Paul Silas, 3-time NBA champion, longtime coach, dies at 79
Basketball taught Paul Silas how to be patient.
As a player, he waited 10 years before winning his first championship. As a coach, he waited 15 years for a second chance at running a team. As a father, he waited 20 years before seeing his son get a chance to lead a franchise.
“I always tried to remain positive,” Silas said in 2013, “and I think it usually worked out.”
Silas — who touched the game as a player, coach and president of the National Basketball Players Association — died, his family announced Sunday. Silas, whose son, Stephen Silas, is coach of the Houston Rockets, was 79.
“He combined the knowledge developed over nearly 40 years as an NBA player and coach with an innate understanding of how to mix discipline with his never-ending positivity,” Charlotte Hornets chairman Michael Jordan said. “On or off the court, Paul’s enthusiastic and engaging personality was accompanied by an anecdote for every occasion. He was one of the all-time great people in our game, and he will be missed.”
Silas’ daughter, Paula Silas-Guy, told The New York Times that her father died Saturday night of cardiac arrest. The Boston Globe first reported Silas’ death.
“We mourn the passing of former NBA All-Star and head coach Paul Silas,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “Paul’s lasting contributions to the game are seen through the many players and coaches he inspired, including his son, Rockets head coach Stephen Silas. We send our deepest condolences to Paul’s family.”
Tributes began arriving quickly. Pregame moments of silence were held in New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York and Houston among other places, and Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams and Charlotte coach Steve Clifford were among those who spoke at length about Silas’ role on their careers.
“For my family, he’s a god. He’s larger than life,” Clifford said.
Paul Silas began his career as a head coach with a three-year stint leading the then-San Diego Clippers starting in 1980. After spending more than a decade as an assistant, he returned to being a head coach and spent time with the Charlotte Hornets, the New Orleans Hornets, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Charlotte Bobcats.
He took four of those teams to the playoffs, winning exactly 400 games — 387 in the regular season, 13 more in the postseason.
“Probably one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever been around,” LeBron James told Spectrum SportsNet after he and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Detroit on Sunday night. “The start of my journey in this league started with him. His command, his principles, his attention to detail, his love for family … to hear that news was very sad.”
The Rockets played host to Milwaukee on Sunday night, winning 97-92. It was not immediately clear how long Stephen Silas would be away from the team; the Rockets are having assistant coach John Lucas lead the team on an interim basis while the Silas family grieves.
“His engaging presence and huge personality inspired legions of NBA players and coaches,” the Cavaliers said of Paul Silas in a team-released statement. “We send our deepest condolences to the Silas family and everyone that loved him. Rest in power Coach!”
Stephen Silas got into the NBA world when his father was coaching in Charlotte, starting as an advance scout and eventually serving as an assistant on his father’s staff with the Hornets in 2000. It took Stephen Silas two decades to get a chance to be a head coach, that coming when Houston hired him in 2020.
“My dad, obviously, he was my No. 1 mentor, someone who I could lean on, ask questions and he asked questions of me,” Stephen Silas said in a 2021 documentary produced by the Rockets about his coaching journey. “He really valued my opinion, which was kind of weird to me, me being so young and not having much experience.”
Stephen Silas persevered for a long time before getting his big chance. He saw his father wait a long time for the job he wanted as well. Paul Silas was fired by the San Diego Clippers in 1983 and wouldn’t have a head coaching opportunity again until 1999 — coming when Dave Cowens, for whom Paul Silas was an assistant, stepped down in Charlotte after a 4-11 start to the shortened 1998-99 season.
“I stayed positive. I had a positive attitude,” Paul Silas told the Rotary Club of Charlotte while giving a speech there in 2013. “Even though I couldn’t get the job, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be negative. I’m going to be positive.’”
Eventually, Silas would take over in Cleveland. He got there in 2003, the same year the Cavaliers drafted James.
“I coached LeBron for two years, his first two years, and LeBron was unbelievable,” Paul Silas said. “At 18 years old, he knew about Bill Russell, he knew about a lot of players who came through that most players his age don’t even know. And he understood the game.”
In time, James would become a champion. It took Paul Silas a few years to get to that level as a player as well.
He was a five-time All-Defensive team selection who averaged 9.4 points and 9.9 rebounds in 16 seasons with the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix, Boston, Denver and Seattle. Silas won two titles with the Celtics — the first coming in his 10th season as a player — and claimed a third with the SuperSonics. At 36, he was then the NBA’s oldest player when he retired. And as the union president, Silas oversaw a time where rosters grew, salaries rose and benefits improved.
“Respected by all those who encountered him throughout the NBA, we are grateful for his contributions to the game across a lifetime in basketball,” the Suns said Sunday.
Paul Silas played his college basketball at Creighton, averaging 20.5 points and 21.6 rebounds in three seasons. He was voted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.
Said Bluejays coach Greg McDermott: “His illustrious career as a player and coach will be matched by few.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed.
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