Remembering Paul Silas, the first man to coach LeBron James in the NBA

Deborah Dzifa Makafui December 13, 2022
Paul Silas (left) and LeBron James (right). Photo: AP

Legendary NBA player and former coach Paul Silas has died at the age of 79. Fans of professional basketball may remember Silas for winning three championships as a player with the Boston Celtics (1974,1976, and 1979). He was one of the best rebounders in NBA history—players who successfully reclaim the ball after a missed shot. Silas continued to be involved in the sport after his 1980 retirement as an active player, and the start of his employment as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 1999 brought future success.

On July 12, 1943, Silas was born in Prescott, Arkansas, but he spent the majority of his formative years in Oakland, California. He attended McClymonds High School, a sizable institution on the east side of the city with a long history in sports. Other notable McClymonds alumni included baseball legends Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson as well as legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell. After transferring to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, Silas earned his degree there in 1964. 

Silas’ all-around abilities and competitiveness started to distinguish him as a potential professional standout while he was still a student at Creighton. Silas added to this accomplishment in his varsity years, becoming one of only six players in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history to average over 20 points and over 20 rebounds per game in a single season. He shares this distinction with players like Julius Erving, Bill Russell, and Artis Gilmore. He currently maintains the sixth-place overall ranking and the NCAA record for the most rebounds in a three-year career. History says when Silas played college basketball, it was uncommon for freshmen to play at the varsity level. 

Pro scouts were interested in Silas’s college experience for other reasons. His remarkable 38 rebounds during a game on February 19, 1962, still rank eighth on the all-time list. He led the NCAA in rebounds in 1963 with an average of 20.6 per game. He was selected with the No. 12 overall pick in the 1964 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks and went on to play 16 years in the NBA with five different teams.

Silas continued to play in the NBA after his retirement in 1980, and he soon took over as the San Diego Clippers’ head coach. After that, he worked with the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, and Charlotte Hornets for 11 seasons as an assistant coach. He went on to lead the Charlotte Hornets to four playoff appearances, including two visits to the Eastern Conference finals, as their head coach starting in 1998. 

From 2003 to 2005, Silas served as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he first coached LeBron James in the NBA. From 2010 to 2012, he made another brief appearance before taking over as Charlotte’s head coach. Silas had a 387-488 record (.442 winning percentage) in his twelve years as a head coach in the league, and his teams made the playoffs four times. Stephen Silas, Silas’ son, is the current head coach of the Houston Rockets.

The basketball world is still mourning Silas, who passed away Saturday night at his home in Denver, North Carolina, his family said. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Honoring his first-ever head coach in the NBA, James said, “Probably one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever been around. The start of my journey in this league started with him.”

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