MIAMI — Some days Chris Silva stands on the balcony of his high-rise apartment in downtown Miami and peers right, over the rollerbladers below and past American Airlines Arena. He gazes over Bayside Marina, beyond the docked cruise ships and out onto the horizon.
Somewhere in the distance lies his past, in Gabon, Africa, where he was an unknown youth with untapped potential — on the basketball court and in life — and a dream.
Here, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, he’s Chris Silva, Heat rookie — No. 30 in your game program.
“When I was a kid and a teenager back home, you’ve got the same view. Just the ocean. And you wonder what’s on the other side. Now I look out over the ocean and I know,” Silva says while snacking on pita and hummus at CVLTVRA restaurant, 40-plus floors below his Biscayne Boulevard apartment.
It’s a Thursday in late February, the day between home games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks, and Silva has just gotten back from a workout. Earlier in the day he sat on a limestone rock outside “The AAA” — as locals call it — and answered questions about his life in the NBA. Now he talks about how his career at South Carolina prepared him for it.
Silva averaged 2.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and half an assist per game before the NBA season was postponed because of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. He had shot 62.3 percent from the field.
“We love his speed, quickness, ferociousness and his competitiveness,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told Spurs & Feathers. “And he has an ability to get to the ball quickly. Whether that’s rebounding or shot blocking. That’s unique. And you add to it an ambitious work ethic. … We’ve had success with guys like that.
“We enjoy working with him and helping him achieve what he wants to out of this game.”
Silva remained upbeat — as much as the even-keeled 23-year-old could be — despite averaging seven and a half minutes per game as a rookie.
After all, he had defied the odds once again. He came to the United States from the western shore of Africa just days before he turned 16 and in seven years, despite not being taken in June’s NBA Draft, became the second player from Gabon (Stéphane Lasme) to make the league.
“The fact I’m here, I’m just grateful and trying to take advantage of the opportunity,” he says.
THE ULTIMATE TEAMMATE
Chris Silva stands so close to Erik Spoelstra during timeouts that the 6-8, 230-pound forward can likely decipher his coach’s inner thoughts.
During the homestand and throughout the season, Silva stood over Spoelstra’s shoulder during timeouts, soaking in the Xs and Os knowledge that will take him from fringe rotation player to regular contributor.
“He’s paying attention,” Spoelstra said. “He’s checking all the small boxes. And that’s necessary when you’re really trying to fight for a spot in this league.”
“It’s all about learning. When you don’t know something, you’ve got to be curious,” Silva says. “You’ve got to ask questions. You have to want to be nosey. I’m trying to ask the questions I need to reach that level where I want to be.”
Silva played in 41 of the Heat’s 65 games but had several shining moments before the season was postponed.
He had three blocks against the Memphis Grizzlies in his NBA debut, a Heat victory. He had a season-high nine rebounds twice, eight days apart. He had an eight-rebound game in-between those, and a season-high 10 points just days after.
But in Miami, unlike South Carolina, he’s not the main attraction.
Silva mostly mans the last seat on the Heat bench. Sometimes he sits closer to Spoelstra, but sometimes he doesn’t have a seat at all. He sat on the floor at times during the Minnesota and Dallas games and sometimes sat in an empty court-side seat normally reserved for a fan.
Fans can’t buy his jersey at the Aventura or Sawgrass malls, or any of the auxiliary kiosks around the AAA. There’s only one rack of Silva jerseys on sale in the team’s flagship arena store, each with a $150 price tag.
Instead, he thrives in his role as teammate.
“Chris has an infectious personality,” Heat shooting guard Duncan Robinson said. “His smile, a lot of times you don’t really know what he’s saying, but he just brings that energy. A guy like that, it’s hard not be appreciative of.”
Silva flies on imaginary wings after teammate Derrick Jones Jr. throws down a dunk, just as Gamecock teammates once did after Silva slams. He gives a shimmy when Bam Adebayo scores on a fancy up-and-under. He screams when Goran Dragic puts in the front end of an and-one.
Kendrick Nunn called Silva a “great teammate.”
“He’s someone who’s real underrated and puts in a lot of work,” the Heat starting point guard said. “He comes in every day, first one in, last one out, and it shows. When he gets his time on the floor, he produces. He’s making strides and developing.
“I’ve seen him be mature and be professional, not crying about minutes or anything, just controlling what he can control. The sky’s the limit for Silv, for a guy who locks in and puts in the work like him. The sky’s the limit. He can accomplish a lot.”
Robinson, Nunn and Silva formed the nucleus of the Heat’s summer league team.
Robinson, who starts for the Heat despite going undrafted in 2018, occasionally swings by to take his teammate to eat or to the arena. Otherwise, Silva would most likely order room service — salmon sandwiches are his go-to — and take a walk, albeit a short one, to the arena.
One topic they don’t discuss: How Silva and South Carolina beat Robinson’s Michigan squad in November 2016. Says Robinson, “He plays so hard. I just remember him going to the glass every time and him being a handful to box out.”
