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Thursday, July 09, 2009

James "Captain Late" Silas Commanded Respect in the Clutch

This article was originally published in three parts at Suite101.com on February 28, 2005, March 8, 2005 and March 17, 2005.

Before Tim Duncan made bank shots with the regularity of a metronome, before David Robinson ran the floor like a gazelle and before George "Iceman" Gervin finger rolled his way to four scoring titles, the San Antonio Spurs were led by an amazingly skilled 6-2 dynamo who earned the nickname "Captain Late." His paycheck read "James Silas" but Spurs' broadcaster Terry Stembridge tagged him with a nickname worthy of a superhero after Silas produced several electrifying 20-point fourth quarter performances.

Bobby "Slick" Leonard coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles. He also was the captain for the 1953 NCAA champion Indiana Hoosiers before enjoying a seven year NBA career during which he competed with and against legends such as Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Jerry West. He does not mince words when speaking about Silas' exploits: "Jimmy Silas really should be in the Hall of Fame. I liken Jimmy Silas a lot to Sam Jones in Boston. We had to double team Jimmy Silas between the three point line and the top of the key, trying to get it (the ball) away from him. I mean this guy was a monster. He had the stop and pop jumpers. He was strong, could play defense, pass—I mean, this guy was a great, great basketball player. All you ever hear people talk about are the great players in the NBA. Well, I would put this guy up against any of them."

In the 1974 ABA playoffs, Silas and the Spurs extended the defending champion Pacers to seven games. The teams met again in the 1975 playoffs, with the Pacers advancing after a hard fought six game series. The Pacers double teamed Silas even though he was playing alongside future Hall of Famer and Top 50 selection Gervin. Leonard says, "He was that dangerous. If you go down there (to San Antonio), when they left Hemisfair and went into the Alamodome, you see the two players up there in great big pictures across that backdrop—George Gervin and Jimmy Silas." Despite the extra defensive attention, in the 1975 playoffs Silas averaged 18.8 ppg and led the ABA in postseason assists (10.0 apg).

Told that Leonard considers him the most underrated guard in ABA history, Silas offers a direct reply: "I feel like that, too." He adds, "I always respected Indiana because Indiana was the team to beat in the ABA at that time. They had some supreme players—Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, Freddie Lewis, Don Buse and on and on. That was a great team, a team that you had to get up for. It was just something that I loved--I loved the game so much and I really valued my play against teams that I thought were good. Indiana was a team that you had to play well against to beat them."

Bob Bass, two-time NBA Executive of the Year, coached the Spurs at that time: "They doubled him to get the ball out of his hands, no question about it. That was not done a lot. Everybody doubles nowadays. He was the guy that we always went to late in the game, even though we had Gervin. We went to Silas late because he was such a great free throw shooter. He was one of the guys who could back you down. Like Oscar Robertson backed people down, he'd back you down, and if you came to double, we had the floor spaced well enough all along the baseline that he could make the play, make the pass or make the shot and get fouled. He was just a terrific guy at the end of games."

"Captain Late" did his damage close to the basket. Bass says, "He reminds me of Baron Davis. Not the way that they play, but the way that they’re built. Baron Davis is built just like he was, about 6-3, and real physical, real strong. Silas' release on his jump shot was real high above his head. You couldn't get to it. He would back you down around 12, 14 feet and shoot a little fall away that was nearly impossible to guard if you didn’t double him."

Unaware of Bass' comparison, Silas offers this scouting report: "Take Sam Cassell and combine him with Baron Davis--the strength and quickness of Davis combined with Sam's ability to get off any kind of shot. I really think that those two guys are closer to the way I played than anybody else that I’ve seen play in the league." Silas adds this about the "Captain Late" title: "I felt that my game was good for 48 minutes or however long I was on the floor, so I took offense at first, because I thought that it meant that I was only deadly at the end of the game. But it fit what I was about and I came to love it."

Silas' numbers steadily increased during his ABA career, from 13.7 ppg and 3.1 apg in 1972-73 as a rookie with the Dallas Chaparrals (as the Spurs were known before moving to San Antonio) to 15.7 ppg and 3.8 apg in 1973-74 to 19.3 ppg and 4.9 apg in 1974-75. He consistently delivered in late game situations; even if the original intention was not to go in Silas' direction, the ball often ended up there. Bass says, "I remember calling a play and Gervin had a bad mismatch, like he did most of the time because he was so big for a guard. I was going to go to Gervin at the end of the game, but he said, 'Give the ball to Jimmy Si and he’ll get it done.' For a guy of that stature, a guy as good a player as Gervin was, to say that, you can imagine what kind of respect James Silas had with our team."

