South Carolina senior Chris Silva on his hometown and sharks
Chris Silva folded himself into a chairback seat at Colonial Life Arena and stared into his past.
The lanky kid on the iPhone screen wore baggy black shorts and a matching jersey. His white hi-tops squeaked against a concrete basketball court as he went through a series of drills. Catch, pivot, dribble to the block, layup with the right hand. Catch, pivot, spin to the lane, left-handed jump-hook. Set a screen, roll off, catch, shot-fake, two dribbles to the free lane, jumper. Sprint to the elbow, catch, dribble, dunk.
The clip, taken in an open-air gym in Central Africa, lasts 2 minutes, 6 seconds. Like the featured actor, the film is raw and in need of fine-tuning. A random alert pops up near the end about low battery. There’s no hip-hop beat for a soundtrack. There aren’t any slow-motion replays.
Silva was 15 then. He was 6-foot-7, maybe 170 pounds. As he sat and watched his first highlight reel Monday, Silva shook his head.
“Crazy,” he said.
A taller, stronger and more polished Silva is nearing the end of his South Carolina career. His final home game was Saturday against Georgia. The SEC Tournament begins next week.
Such reality hit Frank Martin last month. Silva texted Martin with a question, but the USC coach ignored it and responded to his senior forward, “Damn, man, I can’t believe March is already here.” Silva was confused, so Martin furthered his point. “After March, we’re done. And it seems like it’s been an unbelievable, long journey.”
Silva committed to South Carolina in 2014, made his debut in 2015, went to the Final Four in 2017, scored his 1,000th point in 2018 and grabbed his 800th rebound this year. But Silva’s relationship with Martin started well before he produced a number or helped a Gamecock win.
They didn’t know each other in 2011 when Silva, as directed by a scout, flashed his potential on a grainy video — but they were already destined to become a pair.
One, a player who swears by hard work. The other, a coach who demands it.
Joe Touomou’s eye for young African talent is confirmed by the ongoing NBA careers of Serge Ibaka, Luc Mbah a Moute and Joel Embiid. Touomou, a development coach for the NBA Academy Africa program, lives in Senegal and mines his home continent for players to send to the United States.
Gabon, a country of 2 million people on the west coast of Central Africa, was somewhat under-recruited when Touomou arrived in 2011 to help with the country’s junior national team. While the Republic of Congo raised Ibaka and Cameroon led Touomou to Mbah a Moute and Embiid, Gabon lacked such a shining product.
“They’ve never really been a powerhouse when it comes to basketball in Africa,” Touomou said.
Silva is the son of a basketball player. His 6-foot-11 father was a center on the Gabonese national team. Chris developed a love for the game from his dad — and a buddy’s subscription to NBA League Pass.
“That was the first time I saw Kobe play,” Silva said. “He just pulled up a game and we were watching. It was crazy. It was like we were in the arena.”
The Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant starred for the Los Angeles Lakes, is a far cry from the gyms Silva knew. Roofs were rare. Hardwood floors were rarer.
“You practice under the sun,” Silva said. “It’s like 100 degrees, hot, it’s crazy.”
The setting taught Touomou a lot about Silva. The standout player for the Gabonese junior national team, Silva impressed his visiting coach with raw athletic ability. He’d spring from the concrete court to block a shot on one end and then finish the possession with a dunk on the other.
It was a relentless energy that required no prodding.
“The kid never asked for water,” Touomou said. “He never asked for a break, he never complained about anything. It’s hot as hell, but he never wanted to rest.
“And he didn’t do this because he tried to impress me because I was going to take him to the US. He didn’t even believe in the US, he didn’t think he could go to the US. So he did it naturally. He was just a hard worker.
“He never complained — and God knows people in Gabon like to complain. He wasn’t one of those. He never complained about anything. I had to tell him to go get some water. And he would drink the water and come back. That to me was a good sign. That’s the one thing that really fascinated me about the kid.”
Silva, Touomou was convinced, had a bright future if given the proper structure. A few years under American high school coaching could lead to a Division I scholarship and beyond.
Tom Sacks is the associate head basketball coach at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey. He’s also a husband to Phyllis and the father of four children — two sons and two daughters.
The unofficial seventh member of the family touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2012 with little cargo and little English.
“Coach,” Chris Silva told Sacks, “I go NBA.”
Sacks loves retelling the story of his introduction to Silva. He’s delivered it to a number of publications over the last few years, including NJ.com and Sports Illustrated. It helps put in perspective how far Silva’s come since arriving in the United States.
“We taught him how to use the currency and this and that,” Sacks said. “It’s just been great to see him grow into the fine young man that he is. He’s the best.”
Sacks long had a desire to host, train and mentor a basketball player from a foreign country. That was known to Touomou, who shared with Sacks video of a lanky forward dunking on flimsy rims and rattling flimsy backboards in Gabon.
“The court was outdoors and it looked like a canopy was on top of it,” Sacks said. “It was like a 2-minute film. And Chris, he moved well. Athleticism was off the charts.
“We got all the paperwork and Chris came over a few days prior to his 16th birthday. We took it from there.”
The first stop after the airport pick-up was to a restaurant to eat. The next was to the Roselle Catholic gym to shoot around. From Touomou’s scouting report, Sacks knew Silva liked to work on his game. No matter the hour of the day, no matter the condition of the facility, Silva could dribble a ball flat if you let him.
