Downtown Freddie Brown, the Seattle SuperSonics' guard who looks more like the 2,000-year-old man than a basketball player, throws a towel at a naked Paul Silas in the locker room and says, "Hey, Big Daddy. Don't be walking around like that. At your age, a cold would send you to bed forever."
Gus Williams rushes into a flurry of fists when a fight suddenly breaks out between Silas and Phoenix' Gar Heard in Game 7 of last week's Western Conference finals. "Paul, you're our heart and soul," says Williams after the Sonics have beaten the Suns 114-110 to advance to the finals against Washington. "The boys can't let anything happen to you. You're frail."
The 35-year-old Silas takes the jibes with his characteristic grin, maybe the biggest grin in all the NBA. He's used to being the "old man." After all, Tracy Cannon, the one-year-old daughter of his stepdaughter, Donna, will soon be calling him "Grandpa."
Silas already was the "old man" when he helped carry the Boston Celtics to two NBA championships (in 1974 and 1976). Last year he helped drive the SuperSonics to within one game of the championship. And now he is in the finals again. He and Washington's Wes Unseld, nearly three years Silas' junior, are participating in their fourth NBA championship series, more than any other active players.
It's silly, of course, that Silas should be thought of as a doddering octogenarian, but the nature of Silas' game invites the comparison. Fifteen years of beating his 6'7", 225-pound body against increasingly younger, as well as bigger and even stronger, men, doing the game's dirty work—defense and rebounding—have taken their toll. That he is still doing it today lends substance to the argument that he is the greatest sub-6'11" rebounder ever to play the game. "And remember," he said needlessly to a reporter last week, "I can't shoot any better than you can."
An even greater measure of Silas' importance to the Sonics is reflected in the skill and confidence of his younger teammates. He is, in every sense, the team's elder statesman, and while other coaches might feel encroached upon by players who tutor teammates, Lenny Wilkens says, "Look anywhere on our team and you'll see Paul's influence."
He has helped to steady Williams and Dennis Johnson, the enormously talented, if sometimes slightly flaky, guards. But his influence is most apparent in the play of Seattle's young big men, Lonnie Shelton and Jack Sikma. Shelton came from New York before the season, raw but oozing with talent. Silas helped him cut down his excessive fouling and put him through the definitive course on offensive rebounding. When an injury to Tom LaGarde forced Sikma to move from forward to center, Silas gave Sikma his well-researched "book" on how to play the league's various centers.
Two years ago, after he had been abandoned by Boston and spent a "useless" season in Denver, Silas was close to retiring. "I really thought that maybe I couldn't do it anymore," he says. But Wilkens, an old friend and teammate on the St. Louis Hawks from 1964 to 1968, felt Silas might be a steadying influence on the baby Sonics.
"Paul and I had lots of talks," says his wife, Carolyn, "and finally he decided just to be the old Paul Silas again."
It was a good decision, both for the Sonics and Silas.