Spurs memory 26: ‘Captain Late’s’ jersey retired

Silas becomes first Spurs player to have jersey retired

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 28, 1984
Place: The Arena, San Antonio
Score: Dallas Mavericks 116, San Antonio Spurs 104

In the middle of the worst season of San Antonio basketball at the time, the Spurs put aside their struggles to honor one of the best players in franchise history.

The Spurs were going nowhere on Feb. 28, 1984. They were floundering in a miserable season that would culminate without a playoff berth for the first time since the team came to San Antonio.

But on that night, that struggling season was largely forgotten by Spurs Nation as the franchise honored James Silas by retiring his No. 13 jersey. It was the first time the team honored a player in that manner.

Silas was the last of the original Spurs when he left the team after the 1981 season. He arrived in 1973 when the Dallas Chaparrals relocated to San Antonio.

The early history of the franchise can’t be analyzed without highlighting Silas, one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history.

His teammates remember him as the fiercest of competitors. Silas often would be near tears after some difficult defeats. He was unselfish and perhaps the best leader who has ever played for the team.

His clutch play in tight games earned him the nickname “Captain Late” by former Spurs broadcaster Terry Stembridge. But to his teammates, he was simply “The Snake.”

Much like the team he came to represent, Silas arrived in pro basketball with little acclaim after playing collegiately at Stephen F. Austin. He was drafted by the NBA’s Houston Rockets in the fourth round and placed on waivers before the 1972-73 season started. He cleared NBA waivers and was picked up by Dallas coach Babe McCarthy.

His most productive seasons were when the team still was in the American Basketball Association. And his best season came in the ABA’s final season in 1975-76, when he averaged 23.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists. But that season was marred when he sustained a broken ankle in Game 1 of the ABA semifinals, dooming his team to an eventual playoff series  loss to the New York Nets.

Silas’ injury woes were exascerbated when he blew out a knee the following November, only a few days after the franchise started playing in the NBA. He was limited to 22 games in his first NBA season and 37 in his second. After that, he never really approached the form he exhibited in the “other league.”

His maximum salary was $380,000 per season before he was traded to Cleveland along with the draft rights to Rich Yonakor after the 1980-81 Spurs team was stunned in the first round of the playoffs by Houston. In exchange, the Spurs picked up a 1982 second-round draft choice and an undisclosed amount of cash from the Cavaliers.

When he left, Silas said the team asked him to take a $50,000 yearly pay cut and hinted at retiring. Instead, he played 67 games for Cleveland before retiring after the 1981-82 season.

But on the night that he was honored, Silas became the first player in Spurs history to have his jersey retired as it was hoisted into the rafters of the Arena.

And at least for one night, memories of Silas blotted out the miserable 1983-84 season.

What they said, part I: “He had an uncanny ability to control the tempo of a basketball game, and a competitive ferocity that inspired a struggling ABA franchise after it moved from Dallas to San Antonio in 1973,” former Express-News columnist David Flores, describing Silas’ importance in Spurs history.

What they said, part II: “I think anybody who played in San Antonio for any period of time has to remember how well we were treated by the city. We’ll never forget the welcome we got when we first came to town. The fans were really up when we won games, then concerned when we lost some that we probably should have won,” Silas, to the Express-News on the Spurs’ early reaction from Alamo City fans.

What they said, part III: “I remember, too, how we shocked the NBA when the leagues merged. I don’t think they really realized that we could play with them – and beat them,” Silas, to the Express-News on how good the early Spurs NBA teams really were.

What they said, part IV: “The image of James Silas going up high and taking that jump shot late in a game is not a memory that’s easily erased. It was uncanny how he could deliver that shot. He could jump so high and his shot was so pretty,” former Spurs broadcaster Terry Stembridge to the Express-News on Silas’ shooting.

What they said, part V: “I guess the fact that they are still talking about me indicates I must have done some good. You know, I always went out every night and did my job, but it was easier because of the special relationship we players had with San Antonio,” Silas, describing his Spurs career.

What they said, part VI: “You know, it’s no mistake that his jersey is up there next to mine. We both brought national attention to San Antonio,” Gervin to the Express-News on playing with Silas.

What they said, part VII: “I love San Antonio because San Antonio made me what I am today. A lot of my heart is still here. I have lots of friends in this city that are like family,” Silas on playing for the early Spurs’ teams.

What they said, part VIII: “Ice would take what the other team gave him, but Jimmy Si would take what he wanted. He had a burning desire to win and a huge, huge heart,” former Spurs player Coby Dietrick to the Express-News on Silas’ competiveness and leadership.

What they said, part IX: “James Silas is definitely one of the lost guys who doesn’t get the credit he deserves, especially for playing the one spot. I would do all the damage during three quarters and in the fourth quarter we’d get him the ball because we knew he was ‘Captain Late.’ The things that he could do to those little point guards was amazing. Plus, he never really missed a free throw,” Gervin to the San Antoino Current about Silas’ clutch playing ability.

The upshot: The game on the court was almost an afterthought to Silas’ jersey retirement at the half. Mark Aguirre scored 33 points for Dallas and Rolando Blackman chipped in with 30 to lead the Mavericks’ victory on the night that Silas’ jersey was retired. Mike Mitchell led the Spurs with 44 points. It was the sixth consecutive loss for the Spurs in the midst of an eight-game losing streak that effectively knocked them out of playoff contention … The game was played before an announced crowd of 7,583 at the Arena — one of the six smallest home crowds of the 1983-84 season … Since Silas, the Spurs have retired jerseys worn by Johnny Moore (00), Avery Johnson (6), Sean Elliott (32), George Gervin (44) and David Robinson (50).

Previous Spurs most memorable moments:

No. 27: Robinson makes history with .

No. 28: after crucial 1999 victory at Houston.   

No. 29: on Halloween night.

No. 30: Torrid San Diego shooting

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