Standing all of 6’1″, James Silas carried himself with all of the swash-buckling swagger of a carrack commander. His career numbers belie such confidence, though.
How could someone who averaged over 20 points per game just once, and had a career average of 16 points, be worthy of commandeering admiration? Especially considering that as a point guard he dished out over 5 assists per game just once, and had a career average of 3.8.
The answer lies in the fact that numbers can’t tell you exactly how a player plays. They show the final results of plays, they can be somewhat predicative, but they can’t fully tell you how a man plays. And James Silas was a man so full of big plays, timely counter moves, and cold-blooded veins that he was given the nickname “Captain Late”.
The good captain, the great commander, would show up time and time again to pull the San Antonio Spurs out of a fix. Yes, George Gervin and Larry Kenon may have scored more points throughout the course of their games, but Silas was the man they cleared out for in the final moments.
Using his stocky, well-built frame, Silas could back down opposing guards and rise up for jumpers near the basket. He was also fond of just taking it to the rack off the dribble and getting foul shots. For his career, Silas shots 49.5% from the field and 85.5% from the line. When he took his shot, he was gonna make it.
His fourth-quarter heroics and general dependability made Silas an All-ABA 1st Teamer in 1976, but that postseason he injured his knee in a collision against the New York Nets. For the next two seasons, his first two in the NBA, Silas was on the mend. Finally recovering for the 1978-79 season, Silas was again dependable, but not quite what he once was. Most noticeable was that the highest gear of his explosiveness had gone.
Silas retired from pro basketball in 1982 and became the first player in Spurs history to have his jersey retired.
The James Silas that NBA fans saw was a terrific player, but the one that a select few ABA fans saw was outstanding and legendary. Opposing coaches and the press recall Silas delivering multiple 20-point outbursts in fourth quarters. The season he busted his knee, Silas was one of the best guards in all of basketball.
The following comparison of stats from the 1975-76 season tells it all, really: Silas – 23.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 51.9% FG, 87.2% FT, 7.7 FTA Gervin – 21.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 6.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 49.9% FG, 85.7% FT, 4.9 FTA
The Ice Man’s uniquely brilliant finger roll got the headlines, but Silas was the engine driving the Spurs of the ABA. But this here is just the starting tale on Captain Late. There’s a lot more to know on this forgotten but fantastic San Antonio Spur.
Years Played: 1972 – 1982
All-ABA 1st Team (1976)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1975)
2x All-Star (1975-’76)
All-Rookie Team (1973)
ABA - 328 Games
18.2 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 50.4% FG, 85.7% FT
NBA - 357 Games
14.2 PPG, 3.4 APG, 2.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 48.5% FG, 85.2% FT
Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1972-73 through 1981-82 season)
29th Points, 39th FGs Made
12th FTs Made, 8th FT%
23rd Assists, 35th APG
28th Games Played, 35th Minutes Played
Considering the latent sheer force he could muster, there was no doubt the A-Train could steamroll anybody. Standing 7’2″ and weighing 240 lbs., Artis Gilmore was the biggest and strongest man in the history of the ABA. However, Gilmore was somewhat of a gentle giant, generally affable and gracious. He played basketball with strength, but never resorted to using his power as a despotic, diabolical force like other players who’d have been uncontrollable intimidators if they possessed Artis’ capabilities.
Artis merely used his towering frame and divine strength to just win ball games. And he won a lot of ball games.
Teaming with Louie Dampier and Dan Issel, Gilmore formed the core of the Kentucky Colonels who were always in title contention in the ABA. In his rookie year of 1972, Artis’ Colonels won an ABA record 68 games. The next year they made the ABA Finals only to be downed by the Indiana Pacers in 7 games. In 1975, the Colonels exacted revenge by beating Indiana in five games to capture the title.