In the 1975-76 season "Captain Late" ranked sixth in the ABA in scoring (23.8 ppg), fourth in field goal percentage (.519), fourth in free throw percentage (.872), fifth in assists (5.4 apg), fifth in minutes played (3112) and ninth in steals (1.8 spg). He made the All-ABA First Team ahead of Gervin (who averaged 21.8 ppg and 2.2 apg) and only an otherworldly season from another basketball superhero, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, kept him from winning MVP honors. Erving's Nets and Silas' Spurs met in the ABA playoffs and Silas' tremendous season came to a sudden, disappointing end in the first game of the series; he broke his ankle by landing on the foot of Nets' guard Brian Taylor after shooting a jump shot. The Nets beat the Spurs and went on to claim the last ABA championship. That summer the NBA and ABA merged and the Spurs were one of four ABA survivors in the new 22 team league. It seemed that Silas would at last get the chance to showcase his skills on a large national stage.

Silas completely recovered from his broken ankle in time for the 1976 preseason. The Spurs seemed poised to be a contender in the merged league but their title chances were dealt a crushing blow when Silas suffered a serious cartilage tear in his knee when he collided with the Kansas City Kings' Bill Robinzine during a preseason game. Silas recalls, "Really, it was supposed to be plain and simple. They went in there and operated and evidently it wasn't right (the first time) and they had to go in there again. Back then we didn't have the workout facilities and the types of things that you can do today, but I'm not mad about it. Back then it took a lot longer to come back and play. It took at least a year and a half out of my career."

At that time it was thought that a lot of rest was necessary after knee surgery. New York Knicks' All-Star forward Bernard King, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in 1985, was one of the first athletes to pursue an extremely aggressive rehabilitation program quickly after surgery. Silas reflected on this: "I feel like if I would have known then the things that I know now, I would have worked that thing relentlessly. I was always limited and told the things that I should do and the things that I shouldn't do. So I just followed the instructions of the medical people. I really liked Bernard King's career and how he was told that he would never play again and then I saw tapes about how hard he was working. I thought, 'Wow, if I had done that, I could have come back a lot faster.'"

Silas played 3000-plus minutes in each of the three previous seasons, but logged only 667 minutes while participating in 59 of 164 regular season games in 1976-77 and 1977-78. He would never again play more than 2300 minutes in a season. Bob Bass describes how the injury changed Silas' game: "He just wasn't as explosive. (Before the injury) he could really elevate when he penetrated. When he drove to the basket he could take a hit and finish the shot as well as anybody I've ever seen--maybe the best I've ever seen. You could hit him and he was so strong and could elevate so high that he could still finish the shot. He was a great free throw shooter. It's amazing—George Gervin led the NBA in scoring four times, but he never got to the free throw line as much you'd think he would. He had all of these tricks; he’d move under you or over you. But James Silas could draw a foul as well as anybody who ever played."

After the merger, Bass left the Spurs' bench for a front office position with the team. Denver Nuggets' assistant coach Doug Moe became the Spurs' head coach. He laments that he only got to see Silas at full strength as an opponent: "My recollections of when he was really great are from before he got hurt, when he was playing against us. He was absolutely the best—the ultimate guy at the end of the game. He was just terrific. Unfortunately, he hurt his knee and was never quite the same—still a great player, but there is no telling how great he would have been had he not gotten hurt. People really didn't get to know the real Silas in the NBA. That is a shame. He really was 'Captain Late' and he was the best."

In 1978-79 Silas was healthy enough to play a full season. The Spurs started out 14-14 with Silas coming off the bench, but got a big boost when "Captain Late" rejoined the starting lineup and went 34-20 the rest of the way, winning the Central Division title with the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Silas averaged 16.0 ppg and 3.5 apg in the regular season, increasing those numbers to 19.1 ppg and a team leading 4.7 apg in the postseason. The Spurs narrowly missed making it to the NBA Finals, losing to the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Silas says, "I felt that we could beat those guys, even though they had Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and an awesome team. We had them down three games to one. I think that the turning point was that Washington got really physical and they had the bodies to do it. We really weren't a physical team. For some reason our guys were really, really manhandled and we never could overcome what they were doing."

"Captain Late" had a shot to tie the seventh game at the end of regulation, but did not connect. He thinks that he should have been awarded two free throws: "On the last shot, if you ever see that tape I know—and Elvin Hayes knows—that I was fouled on that shot. I jumped and he jumped and came into my body, but nothing was called. I knew when I saw him running at me that he was out of control and off balance and I knew that I could draw the contact and I did, but there was no call. I got the hit that I wanted, got the shot off, but nothing was called."

