It has been 2½ years now since the San Antonio Spurs smuggled ABA basketball into the NBA. Not the red-white-and-blue kind, the throw-up-the-ball-and-let-'em-play kind. Once the staid members of the older league scoffed at the Spurs' run-and-gun offense and their apparent antipathy toward rebounding and defense, as if bloody noses and the ability to hold a team under 100 points were proof of a club's machismo. But lately, opponents have come to feel about San Antonio the way Colonel William B. Travis and his 184 Texas Volunteers did when they realized the Alamo had no back door.
So what's new? At least a few people outside of South Texas must have heard by now that the Spurs' 52-30 record was third best in the NBA last year and that they won the Central Division championship by eight games over the Washington Bullets. The Spurs' nonpareil 6'8" guard, George (the Iceman) Gervin, is again pouring in all kinds of shots from all kinds of spots, whether single-, double-or triple-teamed, and leading the league in scoring with a 29.5-point average. Forward Larry Kenon is having another fine year, averaging 23.8 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game, and no one has to tell him how good he is. Allow him. "I'm the best all-round forward in the game today," he says. "No question about it." And Center Billy Paultz and the rest of the Spurs are once more performing as directed by Coach Doug Moe's playbook, which is only slightly less complex than a Captain Marvel comic. The bottom line: keep moving like a team of jack-rabbits running relays across the Texas plains, shoot 50% from the field and 80% from the line, score 120 points and let the other guys try to keep up. Furthermore, the Spurs are again at the head of their division—at week's end by 1½ games—although now that the Bullets are in the Atlantic Division, the Spurs are enjoying keeping their cross-state rivals, the Houston Rockets, in their place, which is second.
And that makes the infamous Baseline Bums at the HemisFair Arena happy. The Bums still tank up on Lone Star beer by the gallon and they still spill a drop or two on a referee now and then, but not everything has stayed the same in San Antonio. For instance, the Spurs' 30-20 record, which did not come that easily.
On Dec. 15 they struggled to the .500 mark by beating New York and Indiana, and were in third place, one game behind Atlanta and half a game in back of Houston. Then Moe made a lineup change. He benched Mike Gale, a two-year starter at the guard spot opposite Gervin, and installed James Silas in his place. The Spurs went on to win six straight, making it 12 of 13, and by last Friday, after beating two division leaders, Kansas City and Seattle, back-to-back by a combined 46 points, they had won 18 of 22 games before stumbling a bit in weekend losses at Atlanta and Indiana. Were these the same jinglin' and janglin' Spurs? No way.
The difference was Silas. For those who never followed the ABA, James Silas (Stephen F. Austin '72) was once simply the best guard there was. "In those days," says Bob Bass, who coached the Spurs in 1974-76, the last two years of the ABA, and now serves as Moe's assistant, "he could accelerate, he could explode, he could shoot and he could jump over people." This isn't hyperbole. In 1975-76 the 6'3" Silas averaged 23.8 points on 52% shooting, 5.4 assists and four rebounds per game.
"He really was the best," says Louie Dampier, the sole surviving ABA original, once an opponent, now a teammate of Silas'. "I can say that because I was the guy on our team who had to try to guard him." Atlanta's Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA, says, "He was not only the best in our league, he was one of the two or three best in either league."
"He was such a good player when the clock was running out that he defied description," says Bass.
Why then do people speak of him as if he had risen from the dead, and why is James Silas now making his NBA "debut" as he nears his 30th birthday?
Silas' misery began in the first game of the 1976 ABA playoff series against the New York Nets, when he fell on Brian Taylor and broke his right ankle. That summer, while Silas was wearing a cast, the leagues merged. But by the first exhibition game against Kansas City, Silas was ready to take his rightful place among the NBA elite. In the second quarter of that game, the Kings' 230-pound forward, Bill Robinzine, fell heavily across Silas' left knee. Silas kept on playing, but the next day he couldn't run. The pain dogged him through the preseason, but when the Spurs opened their first NBA campaign by beating the 76ers, Silas scored 18 points. From there it was all downhill for the next two years.
He appeared in only three of the next six games. "I would play a game, then rest, then play," he says. "But the knee felt like something was holding it, like it was locked." In November a surgeon removed damaged cartilage from the knee, and Silas was out for six weeks. He spent his down time lifting weights and doing leg raises and stretching exercises. By January, he says, "I felt I was ready." He came back on Jan. 5, 1977 and scored 28 points in 28 minutes. But the game was against Denver. The NBA still hadn't seen the real James Silas.