When the ABA shuttered its doors and merged with the NBA, Gilmore was THE big prize since the Colonels were folding and presumably any NBA team had a shot at the skyline tall center. Truthfully, though, the fix was in and the Chicago Bulls were awarded Gilmore as a way to invigorate basketball in the NBA’s third-largest market. Things didn’t quite work out as the A-Train was derailed by a cast of unremarkable players until 1981 when Reggie Theus gave him some aid and the Bulls won a playoff series.
All and all, though, the Chicago days were disappointing from a team perspective, but Artis was not slowing down one bit.
During his Chicago stay, Gilmore averaged 20 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. His field goal percentage, already exceedingly high, rocketed to the moon. He led the league in 1981 with a field goal percentage of .670. Over the next five years he maintained a shooting percentage of over 60%.
He shot so high from the field thanks to two shots: the dunk and the hook. His dunks weren’t flashy, but holy Naismith did they deliver some force. If Artis rose for a dunk you weren’t likely to stop him without some serious repercussions for your own well-being. The A-Train’s hook shot was nearly as devastating as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s more famed sky hook, but it was no where near as graceful.
Indeed, take stock of what’s just been mentioned: Gilmore dunked powerfully, but not with flash. He dropped hooks, but they weren’t pretty. The A-Train’s other nickname was “Rigor Artis” as the big man petrified as his career wore on.
Even as he once again found team success with the San Antonio Spurs during the mid-1980s, Gilmore’s game just never enlivened the average imagination. His best attributes were rebounding, stonewall defense and flawless shot selection. The closest thing to gorgeousness Gilmore had on the court was a precipitous drop step.
When it’s all said and done, Gilmore will never be first choice for most entertaining center, but there’s definitely a beauty in his methodical, unrelenting style and power.
Years Played: 1971 – 1988
ABA - Champion (1975)
Playoff MVP (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1972)
5x All-ABA 1st Team (1972-’76)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1973-’76)
5x All-Star (1972-’76)
All-Star Game MVP (1974)
All-Rookie Team (1972)
6x All-Star (1978-’79, 1981-’83, 1986)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1978)
ABA - 420 Games
22.3 PPG, 17.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 3.4 BPG, 55.7% FG, 66.8% FT
4x RPG Leader (1972-’74, 1976), 2x FG% Leader (1972-’73)
NBA - 909 Games
17.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.9 BPG, 59.9% FG, 71.3% FT
4x FG% Leader (1981-’84)
Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1971-72 season through 1987-88 season)
5th Points, 38th PPG
5th FGs Made, 2nd FG%
4th FTs Made, 30th Assists
1st Rebounds, 4th RPG
1st Blocks, 3rd BPG
1st Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played
After many years of carrying the Spurs on his chiseled shoulders, David Robinson endured excruciating back pain and surgery in the 1996-97 season. When he returned to form for the 1997-98 season, a rookie by the name of Tim Duncan was on board to help shoulder and, eventually, assume the burden. Robinson surely benefited from the deal. He captured two titles with Duncan taking the lead role in their partnership.
That post-1997 Robinson was a really good player, an all-star player. But he was in several regards a shadow of himself. To illustrate the point, take a moment to watch some (or all) of the following video:
The pre-injury Robinson was an athletic marvel of humanity. He was one of, if not the best, center in the history of the game at running the floor. He just had a natural pace suited perfectly for completing fast breaks. It’s almost as if the Admiral glided up the court like a cruiser sails upon the high seas: effortless, calm, but bringing a whole heaping helping of devastation.
Robinson used that quickness on defense supremely well, too. Only Hakeem Olajuwon compares to Robinson when it comes to spectacularly blocking shots at the rim, but also having beguiling speed and quick hands to create havoc in passing lanes.
For such a dominating center, Robinson was never that great at scoring with his back to the basket and performing grind-it-out post moves. He was always about speed, power, and grace in openly attacking the basket, at least until his back acted up. Instead he’d favor moving off-the-ball, or starting out back-to-the-basket and spinning to the hoop for points, or facing up nailing a fairly good mid-range jumper.
