This year the Spurs are celebrating their 50th season in San Antonio. There have been many highs and a few lows. One trademark of the San Antonio Spurs has been their culture and consistency. The keys to those qualities lie in their players. Always noted for development as well as being ahead of the curve on scouting international players, the Spurs way has made them one of the most successful organizations of all time. As we look back on the Silver and Black, we recognize the top 50 players in franchise history. Each day, we will move up the countdown.
Number 9 - James Silas
Some players’ greatness can’t be described using just numbers and accolades. To really understand how good they were, context is required. A perfect example is Manu Ginobili, who we will discuss later in this list. He doesn’t have the All-Star appearances or flashy stats other Hall-of-Famers do, but he was undeniably one of the most impactful players of his generation. James Silas is a similar case.
Silas was drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals in 1972 and underwent the first of two big moves he would make with the franchise a year later, relocating to San Antonio, where he would spend most of his career. By his third year in the ABA he was an All-Star and had already gained a reputation for being a killer in the clutch, earning the nickname of Captain Late due to his fourth-quarter scoring explosions. An ice-cold bucket-getter and elite free throw shooter, Silas was the Spurs’ go-to guy when it counted.
“I was going to go to (George) Gervin at the end of the game,” then-Spurs coach Bob Bass explained, according to the fantastic 20-Second Timeout blog, “but he said, ‘Give the ball to Jimmy Si and he’ll get it done.’ For a guy of that stature, a guy as good a player as Gervin was, to say that, you can imagine what kind of respect James Silas had with our team.”
There’s no better endorsement of Silas’ ability in the clutch than that, but he wasn’t just a closer. After averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists in the 1974/75 season, he upped his numbers to 23.8 points and 5.4 assists the season after, earning All-ABA first-team honors over Gervin. It seemed like Captain Late was on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career before disaster struck. In the first game of the 1976 playoffs, Silas hurt his ankle. The Spurs were bounced in the conference semifinals without their star guard, but there was excitement for the future, as San Antonio joined the NBA. Unfortunately, the second big move of Silas’ career was not auspicious, as a knee injury during preseason caused him to play just 59 games during the next two years.
Eventually Silas recovered. He never returned to pre-injury form, as his explosiveness declined, but he continued to be a pillar for the Spurs, averaging 17 points and four assists during his three final years with the franchise. In that span, he took what at the time was the most important shot in Spurs history. Captain Late elevated for a jumper in Game 7 of the conference finals in 1979 to tie it at the end of regulation, but his shot missed. Silas is convinced he was fouled, and others agree, but in the end the Silver and Black suffered a devastating loss after being up 3-1 in the series. When the next season also ended in disappointment, Silas was traded to the Cavaliers, and retired the following season, at age 33.
Silas had a good career, but one filled with what-ifs. Had he stayed healthy or played in an era with the necessary medical advancements to make his recovery shorter, he could have had a Hall-of-Fame run. If he had spent his best years in the NBA instead of the ABA, he would probably be a more recognizable name for the average basketball fan. And if the Spurs had advanced to the 1979 Finals, where they would have been favored to win it all, those late 70’s Spurs teams would likely get a lot more recognition. Alas, the basketball gods can be a little cruel at times.
While Silas didn’t end up reaching the icon status his talent and late-game exploits suggested he would achieve, he fortunately still has the Spurs and their fans, who know how fantastic he actually was. His jersey was the first one the franchise retired, his teammates and coaches have always raved about him, and he’ll always be considered one of the best players to ever wear the Silver and Black by everyone who takes a moment to look past accolades alone. Hopefully, that’s good enough for him.
Next up: the best reminder that offense is only half of the game.
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