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Paul Silas, NBA 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 training profession that included presiding over LeBron James’s skilled debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers, died on Saturday at his home in 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 sturdy 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 inform him that you simply 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 12 months. “Once he was in position, you simply 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 have become a invaluable role player during a 1978-79 championship season.

Nevertheless it was with the Boston Celtics, after five years with the Hawks and three in Phoenix, that Silas enjoyed probably the most outstanding 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-foot-9 center.

Auerbach pursued Silas after he had his best overall statistical season, averaging 17.5 points and 11.9 rebounds. “The primary reason that Red wanted Silas was to cope 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 inside open for Silas to outmuscle opponents across the basket, where he also had a deft tiptoe push shot.

“Me and Dave began to simply 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 within the role made famous by his teammate John Havlicek, as the primary sub off the bench, or sixth man.

Within the 1974 playoffs, they avenged a 1973 defeat to the Knicks within the Eastern Conference finals, then outlasted the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Milwaukee Bucks within 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 best blunder,” trading Silas to the Denver Nuggets after a salary dispute. Aligned with Larry Fleisher, the game’s strongest agent and executive director of the N.B.A. Players’ Association, Silas insisted on being paid just like the Celtics’ stars — especially the team’s white stars.

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

In negotiations, Auerbach would tell players, “I’m supplying you with this, don’t you tell anyone else,” in accordance with Don Chaney, one other Black Celtic who left the team in 1975 for extra money within the rival American Basketball Association.

“Nobody ever talked until Silas arrived,” Chaney said in 1991. “He began going around asking guys, ‘What are you making?’”

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

“We’d just won a championship in ’76, so it’s like, why screw around with an excellent thing?” Cowens said within the 2014 Grantland article. “I used to be just a little bit upset at everybody. I used to be upset at Paul, and I used to be upset on the Celtics for allowing that to occur.”

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 kilos, to an eventual playing weight of 220.

“I might make him play me one-on-one,” Wilkens said. “Paul liked to eat, and I’d tell him, ‘You’ll never find a way to protect me unless you get on that food regimen,’ which he did.”

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

Silas sang along with his cousins in the college choir but spent most of his free time at West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, watching and idolizing Bill Russell, the long run 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 at school.

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

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

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

Within 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 individuals aside from the rookie phenom played for the team.

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

In 2005, when the Cavaliers lost nine of 12 games, Silas was fired, regardless that he and James had appeared to form a powerful bond, The Times reported.

“I loved Paul Silas so much — he gave me a probability to showcase my talent early,” James told The Times. “Coach was all the time upbeat, even after a loss.”

The very 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, considered one of the team’s best players, in a automobile crash that involved a teammate, David Wesley. Each were reportedly speeding of their Porsches near the team’s arena.

“The blokes have a look at me as a father figure,” Silas, then 56, said because 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 an in depth relationship along with his father, helped launch his son Stephen’s coaching profession, adding him to his Charlotte staff in 2000. Stephen Silas became head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2020.

Along with 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 fame that had earned him his job mentoring James: that he was a resilient, cool-tempered paternalistic figure.

“You may’t play this game mad — your individual 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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