Robinson compared Silva to the 6-9, 255-pound Adebayo, the 14th overall pick in 2017 and an NBA All-Star this season who won the event’s skills challenge.
Most compare Silva to Udonis Haslem, the undrafted Miami lifer who has played for the Heat since 2003. By happenstance, Haslem, the do-it-all glue guy and lockdown defender, played for South Carolina head coach Frank Martin at Miami Senior High School in the late '90s.
The two FaceTime Martin every now and then to check in.
“They’re similar as players. Successful college careers — their teams went to Final Fours, all-league players and everyone in the NBA said they weren’t quite good enough,” Martin said. “Yet, from the first day of summer camp, the Heat said, ‘We’re not letting [Chris] go.’
“Udonis and Chris, they’re the ultimate teammates. They’re about winning and they’re about helping people. That’s why they’ve migrated to one another.”
Haslem has taken Silva under his wing and is a main reason why the rookie pays such close attention to fine details. He’s also teaching Silva the importance of community service.
“Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Haslem tells Silva.
“I’m open. I really don’t want to put a ceiling on it,” Spoelstra said about Silva’s future. “And I don’t necessarily want to compare him to U-D. I mean, obviously they both played for the same coach. That’s one of the reasons why we really like him. If you can survive Frank, you can make it with us.
“And we saw a lot of similar qualities of toughness and competitiveness, being overlooked, having a chip on his shoulder. Chris has the perfect mentor in U-D. I love coming into an empty gym and seeing the two of them working together.”
FINDING A HOME
Silva, who declared for the draft in 2018 only to return to South Carolina for his senior season, worked out last spring for the Heat, Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs.
His workouts for the Heat and Spurs, two of the most physically demanding in the NBA, came on back-to-back days. He arrived in Miami at 2 a.m. for the team’s 7 a.m. workout and made it to the arena by 6. “I had to wake up and get my mind right,” he said. “And, you know, get at it.”
The draft took place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and Silva he watched from home 20 or so miles away in New Jersey.
“I wanted to be drafted because I knew my country would be watching and my fans would be watching,” he said. “And my family would be watching. There were people who reached out to me on Facebook who missed work just to watch the draft because they wanted to be a part of that special moment.”
But when the final selections were made — guys named Miye Oni, Dewan Hernandez and Vanja Marinkovic — Silva realized that dream would not come true.
Instead, he received serious interest from three or four teams, including Miami and San Antonio. He received a text message from Spoelstra and others in the Heat front office inviting him to play for the organization’s summer league team.
“It was something from the heart, Miami,” Silva said. “Miami is the one that took my heart and made me feel like I was home.”
That something, he says, had something to do with Martin being from Miami and coaching players like Haslem, Rodney McGruder and Michael Beasley who thrived with the Heat. Martin also calls Heat assistant coach of player development Octavio De La Grana a “dear friend for 35 years.” (Heat vice president/assistant general manager Adam Simon even told Martin before the draft that, if Silva wasn’t drafted, he was the first player they wanted to bring in.)
Silva called Martin after the draft to share his decision.
“There are certain people in life that, when you come across them, you just don’t push them away,” Martin said. “You hug them and you don’t ever let them go. Chris is one of those guys.
“If somebody let him in, they weren’t letting him out. Because he’s too talented, too loyal and he cares too much. At the end of the day, that’s what we want. We want to surround ourselves with people like him.”
Silva didn’t let his opportunity go to waste, despite seven of the 12 players on Miami’s summer league roster being forwards.
“I’ve always got a chip on my shoulder,” Silva said. “I’m always ready for competition and everything that comes with it. From college to the summer league, whatever I’ve got to do, I’ve always got that edge that I’ve got to give it the best I have.”
His best was spot on.
Silva started all six of the games he played (he missed one because of a bruised knee) and averaged seven points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 56.5 percent from the field.
“Just how hard he plays and the intensity he brings,” Robinson said. “A lot of times in the summer league, you’re going out there, it’s a new group of guys and there’s a feeling out process. But it’s the guys that do those things that tend to stick out. You know, he brought it. Every practice. Every game.
“His motor is really what separates him. He plays so damn hard.”
It was an eye-opening experience for Silva. “Yo, we’re really on an NBA court right now,” he told one teammate before the team’s first summer league game in Sacramento.
“From then on it got more real, playing the first game of the preseason with a real Miami Heat jersey, it hit us again,” he said. “And then the first regular-season game was like, ‘Wow, it’s official. This is it. I’m checking in to an NBA game.’ I try to not get too excited, but at the same time, there was a lot going through my head. It was good.”
Before the Las Vegas Summer League ended, Silva was rewarded an invitation to the team’s regular training camp and given an Exhibit 10 deal, a contract with a $50,000 guarantee that gave the Heat the ability to send him to their G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
But Silva didn’t let up. If anything, it made him push harder.
“It was a grind all summer,” he said.
Silva worked on learning the Heat system, the vocabulary of the play calls. He spent countless hours lifting weights and putting up shots.
