Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas goes deep on the loss of his father, NBA legend Paul Silas
Silas reflects on lessons learned from his dad, his legacy and the pain left behind in advance of service celebrating his life
SACRAMENTO – Basketball is often used as an escape for NBA players and coaches from the trials of daily life. But Stephen Silas can’t think of basketball without thinking of his father, former NBA head coach and longtime forward Paul Silas. With the recent death of his father in mind, the Houston Rockets head coach was teary-eyed about an hour before a recent tipoff against the Sacramento Kings.
“I miss him so much. I miss our conversations. Our daily conversations. I almost feel like, not that I’m falling, but I just don’t have my footing. And there’s a huge hole in my heart because he was just so great to me. I miss his laugh,” said Stephen Silas before the Rockets’ 135-115 loss to the Kings on Jan. 11.
Paul Silas was a two-time NBA All-Star and renowned defender during his 16-season career, which included two titles with the Boston Celtics and one with the Seattle SuperSonics. The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer was well-known for his NBA coaching career. He won 387 games as a head coach over 12 seasons with the San Diego Clippers, Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Bobcats. Silas was also NBA star LeBron James’ first head coach while with the Cavs.
Silas died at age 79 on Dec. 10, 2022, in Denver, North Carolina, of cardiac arrest. The Oakland, California, native is survived by his wife Carolyn, daughter Paula Silas-Guy, stepdaughter Donna Turner, son Stephen, and three grandchildren. The Silas family is hosting the private “Paul Theron Silas Celebration of Life and Legacy” in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday.
Stephen Silas, 49, began his NBA coaching career in 2000 as an assistant coach under his father with the Hornets. The third-year Rockets head coach is departing to Charlotte on Friday, missing Saturday’s game against the Detroit Pistons and will be back with the team Monday.
“I’m looking forward to it because of seeing the people, celebrating his life, hearing the speakers,” Silas said. “It’s going to be great, but it’s going to be really hard at the same time. And being there for my mom is going to be very important and being strong for my mom is going to be important.
“But, yeah, there’s going to be some people there who he went to college with and people there who he coached throughout the years and assistant-coached. So, I’m looking forward to seeing the people and celebrating his life, but it’s going to be tough.”
Former New Orleans Hornets guard Robert Pack, who is expected to attend the ceremony, said, “He was serious about his business, demanding, but also cared about you as a player. He made you want to play hard for him. He was always the same person from the time I met him as a player to every time I saw him. He would always look for me when I came there to Charlotte to speak and talk. He always cared about you, and you always looked forward to seeing him in Charlotte.”
The following is a Q&A with Silas, who recently talked to Andscape about what his legendary father meant to him off and on the court.
Who called you or sent a text message to you after your father passed that really meant a lot to you?
[NBA commissioner] Adam Silver was one of the first people to reach out. [New York Knicks guard] Jalen Brunson, who I coached in Dallas, was one of the first people to reach out. [Philadelphia 76ers head coach] Doc Rivers has been checking on me on a weekly basis. Mash, I haven’t spoken to Jamal Mashburn in forever. Elden Campbell, I hadn’t spoken to him forever.
It’s always the same story. Your dad was like my dad, or your dad was one of my favorite coaches. Lee Nailon, Baron Davis, Kemba Walker. The list goes on and on and on of guys. It’ll be interesting to see how many guys actually are able to make it to the celebration, but they all have the same story. He was tough. He was all business, but he had a smile that could light up the room, and he cared about his players, and we all loved him. We loved him. Even the guys who didn’t like him so much when he played, like Ira Newble. They became close after everything. So, yeah, he’s just an amazing man.
How did he differentiate being a coach and being your dad? How did he manage the two and then eventually being a co-worker?
Growing up, I just wanted to be around him. It was going to practices. It was watching film. Staying in his office while he was working. And when he was working guys out, I’d be on the court next to him, just get some shots up or whatever. The time that we spent when I was growing up was around the game. And there was a lot of intermingling between father and coach, and he never coached me because he just didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on me. But he was just a great dad. He was caring, he was quick to laugh, stern when he had to be, but less stern with me than he was with his players.
I saw how he could be with his players, but definitely just a great person to learn from and just watch. The way he interacted with you or the way he interacted with the players that he coached. Whether it was Patrick [Ewing] and Oak [Charles Oakley] and Anthony Mason, or Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson and that group, or Baron [Davis] and Mash [Jamal Mashburn] and those guys.
Once I started working for him, it almost became more of a fatherly like, ‘I’m going to show you the ropes.’ And I didn’t realize how blessed I was at the time to have someone help me when I was 27 years old, to get into this business and allow me to ask the questions that I asked and include me in the meetings and include me in the work and include me in so much to where I could learn and grow. People don’t do that for people who aren’t blood-related, so I was lucky, I was blessed.
You were a little boy at the end of your father’s NBA career. What do you remember about seeing him play?
I remember going to the Kingdome [in Seattle] for the [NBA] Finals, and it was so loud that I had to get my ears plugged and I had to go in the back for those Finals games. I remember going to the Kingdome, walking across the football field, and then you’d go in to where the basketball court was. So, it was more moments like that than games. I do remember just being at practice. [Sonics head coach] Lenny Wilkens would allow me to get some shots up, heave them up. But I do remember just how loud it was during those couple of Finals games.