Silas' numbers improved to 17.7 ppg and 4.5 apg in 1979-80, his second full season back from the knee injury—but the Spurs slipped to 41-41 and lost two games to one in a first round mini-series versus the Houston Rockets. In 1980-81 the NBA added an expansion team in Dallas and shifted some teams to different divisions. The Spurs moved from the Eastern Conference's Central Division to the Western Conference's Midwest Division. The Spurs also hired a new coach, Stan Albeck. Silas averaged 17.7 ppg and 3.8 apg in 1980-81 and the Spurs bounced back to a 52-30 record, claiming the Midwest Division title—but Houston spoiled the Spurs' outstanding season by winning game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals in San Antonio, 110-105.

The Spurs made significant roster changes after this heartbreaking loss, including a trade that sent Silas to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Silas played one season for the Cavaliers before retiring with 10-year professional averages of 16.1 ppg and 3.8 apg; he shot .495 from the field and .855 from the free throw line. On April 15, 1983 James Silas was selected to the Spurs' All-Decade Team, along with George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Mike Mitchell and Mark Olberding. The Spurs retired Silas' number 13 on February 28, 1984. He was the first Spur and second Texas pro basketball player to have his number retired (the Houston Rockets retired Rudy Tomjanovich's number 45 on Jan. 28, 1982).

James Silas developed his game through careful observation of moves and techniques used by other players: "I looked at guys who were able to penetrate, take the lick and get the shot off. During pickup games I liked to play around the basket and I never shied away from contact. At 6-2, I could touch the top of the square where you bank your shot on the backboard. So I was a great leaper and I was just a strong guy. I knew that free throws were the only free shots in the game, so I kind of tried to master how to put a guy at my mercy and make him touch me in ways that if we were both moving (I would draw a foul and) most of the time I felt like I could get the shot off."

Silas disagrees with the approach that many current players take on offense: "I always felt—and what guys need to understand today—you don't take the shot that people give you. You take the shot that you want. I was good at being able to go where I wanted to go on the floor and take the shot that I wanted, not the shot that the defensive player expected me to take. Today a defender could give a guy a shot and if the person thinks it's a good shot, he'll take it, but I didn’t like that. If you give me a shot, even if I'm comfortable with it, I'm still going to go where I want to go to take the shot." When it is suggested to Silas that the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, which fired a torrent of errant jump shots in Athens, could profit by viewing the game in that fashion, he laughs and replies, "You got that right."

The Spurs built a lot of their offense around Silas' ability to break down opposing defenses, particularly in late game situations: "I was real fortunate to have coaches like Bob Bass and Doug Moe who really saw the ability that I had. I don't know if Bob Bass was the first guy to come up with this play, but it was called a 1-4 play. The other four guys lined up on the baseline in the positions that they were good at and I went to work out front. I went to work from the top of the circle to wherever I wanted to go to get whatever shot was best for me. If I was double teamed I could always find the open guy. It was an almost unstoppable play that Bob and Doug let me run when the game was on the line or for the last second shot at the end of a quarter."

Even a player as gifted as Silas has to make an adjustment when he goes from college to the pros. Joe Hamilton remembers when Silas first showed up in training camp with the Dallas Chaparrals (as the Spurs were known before moving to San Antonio): "Although he was running guard with me, I just had confidence in my ability, so it (competition for playing time) didn't matter because it was all about being together. I was trying to show him the ropes on what he had to do. He already had the ability. One good example is dribbling—you had smaller guys (in the ABA) from Billy Keller to Billy Shepherd to myself who would smack down on the ball when you would go up for the shot. I taught him (Silas) that once he got the ball in the air there was nothing we (smaller guards) could do." In other words, Hamilton—who is 5-10-- and other smaller guards in the league could not block Silas' shot once he got the ball over his shoulders, but they could strip the ball from him down low if he left the ball unprotected in front of his body before he elevated to take the shot.

At the "ABA Ol' School Reunion," which was held in Denver to coincide with NBA All-Star Weekend, Silas and Hamilton reminisced about their time as teammates and Silas thanked Hamilton for helping him as a rookie. Hamilton adds, "James Silas and I would go one-on-one (after practice)—and I'm talking about banging--but when it was over, when the game was over, we'd go drink a cold Pepsi and talk about it. That's where the togetherness was. That's the thing, even today, here we are 30 years later, and he's saying, 'Joe taught me that.' It makes me feel good."

The close knit feeling among the ABA players makes it even more hurtful that the NBA often acts like the ABA never existed. Silas says, "I feel like this: when you look at the Spurs and how they do the statistics and the history of the franchise, when I scored my 10,000th point they gave me a ball to recognize that I had scored 10,000 points for this franchise. If the franchise still exists, I don't see how they can not acknowledge it in the stats…If you look at when the leagues merged, the best players for years to come were the former ABA players. If you really just look at it, until Bird and Magic came along, the guys who were the best players came from the ABA—Moses, the Doctor and Ice were the ones carrying the league. I think that when they write in these magazines during the season they have to give it up—it has to be known what these (ABA) players did for their franchises." He concludes, "The NBA is taking full advantage of the ABA when you talk about merchandise and jerseys being sold. Yet they don't include the true background and statistics (in the record books). This is very unjust and it's very unfair. When I take my kids and my kids' kids (to a Spurs game) and we get a program, they say, 'Dad, you have a ball at home that says you scored 10,000 points just for the Spurs. Why is that not in here?'"

