Three decades ago, Paul Silas was the final building block to the Boston Celtics' NBA championship teams. Now, he's looking to do the same thing with the New Orleans Hornets.
In fact, when the Hornets play host to Silas' old team Wednesday at the Arena, they represent those '70s Celtics more so than the Celtics themselves. Both teams feature/featured a scrappy, under-sized frontcourt that relies more on position than bulk, one of the most balanced inside/outside scoring attacks in the league, and a commitment to defense.
By contrast, today's Celtics are a relatively undisciplined band of 3-point bombardiers, producing one of the league's worst shooting percentages. Though like the Hornets a playoff contender, Boston is virtually unrecognizable from the Celtics' championship teams of the '60s, '70s or '80s. By contrast, Silas has worked hard to sculpt his team into a winning combination reminiscent of his playing days.
"They're different types of teams in that we really understood how to play," says the 59-year-old Silas, who in four years with the Celtics picked up two of his three championship rings in 1974 and '76. "When I first joined the Celtics, the things that we were doing then -- the plays that were set up -- just how you had to read the defenses and situations alone were unbelievable.
"Here, I sell the whole system," says Silas, now in his fifth season as head coach. "They play within the system, but they don't really think it through as much. (But) we're reaching that point now where I kind of liken this team to the Celtics team in that they're understanding how we've got to push it all the time. But it's been two years of just constant badgering: 'We've gotta push it, push it, push it.' Now, and only now, is it beginning to sink in."
Silas learned that kind of intensity when he came to the Celtics in a bizarre scenario that could only have happened with Boston general manager (and NBA legend) Red Auerbach. Silas had just started getting comfortable playing with the Phoenix Suns, dropping at least 20 pounds following his wife's Weight Watchers plan, and adding offense to his repertoire. But the Suns had just scooped up scorer Charlie Scott from the rival American Basketball Association even though the Celtics held the (NBA) draft rights to Scott.
Auerbach demanded the power forward Paul Silas in compensation, knowing that Silas was what he needed to solidify a Celtic frontcourt that featured center Dave Cowens and small forward John Havlicek.
"Red came at me because he knew that I was the missing piece," recalls Silas, who had just bought a house in Phoenix when the negotiations started. "They tried to give (Auerbach) everybody but me, but he was adamant. 'No, Paul Silas is the guy I want.'
"I didn't want to go," he says. "I'd made a real nice life for myself in Phoenix. Here you go from Phoenix, Arizona, to Boston, Massachusetts -- it was a culture shock, you know? Little did I know that that would be the greatest move that I ever made in my career."
Silas developed a special bond with his Celtics teammates, each of whom had his own idiosyncrasy. There was forward Don Nelson, who after the season would take teammates on a "barnstorming" tour of New England, taking on high-school teams for cash. And guard Jo-Jo White, who came up with ill-fitting nicknames for teammates, like "Goose Neck" or "Chinchilla Face Motherf--ker."
And then there was the 6-foot-8 Cowens, a fiery redhead from Florida State who was undersized as a center but made up for it with an intensity that earned him a reputation as one of the toughest players in the league. Cowens made sure Silas felt the same way.
"Cowens and I knew that we had to do our job every night in order for us to win," Silas says. "And we had this little signal in pre-game warm-ups where when we were running lay-ups, he would pat me on the rump -- and that meant, he and I were gonna go at it.
"(Detroit Pistons center) Bob Lanier once told me the one guy he feared the most playing against was Dave Cowens. Can you imagine? Here's big Bob Lanier, who's like 6-11, 260 pounds, and there's Dave, who's 6-8."
The success of those Celtics teams lives on in today's NBA. Three former players are head coaches: Silas, Don Nelson of the Western Conference-leading Dallas Mavericks, and Don Chaney of the New York Knicks.
Cowens should be the fourth, but he quit as the Charlotte Hornets' head coach early in the 1998-99 season -- against the protestations of his old friend and assistant, Paul Silas. Cowens was in the last year of his contract and figured he was going to be let go at the end of the year anyway. Silas disagreed, even though he knew the situation offered him his first head-coaching opportunity in more than a decade.
"I tried to persuade him not to do it," Silas remembers. "I had been around, and I knew that the one thing that was a death wish in this league was if you quit. Because I was gonna get a job, I knew that, but I didn't want it under those circumstances. ... What he didn't understand was that he had to endure that, you know, and don't give up. And things would've turned around."
Over the years Silas has made the Hornets a winning team not just from what he learned in Boston but also from learning from other coaches and his own adversity. He was given his first head-coaching job in 1980 with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers -- which seems doomed to be the NBA's worst franchise -- and was fired after three woeful seasons.
From there, it was Silas who seemed cursed, picking up assistant-coach jobs with Detroit, New Jersey, New York, Phoenix and Charlotte but never a phone call for the head position.
"The winning was something that stays with you forever; it never leaves you," says Silas. "And I think what it taught me was that the devastation that I went through (after so much success) was all part of my growth; I had to go through that dark time to feel the other side, to feel what it was about."
Silas as a head coach goes both with and against current trends in the NBA. On the one hand, he fits the current vogue of hiring both African-American coaches as well as ex-players. On the other hand, he's no spring chicken, while there's a decided youth movement in coaching circles. Silas admits he's got an old-school mentality, but seeks balance when dealing with players. "They keep me young," he says.
That Silas has been able to incorporate an open-minded approach to today's younger generation with the lessons learned from a career as a winning player is a testament to his skill as a coach. His players see it and seem dedicated to make a winner out of him. The Hornets have been to the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons and hope this will be the year they make it to the Eastern Conference finals -- and beyond.
"He always tells us that he knows what it takes," says power forward P.J. Brown, a 10-year veteran who has benefited both as a rebounder and scorer from Silas' tutelage. "Because he has those rings, he's been there. He's been to the mountaintop, and none of us have. There's not much you can say until you have one of those rings."
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- New Orleans Hornets head coach Paul Silas sees a little bit of his old team in this one: 'We're reaching that point now where I kind of liken this team to the Celtics team in that they're understanding how we've got to push it all the time.'