Paul Silas: He Doesn’t Leave Fingerprints, 1972

[Here’s to NBA great Paul Silas and his life well lived. Since his passing two days ago, numerous news stories have appeared that summarize his prolific career as an NBA player and coach. I’ll leave it to them to get all his numbers and achievements straight (though oddly nobody seems to mention that Silas was president of the NBA Players Association when the Oscar Robertson et al. vs. NBA case was settled in the mid-1970s.)

Silas, of course, touched the lives of many wherever he played and coached in the NBA. But for me, Silas is best remembered coming off the bench in Boston in the early 1970s. “What I do is the hardest job in basketball,” he described his role in Boston. “By the time I get into the game, everybody is hot, and I’m cold. There aren’t too many guys who can do the job effectively. I’m similar to a pinch hitter in baseball. I’ve got to get things moving.” 

And Silas always did get things moving. As Red Auerbach reportedly once quipped, he could ask anybody to come off the bench and shoot a basket. Only Silas could he ask to come off the bench and get him a rebound. 

What follows is a brief tribute to Silas and his days in Boston. It’s pulled from a November 12, 1972 column written by the Boston Globe’s Leigh Montville, one of my favorite all-time sportswriters. True, the column represents just a snapshot in time. But what a special time it was then in Boston. Silas later helped the Celtics claim the 1974 NBA title, and I’ll always remember his comment on the sheer joy of the moment, “Yesterday, the mayor of Boston gave us a luncheon on the City Hall Plaza. More than 30,000  people attended. I’ve never been kissed by so many bearded men in my life.” Here’s to the memories; here’s to the great Paul Silas.]

****

You remember the scene. You’ve seen it a thousand times in every Broderick Crawford-Richard Widmark late-night slick about gangland nasties. The theater is filled, the film ends, the lights come on, the crowd leaves. One man is slumped in his chair.

“Hey fella,” some eager usher says in a falsetto as he nudges the man. “You’ve got to leave. The show’s over.”

The man falls on the floor. The usher gulps.

“G-G-G-Gosh,” he stutters. “I better call the police . . .”

And that was the way it was Wednesday night at the Garden. One minute, you had the crowd, standing under the basket. The next minute, you had the body, lying in the three-second lane.

And g-g-g-gosh, it was Rick Barry. The Golden State Warriors’ star forward no longer was able to wait for the next basketball to come falling from the sky. He was down.

Who did it? What happened? Was there a clue? You didn’t have to wait for three reels, two shootouts, and four sordid love affairs to unfold before you knew the answer.

Paul Silas simply explained.

“There was a collision,” the Celtics’ forward said mischievously. “Rick Barry collided with my elbow.”

Ah yes, Paul Silas’ elbow. As efficient as Bogie’s 38. As subtle as a click followed by a quickly unfolding nine-inch dagger. 

What has Paul Silas brought to the Boston Celtics? You could never see any better example. Paul Silas has become the Celtics’ hit man. Paul Silas has brought muscle into the operation.

“He does for us essentially the same things Dave DeBusschere did for the New York Knicks,” Celts’ captain John Havlicek said. “He’s a good defensive forward, he gets offensive rebounds, he gets defensive rebounds.

“You can’t move him. I can’t explain how he does it, but he’s like one of those runners in football you always think is off balance, but really isn’t. He has that same sort of control over his body.”

He is the banger, the thumper, the hitter. He is a lineal descendent of Jim Loscotoff, if you will, quicker and quieter. “He’s like some steel support they might put on the outside to hold up a building,” center Dave Cowens said. “If the building is going to go anywhere, it’s going to go the other way.”

He is a soft-spoken guy with a slight squint to his eyes. At 6-feet-7, 220 pounds, he obviously is a big man, but he doesn’t have that menacing offer-you-can’t-refuse look. He says he doesn’t even get mad very often. “You can’t play this game if you’re mad, your own game just falls apart,” he said. “I play fierce, but I never play mad. There’s a difference.

“All of us in the league play with a part of a comradeship. This is our living. This is what we do. It doesn’t make sense to go out and get mad. This is a job. But you can be fierce.”

Silas always has been fierce. His main problem as a pro has been finding a place where his ferocity was needed. In college, at Creighton University, he was the nation’s leading rebounder as both a junior and senior, and there wasn’t any doubt where he should be. He was a college center—and a good one.

In the pros, he had to make the transition—shaky jump shot and all—to the corner. Plus, he had to do it with a team that already had a banger-hitter in residence. “That was a problem,” Silas said. “When I get to the [St. Louis] Hawks, Bill Bridges was already there. He and I essentially are the same type of player. We didn’t complement each other well. It wasn’t until I got to Phoenix that I went to a team that needed what I had to offer.”

The stories of Silas’ Phoenix years already have been well told. The best one is how he lost 30 pounds by joining the matron-filled Weight Watchers a year ago and became a faster thumper, a man who could keep up with the fastbreak of, say, a Havlicek . . . 

“I’d been trying to lose weight for a long time,” he said. “I’d tried all kinds of diets, all kinds of pills and shots, but nothing worked. The Weight-Watchers diet was the only thing that would. I don’t follow it anymore, but I still use a lot of the principles as I watch what I eat.”

He became an All-Star, a Somebody in the NBA with a capital ‘S.’ He then became a Celtic through Red Auerbach’s machinations with the rights to Charlie Scott, another story that already has been well told. Only the length of the negotiations offended Silas.

“The rumors began—when—before last season ended that I was the guy to go to Boston, and they didn’t end till I got there when training camp was almost over,” he said. “That was a long time. It put some hardship on my wife, worrying about moving and not moving.

“But now it’s over, and I’m here. There’s pressure, sure, because before I even got here, there were stories that I was what this team needed to become a champion. I decided to just come and let what happens happen.

“It hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be—learning all the plays, learning where to be on all the fastbreaks—but I’m getting there.”

Getting there indeed. He has already been noticed. “You see the games, you can see what he gives us,” Cowens, the man most helped by Silas’ coming, says. “When he’s playing, you know he’s going to be in there contesting every rebound that’s coming off the board.

“Against a team with a big center and a big forward, a team like L.A. with Wilt Chamberlain and Happy Hairston, you know he’s going to take care of that big forward. You can say, ‘OK Wilt, I’m not going to let you get your rebounds tonight’ and never have to worry about Hairston.

“A year ago, we had John (Havlicek), Jo Jo (White), and myself. We figured two out of the three of us had to be in there for every minute of every game. Only one of us could be resting at one time.

“Now there’s a fourth guy. Now two of us can be resting at one time. That’s what he does for our depth right there.”

And, oh yes, one other thing, perhaps the most important of all. Paul Silas, it is said, is very clean. He never leaves fingerprints. He might wind up being the Celtics’ hitman for a very long time.

[Silas played a total of four seasons in Boston before shoving off to Seattle. He might have stayed longer, but, at age 33, Silas asked Boston GM Red Auerbach for a new three-year contract and a sizeable raise. Auerbach wouldn’t do it.]

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