Erik Compton, James Silas and overcoming adversity

Michael Cohen

What does a modern day golf pro have in common with a Spur that hasn't played in nearly thirty years?

I don't enjoy golf.  I don't enjoy playing it, watching it, and particularly talking about it. Mostly the talk, really. Tied at 18 at the Masters? I'll tune in but please yank me out of any cocktail party conversation after two minutes or I might bring up cricket.

That doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good golf story.

Listening to sports radio last week I heard about Erik Compton, a professional golfer working on his third heart. Yes, you read that right. The first transplant came in 1992 at age 12 and the second in 2008 at age 28. Despite his battle with viral cardiomyopathy, Erik ranked as the number one US junior golfer in 1998 and was selected as a two time All-American at the University of Georgia.

After becoming a pro and receiving his second transplant, Compton made the cut in five of the seven PGA TOUR events he played in during 2010, earned his PGA TOUR card for the first time in 2011, and so far this year finished in the top 25 in three PGA TOUR events, including a fourth place tie at the Honda Classic. Erik's currently ranked among the top 70 for 2013 winnings and 60th in the FedEx cup ranking.

And you thought Adrian Peterson's comeback was impressive?

Erik's feats, as a 12 year old boy and 28 year old pro, impress and inspire. I've never seen him play or heard an interview and I don't need to. Res Ipsa Loquitur, it speaks for itself.

*  *  *

Comebacks from more typical sports injuries are by no means on the same plane as those from heart transplant surgery -- much less double heart transplant-- but when I heard about Compton I got to thinking about the repeated comebacks of one James Silas.

Known by such nom de guerres as "The Snake", "Captain Late" and "The Late Mr. Silas", James averaged 16.1 points and 3.8 assists per game with a field goal shooting percentage of .495 and free throw percentage of .855 over 10 seasons in the ABA and NBA. With George "Ice Man" Gervin as the shooting guard, they formed one of the most formidable backcourts in professional basketball, combining for an unbelievable 50.8 points in the '79 - '80 season. A year that Silas almost did not reach is his career.

James Edward Silas signed with the Dallas Chaparrals in 1972 after the Houston Rockets cut him in training camp. In his four ABA years he averaged over 18 points, four rebounds and four assists and played with an assertiveness and tempo that helped build the Spurs into a team averaging between 115 and 120 points per game. He defined the Spurs even before Ice's finger roll and would become an ABA legend. Not bad for the 6'1" Louisianan 5th round pick (70th overall) out of Stephen F. Austin.

In 1976 the leagues merged and the NBA would finally see what the ABA already knew.  However, during his first NBA preseason against the Kansas City Kings, 230-pound King forward Bill Robinzine crashed onto Silas' left knee and, though the Captain completed the game, he practically lost the next two years to the injury.

If Silas suffered the same injury today, he'd probably be good as new within a couple of months. In the late 70's however, a knee injury could end a career. And based on this February 05, 1979 Sports Illustrated article (Try not to get too distracted by the Christie Brinkley cover), Silas almost called it quits many times, as every comeback was followed by a deeper setback. Sitting behind one of the goals, I remember Hemisphere Arena exploding during Silas' first comeback on January 5, 1977 when he scored 28 points in 28 minutes off the bench. But that happiness wouldn't last, as he was barely able to walk the morning after and ended up playing sparingly for the remainder of the season.

Only after more surgeries and lonely, extensive rehab was Silas able to play himself into shape again, regaining his starting position by December 1978. Without Silas at the helm the Spurs were already an elite NBA team, but one that would sometimes struggle scoring in close games. Soon after his return, his teammates learned that his nicknames were not the result of a lack of punctuality. With that final piece of the puzzle in place, the NBA finally witnessed what we in SA had seen for years and with Gervin leading the league in scoring, the Spurs reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time.

Silas played for two more years, one with the Spurs, his last with the Cavaliers, before retiring at the age of 32. He became the first Spur to see his jersey retired on February 28, 1984. When the Iceman was asked about Silas, he had this to say:

James Silas was a guy who we really went to at the end of the game. James Silas never missed free throws. They don't give him enough credit and I'm disappointed in that, but we (the ABA players) give it to him because we played with him and respect him and a lot of us idolize his play.

*  *  *

I can neither describe the precise motivation behind the comebacks of Compton and Silas, or other professional athletes who have rebounded from serious illness or injury, nor explain where they find their strength. I do know, however, that when faced with a double anterior cervical compression with fusion (neck surgery) this past April, my doctor's prognosis that I could return to the tennis court in three months if I followed directions and perform adequate rehab motivated me to do just that. Because, whether it's a professional athlete or an amateur looking to hang on for a few more years, the desire to compete inspires us to repair our broken selves; to play again.

No one would fault Compton for foregoing his golf career after his second heart transplant yet he refused to let his condition define him.  Similarly, nobody would of criticized Silas for retiring after failing on his third or fourth comeback attempt.  Stories of people refusing to quit in the face of strong adversity such as Compton and Silas remind us that professional athletes, despite the swirling and unfavorable narratives, can still be very human.   We just need to dig a little deeper to find examples of those that remind us of our true capacity.


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