There was no doubt Robinson would be a great pro player. That’s why the Spurs took him 1st overall in 1987 and willingly waited two years for him to finish his commitment to the US Navy. After winning Rookie of the Year, an MVP award, leading the league in scoring, blocks and rebounds, and capturing two NBA titles, David Robinson certainly proved to the Spurs that good, even great things, come to those who wait.
Seasons Played: 1990 – 2003
2x Champion (1999, 2003)
Defensive Player of the Year (1992)
Rookie of the Year (1990)
4x All- NBA 1st Team (1991-’92, 1995-’96)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1994, 1998), 4x All-NBA 3rd Team (1990, 1993, 2000-’01)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1991-’92, 1995-’96)
4x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1990, 1993-’94, 1998)
10x All-Star (1990-’96, 1998, 2000-’01)
NBA - 987 Games
21.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 3.0 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 51.8% FG, 73.6% FT
PPG Leader (1994), BPG Leader (1992), RPG Leader (1991)
“I’m the best all-round forward in the game,” he says. “If anyone takes the trouble to look, they’ll see that I’m the one who makes our team go. I’m the most important guy out there. I love to rebound and run the ball right up the court. I was the first forward to do that. Now others are imitating me. I make cross-court passes that no one else dares, and then I follow the ball like I got it tied to a string. I play good defense, though I don’t get a lot of credit for that. Look, I’m not out for an argument. I say that I’m the best. Anybody else has the right to say that about himself.”
From 1974 to 1980, the 6’9″ Kenon was indeed one of basketball’s best forwards. During this period he was 5th among all forwards in the NBA and ABA in points scored and steals nabbed, while also placing 3rd in rebounds grabbed. His averages during this period were pretty noteworthy: 20 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 49% FG, and 80% FT.
He burst into the ABA in the 1973-74 season with the New York Nets and his brash offensive skills made “Special K” an instrumental piece in the Nets’ title run that season. He was never shy about carving out a piece of the offensive pie with mainstay Julius Erving leading the club. In both the regular season and postseason, he led the club in rebounding as well.
After the 1975 season, Kenon was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. Overshadowed by the more gossamer George Gervin, Kenon was nonetheless every bit of the Ice Man’s equal during this period. Indeed, he’d clear the glass and spark San Antonio’s powerful offensive assault with Gervin and James Silas. The Spurs were always in the playoffs with this core and reached the Eastern, yes Eastern, Conference Finals in 1979 where they lost in 7 games to the Washington Bullets.
That was the highwater mark for Kenon’s run with the Spurs. He continuously ran into contract troubles with the Spurs and by 1980 Kenon bolted for the Chicago Bulls in free agency. The move was a career death sentence. He averaged a career-low 14.1 points in 1981. Then a new career low in 1982 with 7 points. And then another new career low in 1983 with 6 points. His career petered out after that as he was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The surprisingly quick end of his career is unfortunate. In his final game with the Spurs, Kenon nailed 51 points on the Detroit Pistons. He still holds the record for most steals in an NBA game with 11 back in 1976. He was everything he bragged about himself being: a good defender, a transcendent dunker and scorer, a key indispensable cog on the Spurs and Nets of the 1970s.
However, the aura of Julius Erving and George Gervin still outshine the career and accomplishments of Larry Kenon. Special K is just one of those splendid players who gets lost in the shuffle of the long and winding history of professional basketball.
Years Played: 1973 – 1983
3x All-Star (1974-’76)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1974)
2x All-Star (1978-’79)
ABA - 249 Games
17.7 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 48.5% FG, 75.5% FT
NBA - 503 Games
17.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 48.9% FG, 79.8% FT
Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1973-74 through 1982-83 season)
15th Points, 38th PPG
12th FGs Made, 31st FTs Made
14th Rebounds, 21st RPG
16th Steals, 32nd SPG
13th Games Played, 10th Minutes Played
“Someday I think I’m going to be right up there with Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and the Doctor,” Mike Mitchell was saying the other day. “I feel like I’m destined to be one of the greats of the NBA. Only right now nobody knows who I am.”