"When I got into the car that night," he recalls, "the knee was so stiff I couldn't bend it. But I figured that I hadn't played in a while and the stiffness would go away. But the next day it was terrible. I couldn't walk. I thought, 'Hey, they took the cartilage out and I've been working on it. What's wrong? Why isn't it working?' "
Silas played in six more games, but ineffectively, then missed the next eight, a pattern that continued for the remainder of the season. His absence brought mixed blessings. It prompted Moe to move Gervin from forward to guard, where in time he became the best scorer in the game. But Silas was depressed. "I came back thinking, 'I want to be like I was before I got hurt,' "he says. "I wanted to jump as high, penetrate, do all the things I knew how to do. And this was the first time I had all those things taken away from me. It was scary."
He felt certain that the knee would improve during the summer, but it didn't. He flew to Los Angeles to see Dr. Robert Kerlan, the noted orthopedist. Silas recalls Kerlan saying, "Your problem is that you think you're working hard. You need to work twice as hard." Silas didn't believe such work was possible.
"I was all on my own," says Silas, "and that's the worst thing in the world, having to work out all by yourself." Despite his redoubled efforts, the knee remained sore all summer, but Silas hoped the pain would go away before the 1977-78 season began. "The first day of training camp I felt great," he says, "but the next morning I couldn't walk again. Now I said, 'Hey, I'm through. Jimmy, you're not going to play again!' " But everyone implored him to keep on working. And so it went. He began the season being shuffled on and off the injured list, then played sporadically. Play four, miss five, a couple of minutes of frustrated agony. Memories of what he had been carved him up like razors. He went to another specialist, Dr. Lanny Johnson in East Lansing, Mich., who examined the knee with an arthroscope and pronounced it "ugly." Johnson removed bone spurs, scraped the rough edges of the bones smooth and sent Silas back for still more rehabilitation. After missing 27 games, he resumed his fruitless in-and-out program, working out in solitude when the team went on the road.
By this time, Moe had all but given up on Silas. The Spurs were winning their division with Gale and Gervin. But Bass kept after Silas, phoning him every morning and begging him to push himself. When the team was at home, Forward-Center Coby Dietrick, the only Spur besides Silas left over from the Dallas Chaparral days, played one-on-one with him, pushing him until Silas would curse his friend in anger. Toward the end of the season, Silas played in 14 consecutive games, his longest stint in two years. Occasionally, he showed flashes of his old self. But they were just flashes.
This past summer Silas worked tirelessly on a Nautilus machine, and the knee started to come around, this time for real. But even with renewed confidence in the knee, Silas was afraid he was down to his last chance.
"Coming back was just like leaving high school and playing your first college game," Silas says. "The floor looked bigger, the leg felt naked. Every move I made was cautious. I didn't want anything to happen to me. I hadn't played with these guys for so long I wanted to say, 'Hey, guys, I want to play again. Help me.' "
In the opening exhibition game against Kansas City he scored 18 points in 20 minutes. Then he scored 12 in 13 against Atlanta. He was back. Playing as the third guard, he averaged 13 points in 21 minutes over the first 28 games of this season. On Dec. 16 he became a starter, and the Spurs began winning in bunches. Gervin has been scoring in torrents, as usual, but at pressure points, where the Spurs had been coming undone, it was Silas who once again was the agent of control. Since becoming a starter, he has averaged 16.6 points, but, more important, he has regained his leadership.
Against Kansas City last Wednesday, Silas and Gervin combined for 21 of the Spurs' first 25 points while the Kings were scoring 10, igniting a 124-95 blowout that was all but decided in the first quarter. In the 125-108 win over Seattle on Friday, Silas scored 20, launching a little salvo just about each time the Sonics threatened to creep back into the game. Stroking his beard, Seattle's Fred Brown said after the game, "I used to hear stories about James Silas. People used to tell me I'd be amazed at some of the things he could do. But I never saw him do anything until tonight."
Despite all this, those who have known Silas point out that he is still nowhere near what he was. Moe says he is just a bit more than halfway back. Bass says he's definitely not 75%. Silas is modest in assessing himself. "I would say that I'm about 80% now," he says, "and that's enough to be good. One hundred percent would be great, and the other 20% is coming, piece by piece."