But what Sacks soon gathered was Silva didn’t stop when the gym lights went out. He’d venture behind the school and hit the track for four miles.
“I would tell Chris,” Sacks said, “‘Yo, you gotta start getting some of these other (Roselle Catholic) guys with you to get them in better shape.’ He goes, ‘Nah, they came out the first day and told me I was crazy. They couldn’t keep up with me.’”
Silva’s endurance was one of the many qualities that attracted college coaches. In September of his season year — and after helping two championship Roselle Catholic teams — he chose South Carolina over Seton Hall and Rhode Island.
When Columbia native and blue-chip guard PJ Dozier committed to the Gamecocks a month later, he envisioned a partnership with one of the most tireless players he had seen on the recruiting trail.
“We were at the Reebok Breakout Camp in Philadelphia,” Dozier said, referring to a summer showcase of top prospects. “I saw him there and I’m like, man, that guy looks familiar. He was playing so hard, man. Playing so hard, blocking shots, running the court.
“And the next thing I know, he reached out to me and was like, ‘PJ, I’m Chris Silva. I’m interested in the University of South Carolina. I know you’re from there. I’m just wondering how you feel about the program.’”
Silva was a spokesman for Frank Martin’s team before actually joining it.
“Coach Frank doesn’t coach anyone soft,” Dozier said. “That’s not a word he likes. So we never use anything like that. You’re not going to do it if there’s any doubt you’re soft.
“And Chris was one of those kids that could process what Coach was saying immediately and learn from it. He progressed so much faster than a lot of other guys that have been there.”
Sweat dripped off the new international student and onto the floor in Nick Mazur’s office at USC’s Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center.
“Chris,” Mazur asked, “how long were you outside?”
It takes a brave soul to stand a typical June afternoon in Columbia any longer than necessary. But here was Chris Silva, a USC freshman, stopping to see the basketball team’s learning specialist — after a cross-campus sprint.
“I needed to get here and I didn’t know how,” Silva told Mazur. “So I ran and I figured I could just get some exercise at the same time.”
Mazur has met with Silva countless times since that early interaction in 2015. As Silva’s built an NBA résumé, he’s worked toward a degree in integrated information technology.
His drive for both is best described, Mazur said, through the above anecdote.
“I definitely think that Chris doesn’t take anything for granted,” Mazur said. “He doesn’t rely simply on his talents. He knows that his talents always have to be improved and refined and he needs to practice them, whether it’s academically or athletically. Every time he reaches a goal, he makes a new one for himself.”
Frank Martin, notorious for an intense style, is on record of saying he’s coached Silva harder than any other Gamecock in his seven years with USC. (Dozier, who played with Sindarius Thornwell and Michael Carrera, has confirmed as much.) And it’s never been for show. Martin believes holding your best players accountable sets the proper tone throughout your team. Martin also knows from experience Silva doesn’t respond well to a coach who treats him with kid gloves.
“Chris was a freshman and I saw Frank really whipping him,” Sacks said. “He’s really whipping him over everything. I said, ‘He’s got to get to know Chris a little better. If you build him up more, he’s gonna play harder. You can whip him for making a mistake, but build him up at the same time. You gotta show him the love. If you do that, this guy will jump in front of a freight train for you.’
“I tell Frank all that and Frank doesn’t say much. ‘OK, Tommy.’”
But Martin still took Sacks’ advice. Bad move.
“A week goes by,” Sacks said, “and Chris goes into the office and says, ‘Coach, what’s a matter?’ Frank goes, ‘What do you mean?’ Chris says, ‘Man, you haven’t been yelling at me. Coach I came down here for you to coach me hard, to be hard on me and not give me any passes or stuff like that.’”
What kind of player tells Frank Martin to yell at him more? One who grew up on the uneven courts of Gabon, playing an unorganized style of ball where battle scars were part of the uniform.
“Back home,” Silva said, “we like contact. And we don’t like being weak. So when a young guy plays with an older guy, you gotta play like the older guy. You can’t have an excuse like, ‘Oh man, I’m young.’ No. If you do that, my old coach used to like smack us in the chest.
“As players, we took that as a culture. So if I see my teammate mess up, I’m going to smack him in the chest to wake him up.”
Frank Martin was coaching Miami Senior High School when Chris Silva was born. Martin was at Kansas State when Silva was discovered by Joe Touomou. Martin had just started at South Carolina when Silva first came to America.
But when they eventually joined forces, the match was perfect.
“That’s Frank’s son,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said after the first two seasons of facing the Martin-Silva combo. “That’s Frank Jr.”
The toughest guys in CLA manged to not cry like babies Saturday.
Silva, after being escorted by Tom and Phyllis Sacks, arrived in front of Frank Martin minutes before South Carolina’s last home game of the 2018-19 season.
Their “unbelievable, long journey” hit Senior Day.
“Chris has been one of the special people that I’ve been put in front of during my coaching career,” Martin said. “He’s got an enthusiasm for life that’s contagious.”
One tear from big, bad Martin and big, bad Silva would have lost it.
“If Frank cries,” Silva said prior to the game, “I’m going to tear up like a baby.”
Silva’s path to Martin was triggered by a grainy video. The journey’s ending with a crystal-clear picture.
“I’m telling you,” Sacks said, “it was like destiny for Chris to go be with Frank.”