When the great scorers of the 1980s are mentioned, quick to roll off the tongue are Larry Bird or Alex English. Perhaps Mark Aguirre or Adrian Dantley spring to mind, too. Big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone also sneak their way after a moment’s thought.
But quietly sitting among the list of the 1980’s greatest scorers is Mike Mitchell. The small forward finished with the 10th most points scored for that decade behind only the aforementioned players, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Theus and his Spurs teammate George Gervin. Condensing matters to just his heyday of 1980 through 1986 and you’ll see he was the 7th leading scorer in the NBA behind only 6 Hall of Famers.
His scoring during this point was effortless and methodical. He averaged 22.3 ppg during this stretch while shooting 49.6% from the field and 77.7% from the line. His bread and butter was a ridiculously effective mid-range jumper that he could release with impunity over other small forwards given his 6’7″ frame which was brazenly powerful and fast. And in the age old fashion, he was also quick enough to take a larger defender off the dribble. But that magnificent jump shot was where it was at.
Years Active: 1983 – 2000 Career Stats: 1183 games, 28.7 mpg
16.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.5 bpg, 48.4% FG, 70.6% FT Postseason Stats: 110 games, 26.9 mpg
15.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.6 bpg, 50.2% FG, 70.6% FT Accolades: 1983 Rookie of the Year, 2x All-Star (1985, 1989), All-NBA 2nd Team (1985), All-NBA 3rd Team (1989), All-Rookie 1st Team (1983)
The 1982 draft was a loaded class. Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Fat Lever, Clark Kellogg, Ricky Pierce and Sleepy Floyd are the highlight players, but the man who walked away with the Rookie of the Year crown was Terry Cummings. T.C. was a lithe combination of power and speed that initially toiled on the moribund San Diego Clippers.
Mercifully, he would be traded into the good graces of perennial powerhouse Milwaukee and when that situation began to go south, Cummings again would be bailed out with a trade to the San Antonio Spurs, sparking the greatest turnaround in NBA history until the 2008 Celtics.
Terry’s good fortune ran out soon after that as a devastating knee injury robbed him of his explosiveness. Nevertheless he soldiered on for another decade as a reserve forward. But when he was at his best, few in the NBA could match his presence, his grace, his strength.
Years Active: 1974 – 1984 Regular Season Stats: 722 games, 28.7 mpg
12.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.6 bpg, 0.5 spg,, 53.5% FG, 74.8% FT Postseason Stats: 30 games, 19.7 mpg
8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.4 bpg, 51.2% FG, 63.9% FT Accolades: ABA Rookie of the Year (1974), 2x All-ABA 2nd Team (1974-75), ABA Rookie 1st Team (1974), 2x ABA All-Star (1974-75)
“I was going to America to be a cowboy,” [Nater] recalled. “I wanted to be just like Roy Rogers. I thought everybody in the U.S. was a cowboy. I went from an orphanage to a Beverly Hills hotel in 22 hours. I had room service. I didn’t see any cowboys, though.”
The journey of center Swen Nater to professional basketball is unlike any other. Born in the Netherlands, his mother departed Holland for the United States when he was 3-years old with Swen’s stepfather and one son. Swen, along with a sister, was left behind at an orphanage, waiting for the day their parents saved enough money to send for them. 6 years passed until finally an American television show, It Could Be You, organized the reunion of the Nater family.
“Swen is the best center I’ve played against all year.”
The praise heaped on Nater by Walton and Coach John Wooden encouraged the Milwaukee Bucks to select Nater 14th overall in the 1973 NBA draft making him the first player ever taken in the 1st round who’d never started a college basketball game. Except there was one problem for Nater. Milwaukee had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and would undoubtedly use Nater as a backup or trade bait. Swen, while appreciative and happy with his time as Walton’s backup, was ready to showcase what he could do and wasn’t excited about being dangled about for a trade, either. Instead of signing with Milwaukee, he opted for the Virginia Squires who held his ABA rights.
