Paul Silas, a member of three NBA championship teams as a player and LeBron James’ first coach in the league, has died, his family announced Sunday. He was 79.
The family revealed the death through the Houston Rockets, for whom Silas’ son, Stephen, is a second-generation head coach. The Boston Globe first reported Silas’ death, and no official cause was immediately announced.
“Our heartfelt thoughts are with Stephen and his family during this difficult time,” the Rockets said in a statement.
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.
“Paul made a huge contribution to the game of basketball and will be sorely missed!” Hall of Fame guard and Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter.
The Rockets were playing host to Milwaukee on Sunday night. It was not immediately clear how long Stephen Silas would be away from the team; the Rockets were planning to have John Lucas lead the team on an interim basis while the Silas family grieves.
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 was known as not a hard, hard, hard worker and it really hurt me when I was an assistant coach, for about 10 years, when I couldn’t get a head job,” Paul Silas told the Rotary Club of Charlotte while giving a speech there in 2013. “I really talked to teams about being a head coach, but I didn’t get one. What happened is I stayed positive. I had a positive attitude. 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. I made LeBron a point/forward because I didn’t have one when he first started. He didn’t say a word to me. He just took over the game and we did well.”
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. He averaged 12.8 points and 13.8 rebounds in the 1976 Finals for Boston against the Suns.
“Paul Silas was a giant in basketball circles,” former NBA player Rex Chapman wrote Sunday on Twitter. “A great man. Was fortunate to spend a couple of seasons with Paul when he was an (assistant) coach with the Suns. I don’t know anyone with a bad word to say about him — ever. A sad day.”
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.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Creighton legend Paul Silas,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “His illustrious career as a player and coach will be matched by few.”
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