Paul Silas: Shrewdness in Seattle, 1980

[Up next is an article on Paul Silas, winding down his long NBA career with the world-champion Seattle SuperSonics. Seattle-based writer Steve Ellis penned the piece, which appeared in Zander Hollander’s The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1980.]


A few weeks before training camp began for the St. Louis Hawks in late summer in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey were nominated for president and vice-president near the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Several hundred miles east in Indiana, a blond-haired youngster of seven was escaping the heat in a swimming hole in French Lick. 

And at the Hawks’ training camp, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound second-round draft choice out of Creighton University, was about to step into the big time, the National Basketball Association. 

In the five seasons that followed with the Hawks and 10 more with Phoenix, Boston, Denver, and Seattle—capped by last season’s NBA championship—Paul Silas would see the final flickers of Bob Pettit’s legendary career; he’d see the dominance of the great Celtic teams led by Bill Russell, his boyhood idol, before helping two Boston clubs capture championships in the 1970s; he’d see the startling improvement in individual skills and the end to dynasties; and he’d see a dramatic improvement in player benefits, which he, as a president of the NBA Players Association, had helped bring about. 

Determined to return this year in quest of a fourth championship ring after playing in every Seattle regular-season and all 17 playoff games, Silas, at age 36, will be looking forward to meeting the kid from French Lick, Larry Bird, the Celtics’ millionaire rookie out of Indiana State. 

Bird will soon be introduced to some of Silas’ philosophy. “I never help an opponent up,” Silas says. “That’s what teammates are for. They are the enemy, and we have to rally around ourselves. Bending down and helping a guy up is saying, ‘I respect you as a player,’ and it takes a little of the ferociousness out of your game. He thinks, ‘This guy has a heart, and he’s a little soft.’

“What separates the winners from the losers is your mental attitude. Except for very few, like Jabbar, we’re all on the same keel. The only thing I care about is winning and what my players feel about me. You see, winning takes care of everything. To win, you have to die to win. That’s barring nothing. It’s whatever it takes.” 

General George Patton could hardly have said it better. And like Patton, Silas recognized early that if he were to survive, he could never give an inch to an opponent. When he made the Hawks, his model was Pettit: Play 10 years and hope to be making $50,000 a season by career’s end.

Going into his 16th season, Silas is coming off a three-year contract.  He ranks second in games played, trailing only John Havlicek. He holds his own among the all-time rebounders. When explaining his long career, Silas points out that he has survived as long as he has because he specialized early, not in shooting or passing, but in rebounding and defense. He accurately foresaw that the league would always have a need for a muscular forward, who, although lacking in exceptional quickness or jumping ability, would be willing to bang the boards, build picks, and bust his behind on defense with the intensity and dedication Patton demanded from his tank commanders pushing to the Rhine.

“In order to stay in this league for any length of time, you’ve got to be excellent at something,” he said. “Rebounding was my specialty, and I just worked at it. I’ve always been a catalyst. My job was to do the things that are vital—set picks, play good defense, and hit the boards. 

“The game when I broke in was brute strength. You walked the ball up the court. You got it down deep and banged away at everybody. Today the emphasis is more on speed and quickness.”

The influx of college coaches, he said, has improved the pro game, which for many years relied on former pro players as coaches. “All you’d do in the early days was have the guard pass the ball to the forward. The guard would get it back and run a pick-and-roll with the center. That was the favorite play of all teams. With all the complicated offenses today, with the more-fluid offenses, you’re also seeing the development of better all-around players.”

While the players’ individual skills are unquestionably much improved, dedication remains a key ingredient to success in the NBA. No one exemplifies the element of concentration better than Silas working on the offensive boards. “I don’t think it can be taught that much,” he said. “You just learn a knack for it, particularly if you don’t have a special physical asset. You go by trial and error and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Seventy-five to 80 percent of rebounding comes from hard work, good position, and hustle. There’s not that many guys that work at offensive rebounding. They don’t care about it that much. But it’s a very necessary part of the game. You have it on the winning teams. We have it on our club; offensive rebounders like Lonnie Shelton and Jack Sikma. 

“You have to really want it, especially if you’re not blessed with great leaping ability or great size. The main things are blocking your man out, being in constant motion on offense so you never give the defensive man a clear shot at your body.”

Few NBA observers expected the trade which brought Silas from Denver to Seattle in May 1977, to pay the ultimate reward: an NBA title. After all, the Sonics’ prime acquisition was center Marvin Webster, with forwards Silas and Willie Wise balancing out the deal, which sent center Tommy Burleson and guard Bobby Wilkerson to the Nuggets. In fact, his last season in Denver, Silas appeared in 79 games, but he played less than 2,000 minutes for the first time since 1968-69, his last season with the Hawks. 

“Being in Denver really taught me a lot,” he said. “I was stung bad by Larry Brown. I tried to make things right, and the guy really tried against me. In Denver, I questioned my ability. 

“It was a godsend that I came to Seattle, mainly because I found within myself that I could still contribute. The team still saw I could fulfill a role, keep the machinery rolling. I felt good about playing.”

The bouquet of roses he found in Seattle contained a few thorns, however. Under Bob Hopkins, the Sonics got off to a 5-17 start in 1977 before Lenny Wilkens stepped in from his player personnel position and resurrected the team’s confidence. Wilkens and the Sonics, of course, shocked the NBA by reaching the final against Washington in 1978, then came back to beat the Bullets this past spring. Those two seasons have been quite emotional for Silas. 