Who better to have the last word about Silas than his teammate, Hall of Famer George Gervin? This is what the "Iceman" said when I asked him about “Captain Late” at the ABA Reunion: "James Silas was a guy who we really went to at the end of the game. James Silas never missed free throws. They don't give him enough credit and I'm disappointed in that, but we (the ABA players) give it to him because we played with him and respect him and a lot of us idolize his play."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Billy Cunningham: The "Kangaroo Kid" has Never Forgotten his Tar Heel Roots

This article was originally published in the January 2006 issue of Tar Heel Monthly.

Billy Cunningham was known as the "Kangaroo Kid" because of his tremendous leaping ability but that nickname also aptly describes how he successfully jumped from playing to coaching to broadcasting to being an owner.

Cunningham starred at North Carolina from 1961 to 1965, a turbulent period for the Tar Heels program. He recalls, "The school was on probation and wasn't able recruit outside of the state. At that time there was segregation in North Carolina, so there were no black athletes—there were black students but no black athletes—and at the time I was there many people wanted him (Coach Dean Smith) removed. He was hung in effigy. It was not an auspicious start. People didn't accept the fact that the school was on probation and he was limited in regards to recruiting. We even had walk-ons who were starting when I was there, which you don't see very often." Despite these difficulties, when asked his fondest memory of his Tar Heel days, Cunningham replies, "Just being part of the program is probably as much of a highlight as anything."

The lessons that Dean Smith taught Cunningham not only helped him to become a Hall of Fame player and a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, they also inspired Cunningham's approach during his successful stint as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham explains, "Most importantly, that you try to treat everybody on the team the same. It didn't matter if it was the star or the guy who was the 12th man on the bench, you had feelings and concerns about everyone that was involved with your program. He was such a detail oriented coach—(focusing on) every little detail--probably coming from his mathematics background (and) that was something that carried over a great deal."

Cunningham played the key sixth man role on the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Philadelphia won a then record 68 regular season games and rolled to the championship, defeating the Boston Celtics—winners of eight straight NBA titles—along the way. Cunningham made four straight NBA All-Star Game appearances (1969-72) before leaving the 76ers to join the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73; Cunningham won the ABA MVP that year after averaging 24.1 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 6.3 apg. Carolina was led by an ex-North Carolina point guard who had recently ended his pro playing career to take his first head coaching job—none other than Hall of Famer Larry Brown. Cunningham says, "It was a unique experience because Larry and I played together at (North) Carolina and then in his first head coaching job I had the fortune of playing for him. From day one you could just see that he was made to be a coach. He was very comfortable and it was just one of the enjoyable periods of time for me in my basketball career, playing for Larry."

Cunningham rejoined the 76ers in 1974-75 but a devastating knee injury brought Cunningham's playing career to a sudden end in 1975-76. He replaced Gene Shue as head coach of the 76ers early in the 1977-78 season. Cunningham reached the 200, 300 and 400 win plateaus in fewer games than any previous NBA coach. His 1982-83 squad, led by Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Julius Erving, won the NBA championship, posting a 12-1 playoff record that would not be surpassed until the 2000-01 L.A. Lakers went 15-1. Cunningham's .698 regular season winning percentage ranks second only to Phil Jackson's .725 mark and his playoff winning percentage is the fourth best all-time (.629).

Cunningham retired from coaching in 1985. He was a commentator on CBS' NBA broadcasts before becoming one of the founding co-owners of the expansion Miami Heat in 1988-89. The Heat made it to the playoffs in the franchise's fourth year of existence, a tribute to the sound personnel decisions made by Cunningham and the team's front office. In 1994 Cunningham sold his interest in the Heat to the Arison family.

Cunningham enjoyed the Tar Heels 2005 championship run: "I said hello to the players last year. I don't even know if they know who I am. I stay in touch with Roy Williams. I spoke with him this week. I'm a huge fan of North Carolina and always root for them." He maintains his connection with the professional game through the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA): "I stay very involved with the Retired Players Association because I think that Mel Davis (CEO/Executive Director of the NBRPA) and the Board have done a great job watching out and trying to help everybody who is a retired player, offering all kinds of different things for them and trying to help in every possible way—trying to help in any way financially, with scholarships and all sorts of different things. I think we're just getting bigger and stronger as time goes on, with the help and consideration that we get from (NBA Commissioner) David Stern."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM