The beauty of sport is its uncanny ability to create a singular immense emotion. The ecstasy of a game-winning shot and the dread of falling just short are magnified by a collective feeling and made all the more beautiful. The Houston Rockets’ 97-92 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t the prettiest or most well-played game, but it was a game gushing with emotion.
Right from the tip, there was an energy, focus, and passion that showed a team united by a feeling and wielding it. It is the type of game that players and fans can remember because they didn’t just watch the game; they felt it.
Rockets head coach Stephen Silas was not at Sunday’s contest against the Bucks following the passing of his father, Paul Silas. While no one would fault Silas for missing work after being stricken with tragedy, it should be remembered how integral Paul Silas has been in Stephen’s long journey to becoming an NBA head coach.
Paul Silas was an excellent basketball player in the 70s. He made five All-Defensive teams, two All-Star teams and was part of three NBA champions, two with the Celtics and one with the Seatle Supersonics. His head coaching career began in the early 80s with a disastrous stint with the hapless San Diego Clippers, and it nearly ended there as well.
Silas wouldn’t find himself leading an NBA franchise again until 1998-99, nearly 15 years after he finished his final campaign at the helm of the Clippers, when he was named the interim head coach for the Charlotte Hornets. Silas took over following a 4-11 start under Dave Cowens and proved his wait had been far too long. The Hornets finished the season 22-13 under his guidance, missing the playoffs by a game, and would win between 44 and 49 games and make the playoffs each of the next four seasons.
Even the sustained run of success, which to this day is the longest consecutive run of playoff appearances in franchise history, wasn’t enough to save his job. After following the franchise to New Orleans in 2002-03 and guiding them to 47 wins, Silas was essentially fired when the team failed to renew his contract.
Fortunately, this time his spell as a free agent was short-lived. The Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to guide LeBron James as he entered the league ahead of the 2003-04 season. Those Cavaliers would finish 35-47 in his first season and were 34-30 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference when Dan Gilbert fired Silas mid-season.
Silas got one more opportunity to be a head coach when the Charlotte Bobcats hired him to be the interim head coach in 2010-11. His contract was not renewed following the Bobcats' 7-59 showing in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and just like that, Paul Silas wouldn’t be an NBA head coach again.
Even though he never made a Conference Finals as a head coach, a benchmark for coaching success, he was able to hire his son Stephen Silas as an assistant in 2000, making him the youngest assistant coach in the NBA at the time. Stephen, unlike Paul, wasn’t a former NBA star, and it would take him nearly 20 years to work his way up from assistant to head coach.
Stephen Silas lost his father and the single most important person in his professional life, and his team and assistants rose to the occasion Sunday night. Silas is acutely aware of how difficult it is to not only be an NBA head coach but to remain one. His father started his coaching career in charge of a trainwreck, and it nearly ended his career. When he was finally given another chance, a track record of success wasn’t enough for his job to be safe.
We often forget that these coaches are living, breathing, feeling people. Instead, they become punching bags for our own insecurities when their teams fail to play up to our standards. But from everything that I’ve read or heard in the hours since Paul Silas’ passing was that he was a fantastic person. That single fact is all that matters. He never won a championship as a coach, but he got to start his son’s coaching career and see him become a head coach after being passed over for nearly a decade. That was a far more meaningful triumph.
The energy, enthusiasm, and raw emotion the Rockets played with showed something far greater about Stephen Silas than any of the armchair-Twitter-coaches could ever hope to accomplish. He has real connections with his staff and players. He cares about them, and they care about him. That’s what makes sports worth playing and watching. It’s not about the wins and gloating that ensues. It’s about the intense sense of community and shared emotions humans are capable of forming.
The Rockets’ performance against the Bucks was the perfect tribute to Paul and Stephen Silas. Two men who spent their careers caring about others and getting the raw end of the deal. John Lucas cares about Stephen Silas. Jalen Green cares about Stephen Silas. Jabari Smith Jr. cares about Stephen Silas. The Rockets care about Stephen Silas. And it showed.
The Rockets may have better games this season, but that will go down as their most memorable. No other game will make you feel like that game did. And that’s the beauty of the sport. That’s why we watch. It’s why we drag ourselves through the dark times, not just for the light but for these moments of shared emotion. Nothing can unbind the pain gripping at Stephen Silas’ heart, but this game was the warm embrace he deserved, to be reminded that the people closest to him care.