His tenure in Virginia lasted only 17 games before the cash-strapped Squires sold him to the San Antonio Spurs. Finally finding stability and a healthy amount of playing time, Swen blossomed into a rebounding terror and one of the finest ABA centers. By season’s end he averaged 14 points and 12.5 rebounds while leading the ABA in field goal percentage (55%). The ultimate showcase for Nater that season was the All-Star game in Norfolk where he uncorked 29 points and 22 rebounds.
Surprisingly, Artis Gilmore (18 pts, 14 rebs) took home the MVP award for the game. Nater however ran away with the Rookie of the Year award for 1973-74 while also making the All-Rookie 1st Team and All-ABA 2nd Team. For Swen, the whirlwind of success and recognition was refreshing, “like taking a chain off.”
Nater gave an encore performance in 1974-75. His scoring inched up to 15 while his rebounding surged to a career high 16.4, good enough to lead the ABA, and his FG% held at .540. Again he made the All-Star team and All-ABA 2nd Team. Curiously, the Spurs were about to send Nater back into the wilderness.
Suffering early playoff exits in both of Swen’s seasons, the Spurs in the summer of 1975 traded Nater to the New York Nets for Billy Paultz. Battling nagging injuries, Nater struggled with the Nets and midway through the 1975-76 season he was traded back to the Virginia Squires. His stay there lasted only through the end of that season as the Squires folded and the ABA merged with the NBA. Feeling back at full-strength, Nater finally signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, but would have to battle Elmore Smith for minutes. A battle he initially lost.
“Rebounding is what I’m supposed to do and this was just one of those nights.”
The upper-hand had been gained by Swen and Elmore Smith would be traded later in the season, but Nater himself lasted in Milwaukee barely into the summer of ’77. Having secured the 1st overall pick in the draft, the Bucks were thrilled to select center Kent Benson and had no need, so they thought, for Nater. The veteran center was traded to the Buffalo Braves. for a 1st round pick. Luckily for the Bucks, the Braves’ first rounder turned out to be Marques Johnson, otherwise it would have been a complete disaster. Benson was lackluster and gone in 1.5 seasons.
Nater meanwhile completely regained his San Antonio form with the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers franchise during the next four seasons, culminating, somewhat ironically, in 1979-80. Ironically because the Clippers had signed Nater’s old Bruin teammate Bill Walton. It appeared that Swen would either be traded to Portland as compensation or a repeat of the UCLA days was in order with Nater as Walton’s backup. Swen didn’t sound too excited about these prospects:
“I’ll probably get depressed for over a month… This compensation stuff is a lot worse than being traded,” he said. “What they’re saying, really, is ‘Here’s Bill Walton and you’re one-fourth of him. You’re one of the four players to go for him.’ I think it’s degrading.”
His worries were for naught. He wasn’t shipped to Portland and Walton’s notorious foot problems limited him to only 14 games that year and forced him out entirely for the 1980-81 and ’81-82 seasons. Had Walton been around Swen surely wouldn’t have produced his 13.5 point and 15 rebound averages that year. His rebounds were good enough to lead the NBA and he again topped off at 55% shooting.
Sadly, like Walton, Swent Nater’s body betrayed him. Injuring his kneecap in the early part of the 1981-82 season, Swen played a grand total of 28 games that season and 1982-83 combined. In his final season, 1984, Nater fulfilled the role he was apparently destined for… being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s backup.
In the post-Wilt Chamberlain era of professional basketball (1974 and beyond), Nater has the 3rd-highest rebounding percentage with 21.4%. That means when he was on the court, Nater grabbed a little better than 1 out of every 5 rebounds available. Only Kevin Love (22.2%) and Dennis Rodman (23.4%) have been better. When it comes to just defensive rebounds, no one has done it better. His 30.7% is just ahead of Rodman and Bill Walton. He was the first foreign-born player to take home a major award (the 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year) and is the only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding average for a single season. And his bevy of well-aimed hook shots resulted in a 53.5% shooting for his career.
He may never have been a cowboy, but he still had a good shot.