I remember watching Gus Williams and being like, ‘Man, I want to be like that guy. He’s so cool.’ And Dennis Johnson with a chain. They were just cool. And Downtown Freddie Brown and Jack Sikma and all those guys. They didn’t really have a star. They were just a grind-it-out team. And I didn’t know that at the time, but I do just remember that team and how close they were. They used to come over to the house and have parties in our basement. Lenny was obviously a big part of it too. But my first basketball memory is probably that team.
There are so many guys who had so much love for that man. I don’t even know if it’s like that anymore, where you have the father figure as your coach, that gets on you, but you still respect. His legacy lies in the group of players that loved him so much, like I did.
What do you hope people remember about your dad as an NBA player?
I hope they remember that when he retired, he was second all-time in games played [1,254] in league history [behind John Havlicek at the time]. He was 10th all time in rebounds. That’s pretty good. And he was a three-time champion. Some of that gets lost. He was such a great person and tough, and people think of the personality, but they don’t necessarily think of the player that he was. He was really good.
And my hope is at some point he becomes a [Basketball] Hall of Famer. He’s in the College Hall of Fame. He needed 17 games to be the all-time leading games played person. He’s like, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t play anymore. I’m not going to do it.’ So, he decided with 17 games left, he was just going to quit. The record didn’t matter to him at all.
What was your father’s legacy as an NBA coach?
His legacy as a coach lies in the players that he coached. All the people who I’ve been talking to and reached out, like Patrick and Oak, who was an assistant coach with us in Charlotte. Lionel Hollins, who he coached in San Diego. And then just Baron and Stephen Jackson and LeBron, and Mike Finley. There are so many guys who had so much love for that man. I don’t even know if it’s like that anymore, where you have the father figure as your coach, that gets on you, but you still respect. His legacy lies in the group of players that loved him so much, like I did.
How did he parent you and your sister while being a full-time NBA coach?
My mom, she was the one who was the disciplinarian, and she was the one who did the day-to-day. My dad would come in from a trip and it’d be ice cream and it’d be, ‘where are we going to the movies’ and all that. I get it now as a coach and being away from my kids. I get it. It’s hard to come in and be the disciplinarian when you’re gone for so long.
But the one thing he always wanted in me, when he would go watch me play or whatever, he was always on me like, ‘You got to be aggressive.’ And there would be times where, because I used to like to pass all the time, and he got me out of that quick. ‘You got to be aggressive. When you play, aggressive.’
The one time, it was a state semis [high school] game or something, county semis game. And I was just doing my thing, passing, passing, passing in the first half. And he got me a halftime, got me in the corner. He was like, ‘Stop.’ He was like, ‘be aggressive, stop passing all the time.’ And I felt like I was one of his players. And so, I went out there and I scored a bunch of points…
It meant so much that he was able to come to my games. When I was in college at Brown University, he was an assistant coach with the [New Jersey] Nets. And we were playing at Princeton, and I was getting into it with Sydney Johnson. And every possession, he’d hit me, I’d hit him, he’d hit me, I’d hit him. And finally, I just grabbed him and tackled Sidney. That’s not something I would do, but it built up. But my dad was at the game, so I got thrown out of the game. He comes to the locker room, him, and my mom and [Nets assistant coach] John Wetzel.
And my dad had never been so proud of me. He was so proud. He was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about, and gave me a big hug. I’ll never forget it. It’s funny because Sidney Johnson became a [college basketball] coach. My dad was so, so proud that I got in a fight and got thrown out of a game at Princeton of all places. And after halftime, he left. Yeah, that was a definitely memorable moment.
What coaching style of your dad’s do you use now?
The love for the players, the conversations with these guys. It’s different now, because the way he was with players, cussing them out and really, really being hard on players, I don’t know that you can do that anymore, but you can give the same love and they can know that you care about them in the same way that my dad’s players knew that he cared about them.
The respect. He used to say, ‘Know when to turn the screws. It’s that time of the season where I got to turn the screws and it’s that time of the season when I got to loosen the screws.’ I’m just learning as a young coach for sure. But it was so innate with him. And the one thing he always used to say is, players know. They know if you know, they know if you care about them, they know if you’re prepared, they know if you know what you’re talking about, they know if you don’t. He was like, ‘You got to respect players in that way that they know. You got to be prepared and you got to genuinely care about them and speak to them honestly.’ He was just like a master when it came to that.
Towards the end of his life, he was the most positive person in the world. So positive. Good things happen when you least expect. He used to say that all the time before he passed away.
And I’m looking for the good thing right now. And we’re at a point of the season where we’re struggling, Man. And this is the time where I would just have to FaceTime him and just see his face and have that conversation. But I don’t have him anymore.
How are you holding up now?
You know how it is. You have your good days and your bad days. And I don’t want my bad days to rub off on the team. And I told that to the team and they were like … they’re like, ‘Coach, we were surprised that you were back so soon.’ And that made me feel good. Life is life.