His favorite videotape wasn’t produced in the high definition we enjoy today.
Xavier Silas still finds joy in the fuzzy images it produces. He has viewed it countless times; it contains legendary footage of Julius Erving dunking a red, white and blue ABA basketball from the free-throw line during the 1976 All-Star Game. But most important are the eye-opening moves by a bearded tank of a guard named James Silas.
Everyone loved Dr. J, but Xavier’s dad remains his hero.
“I’ve heard all the stories, and I’ve seen the tapes,” said Xavier, who was born seven years after his dad retired in 1982. “It’s not the quality we have now, but I love watching him play. I wasn’t around to see those games, so it’s cool to check out his game from back in the day.”
James Silas was a premier lead guard in his prime, giving opponents the business with one of the best midrange jumpers in the game. And don’t forget the signature Afro, which was as much of a calling card as his uncanny ability to deliver in the clutch. San Antonio Spurs backcourt mate George Gervin gleefully deferred to him with the game on the line.
And the nicknames. He had several. He was Captain Late, which was coined by then-Spurs broadcaster Terry Stembridge because of his reputation for saving his best stuff for late in the fourth quarter. Others called him “The Late Mr. Silas” for the same reason. The locker room was split between “The Snake” and “Jimmy Si.”
Xavier is the youngest of seven Silas children — four sons and three daughters — including Jamie, a lieutenant for the Austin Fire Department. He played ball at Austin High, Colorado and Northern Illinois before appearing in two NBA games with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012. He has spent the past five years playing in the NBA Development League and countries such as Argentina, Greece and France, and in May he was selected with the fourth overall pick for Ice Cube’s national three-on-three BIG3 league, which will launch June 25 in Brooklyn. His coach? Julius Erving.
“I love being a dad,” James Silas said during a conversation Thursday. “What I admire about Xavier is his passion to help people. “I give all my kids the opportunity to be educated. I love his approach. He got his college degree. Anything he approaches, he scopes it out very well and he finishes.”
The two have partnered to conduct basketball training camps in the Austin area and in Denver. On Father’s Day, the Silas men will hold a high school alumni tournament as part of Juneteenth weekend. The 10-team event, including former players representing Austin, McCallum, LBJ and Del Valle high schools, will take place at the sprawling Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin in conjunction with Give Sports, Xavier’s nonprofit organization. Some of the proceeds from the tournament will go to benefit four local charities.
“When you think about Father’s Day and all the fathers that had kids that played basketball, some of their best memories are going to see their kids play,” Xavier said. “It’s like a family affair. That’s what this tournament will be all about.”
At 29, Xavier is following in his old man’s footsteps by using basketball as a positive vehicle in the community. Perhaps the three-on-three league will open a door for a return to the NBA — he had a workout with the Los Angeles Clippers two weeks ago — but if not, the father of a 7-month-old has plenty to keep him busy.
For those of you too young to remember James Silas, he was a star. Before Gervin, Johnny Moore, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, Bruce Bowen, David Robinson and Tim Duncan had their jerseys retired, Silas’ No. 13 was the first raised to the rafters of the old HemisFair Arena.
The former NAIA All-American from Stephen F. Austin finished his career with 11,038 points, but most of them came during his first four seasons, all in the ABA with the Dallas Chaparrals, who eventually moved to San Antonio to become the Spurs. In 1976, he averaged 23.8 points and 5.4 assists and earned first team All-ABA honors — ahead of Gervin and alongside Erving.
The ABA merged with the NBA that summer, but Silas blew out his knee during the preseason and was never at full strength the remainder of his career. Surgical techniques were not as advanced back then, and Silas, tough as he was, never regained his full explosiveness.
“The guy you saw in the NBA for the second half of my career was playing on a leg and a half,” he said.
While he was living on the West Coast in retirement, a friend from San Diego turned Silas on to a local midnight basketball league. With crack cocaine ravaging the nation’s capital and other urban areas, retired government worker G. Van Standifer came up with the idea of a late-night league whose goal was to keep urban youths off the streets for a couple of hours. He later added drug education workshops and vocational counseling. The initiative spread throughout the country, and crime rates dropped in the inner cities.
When Silas decided to move to Austin in 1995, he brought midnight basketball with him. He started the league with the help of Huston-Tillotson University President Joseph McMillan Jr., who donated the school’s gymnasium to the cause.
“Crime was so crazy back then,” he said. “When I first started, all the kids, 90 percent of them were raised by their grandmothers. There were no father figures in their lives. We wanted to let the kids know that gang banging, jailing and drugging were not the way. I’m an education nut. I don’t have anything against sports and hip-hop, but that comes and goes.”
The league is still going strong today, with games at Givens Recreation Center. The 68-year-old Silas serves as the national director of the Association of Midnight Basketball Leagues Inc. and the executive director and commissioner of Austin Midnight Basketball. With Vanessa, his wife of nearly 30 years, he remains a role model to the young people he counseled in 1995. Many have families of their own now.
“Basketball has been a huge part of my life, but education was the key for me,” Silas said. “It brought me from the cotton fields in Louisiana to the NBA, and it’s allowed me to help others.”
His playing days are long over but Captain Late continues to deliver.