“In Boston, we were almost expected to win. In this one, we were not expected to win, so I’d have to say this is the bigger thrill.”

The championship was also satisfying because Silas and his teammates were able to get themselves winning again after a mid-February meeting in Kansas City ended a slump. The club took 15 of its final 20 regular-season games and then 12 of 17 playoff games. 

Only the year before, he’d seriously considered quitting, after the team’s horrendous start. The 1977-78 campaign “was by far the toughest I’d ever been through,” primarily because the Sonics played at such an emotional high. “You have to be very business-like about the game,” he said. “Emotions let you down.”

By obtaining Silas, Wilkens acquired a player who brought “a lot of things to the team—especially intelligence and professionalism. He is passing a lot of intelligence on to the younger players. One of his greatest strengths is intangibles, the little things that don’t show up in the box score. It seems like night in and night out he made the big play for us.”

Certainly, he has helped the progress of Sikma and Shelton, the latter coming to Seattle as compensation when the Knicks signed Webster as a free agent. “He knows a lot of little tricks,” Shelton said. “He knows how to use his height well and how to keep you off balance. It’s not easy in practice against him.”

Tom Meschery, the former NBA forward who closed out his career with Seattle as an original Sonic, said: “A lot of the stuff they say about Paul—about grabbing uniforms and stepping on toes, being a devious player—is totally exaggerated. He has an instinct for getting the ball on the offensive boards. He’s not a trickster. He’s hard-nosed, strong, powerful.”

At that February team meeting, Wilkens reminded the Sonics of their roles. He accentuated the positive, just as he had when the club turned around in late 1977. Silas had heard that melody before, though with slightly different lyrics in Boston. “Everyone on the team made a contribution, even if it was a small one. They tried to get everyone involved so they’d feel a part of the team.”

Silas played in the legendary triple-overtime victory against Phoenix in the 1976 playoffs. He scored 17 points, but fouled out before the Celtics won, 128-126. But that summer, he was gone—to Denver as part of a three-way deal involving the Detroit Pistons. Many NBA observers have drawn a correlation with that trade and the Celtics’ demise. 

While playing with the Celtics enabled Silas, as it turned out, to savor his first drop of championship champagne, he was unhappy to have to leave Phoenix in 1972 for Charlie Scott. He’d just been named the club’s Most Valuable Player, and he purchased a home there. And in the Valley of the Sun, he’d shown the league his brilliance as a rebounder and as a defender. 

“I was unfortunate enough to play behind Bill Bridges in St. Louis,” he said. “He played the same style of game. In those days, you couldn’t show it unless you were a starter. When I went to Phoenix, everybody began to see what I could do. Basketball people had known, but not everybody.”

In his three seasons in Phoenix, he played more than 2,800 minutes a campaign, highest of his career. In 1971-72 when the Suns finished 16 games over .500 with 49 wins (but failed to make the playoffs behind Milwaukee and Chicago), he averaged 17.5 points a game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 77 percent from the line. 

That season marked his second of three appearances on the NBA All-Defensive second team. In 1974-75  and 1975-76, he moved up to the first squad. Yet he never made the All-NBA team selected by the media. At the peak of his career, he was overshadowed by Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Rick Barry, and Spencer Haywood. 

When it comes to winning championship rings, however, Silas is tops among active players with three. In fact, in the regular season, he has played on only three losing teams, and the poorest of those—the 1965-66 Hawks, which finished eight games under .500, were without his services for 36 games because he suffered a foot injury while away in the Army Reserves. The 1966-67 Hawks finished three games under, and the 1969-70 Suns four games under. The best regular-season team, of course, was the 1972-73 Celtics, 68-14. 

Through the years, Silas was constantly learning his trade—even with the Hawks when he wasn’t getting all that many minutes. “He was always asking questions,” Wilkens recalled of their early seasons together as teammates in St. Louis. “After he’d been traded and I’d been traded, I’d see him in Phoenix and later Boston. He’d always ask questions. He always wanted to know what somebody always thought about other players.”

Despite his insight into the game, which he began playing as a youngster in Oakland (he was born in Prescott, Ariz., July 12, 1943), he concluded that coaching was for others. “It’s really a tough job,” he said. “It’s the toughest job I’ve ever come in contact with.”

So, when he decides to hang up his jersey and jock, basketball will be behind him. He hopes to pursue, perhaps, a career in marketing. He holds a business degree from Creighton, a school which he selected because of some connections his father had and because his older brother William, a veteran, would be able to enroll there on an academic scholarship. William died of a heart attack at 25. 

Poor grades prevented Silas from following Bill Russell out of McClymonds High School to the University of San Francisco. Silas, who outpolled Russell as the East Bay’s greatest prep from 1945 to 1970, placed the great Celtic center on his all-time NBA team along with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Pettit, and Elgin Baylor. 

Realistic about career accolades, he says he’ll shoot for Havlicek’s career mark of 1,270 games played, which would require him to play more than one more complete season—but only if he “could contribute.”

Another training camp rolls around. Silas, a “step” grandfather because of his wife’s previous marriage, has outlasted three American presidents and may outlast a fourth. Inevitably, a younger, quicker, stronger ballplayer will take his place. The Larry Birds, Magic Johnsons, and James Baileys eye his spot on the firing line, just as he once watched Bob Pettit do it from the baseline just one more time. 

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