena.

“The guys look at me as a father figure,” Silas, then 56, said as the Hornets mourned Phills while moving forward with their season, which ended with a first-round playoff defeat.

Silas, who in interviews expressed regret over not having a close relationship with his father, helped launch his son Stephen’s coaching career, adding him to his Charlotte staff in 2000. Stephen Silas became head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2020.

In addition to Stephen and Paula, Silas is survived by his wife, Carolyn (Kemp) Silas, whom he married in 1966; a stepdaughter, Donna Turner, from Ms. Silas’s first marriage;three grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.

Silas embraced the reputation that had earned him his job mentoring James: that he was a resilient, cool-tempered paternalistic figure.

“You can’t play this game mad — your own game just falls apart,” Silas told The Globe’s sports columnist Leigh Montville in 1972. “I play fierce but I never play mad. There’s a difference.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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