It has been 2� 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 1� 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.