Chris Silva dunks

Chris Silva.

Chris Silva’s ‘Coming to America’ story has been well documented — how he took four plane trips the day after his high school graduation to get from his home country of Gabon, in Africa, to John F. Kennedy airport in New York City.

As the story goes, of what little English Silva knew, he knew enough to tell the high school basketball coach who met him at the airport, “Coach, I go NBA.” 

That was September 2012.

Almost seven years later, Silva has found himself on the cusp of living that longshot dream.

In seven years, the 6-9, 234-pounder became a force on the court. At South Carolina, Silva finished his career in the top 10 in program history in points, rebounds and blocks and was the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18. He became the only Gamecock with an SEC Defensive Player of the Year award and Final Four ring.

“At South Carolina I learned how to grow as a man and how to hold myself accountable every day,” Silva said. “I tried to play hard, give everything I’ve got and play with passion.” 

It’s because he did — and became a star player in the process — that Silva finds himself on the verge of being selected in the 2019 NBA Draft, which takes place June 20.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to step in an NBA facility and play for an NBA team,” Silva told Spurs & Feathers. “With where I come from, I can’t take any days for granted. I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got.” 

Silva reflected on his career in a 25-minute chat in early April, from his relationship with South Carolina head coach Frank Martin to his career highlights to how he wants to be remembered.

‘FRANK’S SON’

Silva believes the success he had at South Carolina couldn’t have happened anywhere else, and that it happened thanks to Martin’s support and push. Silva stopped in Martin’s office often to chat about basketball, but also when he missed home or was down about his grades.

“He always gave me a clear perspective on what a solution could be,” Silva said. “Every time I had an issue and went to his office, I left happy. He always helped me through the situation.”

“He’s one of the special people I’ve been put in front of during my coaching career,” Martin said in March. “He has an enthusiasm for life that’s contagious. He came in here as a humble kid, learned from the guys before him and has worked his tail off to carry that torch. He’s special.” 

It often gets mentioned how similar the mentor, Martin, and the protégée, Silva, are — how both attack goals and don’t let anything get in their way.

Martin once told a story about an interaction Silva had at a practice with Gamecock assistant coach Bruce Shingler. 

“Chris is on one side [of the court] and he messed up. Bruce corrected him. He did it again and messed up the same thing. Bruce said to him, ‘Chris, where is your brain at?’ That dude pointed across the court, I had no idea, pointed across the court at me and said, ‘That’s my brain.’”

“That’s Frank’s son,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said about Silva after the Gamecocks faced the Bulldogs in October 2017. “That’s Frank Jr.” 

Martin has said multiple times he coached Silva harder than any other player he has coached during his seven seasons in Columbia. 

“He’s hard, but at the same time enjoyable, because in the game he lets you have freedom,” Silva said. “At the same time, he doesn’t let you get casual. He makes sure everything you do is hard. He makes sure you give everything you’ve got every day. That’s what makes it so special.”

Martin worked with Silva especially on growing leadership qualities. 

That point came to a head during a practice in January 2018, when a Gamecock point guard did not run a play Martin called. “Chris blew a gasket,” Martin said at the time. “And I just sat there and smiled, because it’s the first time all year we have had that kind of ownership.” 

The message was reinforced during a team-building exercise earlier that week when the coach lined his players on a baseline and asked them questions about their effort and enthusiasm. Every time a player could answer positively, he could take a step forward.

“I asked seven or eight questions,” Martin said. “They were all about enthusiasm and positive energy. [At the end], there was one guy standing by himself at the 50-yard line: Chris. Everyone else is close to the baseline. He turned around and looked and was like, ‘Wow.’” 

A few nights later, Silva had a then career-high 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds in a win over Vanderbilt.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

The performance is one among many that stands out during Silva’s highlight-filled career, from all the Silva Slams to the Mutombo-esque blocks. 

Silva’s first two points as a Gamecock came on the first Silva Slam on a feed from P.J. Dozier in a blowout win over Norfolk State. “I’ll always remember that,” Silva said. “I think I stole the ball and it was a fast break. P.J. was ahead of me and I passed him the ball. We just made eye contact and he just threw it up. 

“I dunked it and everyone was just like, ‘Whoa.” 

Silva’s first of 27 career double-doubles came as a sophomore in a 70-69 overtime win over Monmouth. “The only reason I remember that game is because P.J. hit a buzzer-beater,” Silva said. “That game was just crazy.”

The obvious memory, or compilation of memories, comes from the Gamecocks’ Final Four run that season. “That Final Four run is going to be marked in my memory forever,” Silva said.

Silva remembers listening to Bob Marley on the bus ride to the team’s Sweet 16 game against Duke. “Everybody was nervous, but nobody was scared,” he said. 

Silva, of course, remembers the game, which the Gamecocks famously won 88-81 in Greenville despite trailing by seven at halftime. 

“We started tearing it up,” Silva said. “Everybody was making shots.

“By the time there was about five minutes left, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re about to win this!’ It was crazy. With about a minute left we all started getting really excited. … When the game was over Sin [Thornwell] just threw the ball up in the air and we all ran to the fans.”

Silva also fondly remembers when the Gamecocks overcame a 14-point second-half deficit and upset No. 18 Kentucky at Colonial Life Arena in January 2018, and how he told Martin during a timeout late in the game, “We’re not going to lose.” 

From his senior season, Silva remembers South Carolina’s last-second 71-69 victory over Florida that he sealed with a last-second dunk after catching a Hail Mary pass from Felipe Haase.

“I’m looking at you,” Haase had told him. “I’m not looking anywhere else.”

Two weeks later, Silva had a career-high 32 points and 14 rebounds when South Carolina beat eventual Final Four participant Auburn.

“Silva was obviously the difference in the game,” Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl said. “He was dominant. … He fouled out two of our post players and we couldn’t guard him.”  

But it was that same Auburn team South Carolina fell to in the first round of the SEC Tournament, effectively ending Silva’s college career and putting his focus solely on making that NBA dream come true.

LASTING LEGACY

“My guy Chris Silva is relentless. He gives every ounce of what he has to offer,” Gamecock graduating senior Hassani Gravett told Spurs & Feathers. “A great addition to any team no matter the roster. And he brings more to the table beyond ball. Everyone feeds off of the energy he gives off.” 

Silva declared for the NBA Draft after his junior season and had workouts for the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Oklahoma City Thunder. But Silva did not hire an agent, and, before a workout with the Charlotte Hornets, announced he was returning to school.

Now, the dream will become reality, whether Silva gets taken in the draft or gets invited to play for an organization’s summer league team. Either way, he will add to the growing list of NBA stars from his home continent, like Joel Embiid, Luol Deng and Serge Ibaka.

He will also achieve the goal he set as a child of surpassing the level of play of his dad, who played for the Gabonese national team.

After his sophomore year at South Carolina, after five years in the United States, Silva returned to visit Gabon. It was an emotional two-week trip, from the time his sister picked him up at the airport and took him to his grandmother’s house for a homecooked meal until the time he left.

It was two weeks, but it felt like a day. 

“[Gabon] is so different, you don’t even know,” Silva said.

The trip back home reminds Silva of that first trip to the United States, when he flew from Gabon to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Rome and then to New York. How he got help along the way from a random traveler who happened to be going to Dallas. 

“From whenever I can remember until now, I’ve always had a dream of playing in the NBA and getting drafted,” Silva said. “All I could see in that dream was how emotional it would be on draft day and seeing ‘NBA’ and my name called. People back home that didn’t believe in me. 

“It’s just a wild dream, and now it’s right here.”