“It was like learning a new language,” he said. “But the thing that helped me was we were kind of doing the same things we did at South Carolina in terms of calls on ball screens, left and right, the motions.”
The first time he put on the official uniform for a preseason game he sent photos of himself back home. “It’s a great honor,” Silva said. “Not a lot of people from back home can say they’ve worn an NBA jersey and actually stepped on the court in an NBA game.”
After the Heat’s final preseason game, Spoelstra called Silva into his office and handed him a two-way contract. “Here you go,” Spoelstra told him. “You earned this. Everything you’ve done, it has been right on. You were professional.”
“I didn’t cry cry, but tears came out when I signed my two-way,” Silva admitted. “It was a long process.”
In mid-January that deal was converted into a standard three-year deal that runs through the 2021-22 season.
“He earned it this summer with his commitment to the player development program. And he’s gotten better every single month,” Spoelstra said. “You shouldn’t look at his minutes right now. This is all about development. He was supposed to be in Sioux Falls all season, but he’s developed fast enough that he’s spent a majority of his time here, and that’s a credit to him.
“We’re committed to the full-scale, big-picture development with Chris Silva.”
Silva was back in Columbia, S.C. during the NBA All-Star break in mid-February. Wearing a blue beanie, designer glasses, plaid garnet sweater and black Champion pants, he sat alongside fellow South Carolina NBAers Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier and watched his alma mater beat Tennessee.
After the game, Martin, like he famously did during Silva’s college career, poked fun at the big man.
“You would think, when you start making that kind of money, you can dress better than Chris Silva [does],” the coach joked. “I mean, did you see what he was wearing? Oh my God. And he lives in Miami! People have style down there!”
Silva finished his South Carolina career with 1,509 career points, which ranks 10th in program history. He ranks sixth in rebounds (876), third in free throws made (577) and sixth in blocked shots (186). He was the SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18 and a first-team All-SEC selection in 2018-19.
“The fact that he was willing to get on a plane, come to a country where he didn’t speak the language, to take a chance living life away from his family, I knew that the work ethic he was going to have would be relentless,” Martin said.
It was, and it led him to where he is today.
Silva says playing for a tough but fair coach like Martin has helped him “a lot” as a professional. He arrives two hours early for 10 a.m. shootarounds.
“All the principles that he has, about being a man and handling your stuff, on the court and off the court, it helped me,” Silva said. “I apply all them here in Miami. It helped me get that contract.”
“I’m proud of him, because he’s continued to be who he is,” Martin said. “He just wanted somebody to believe in him. Some people get drafted and they come in with all these accolades but they’re always about themselves rather than the team, so they kind of flame out.
“… But there are certain people like Chris that just want somebody to believe in them. Give [Heat president] Pat Riley, Adam Simon and Spoelstra credit. They gave him a chance.
“And then Chris did what he does, which is come in and give an unbelievable commitment and effort every single day.”
Dozier and Thornwell have also been there to lend a listening ear.
“Talking to them has helped me level my mind and realize how much of an opportunity I have and to not take it for granted,” Silva said.
Despite the Heat’s original plan to have Silva spend most of his season in the G League, the big man played in just two games (during one trip) in South Dakota. By happenstance, the two games Silva played for the Skyforce came against Thornwell’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The former Final Four teammates reminisced about old times and spoke a bit about the future.
In 17 minutes in the first game Silva made six of eight shots, grabbed five rebounds, blocked four shots and dished three assists. Seven points came in the fourth quarter. In 18 minutes in the second game he made all four of his shots and grabbed three rebounds.
There was no doubt Silva had proven himself better than his competition and, as he said, “There’s really nothing to do in Sioux Falls.”
He belonged in Miami, and he had proven that.
BUILDING NEW DREAMS
Silva’s first memories of NBA basketball are watching Kobe Bryant highlights on YouTube. “How tenacious he was, making moves and winning games,” Silva said.
His first memories truly learning about the United States come from Sept. 11, 2001. “I had my uncle in the U.S., and I was worried,” he said. “There were a lot of stories going around.”
He has now lived a third of his life in the country.
“It’s a country of opportunities where people make the most of a little,” he said.
On Dec. 27, with the help of NBA Senior VP of International Basketball Operations Kimberly Bohuny, the Heat surprised Silva with his mom, Carine Minkoue Obame, who he hadn’t seen in three years.
It was her first time in the United States.
“I struggled believing that was actually her in front of me,” Silva said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was a total surprise.”
“I don’t think of myself as a very emotional person, but I was choked up,” Robinson said. “It was a special moment and couldn’t have happened to a better person.”
Carine stayed in town for almost two weeks, and mom and son “visited more places in those two weeks than the entire time” he has been in Miami, including stops at the Lincoln Road shopping district.
A few weeks later Silva finally met NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“It was like being drafted, you know, when you walk up on to that stage and you shake his hand. It was like that,” Silva said. “It was always one of my dreams to shake his hand and talk to him. And that happened.”
Now Silva wants to help the next kid with a dream.
He wants to tell the youngsters in the same shoes he was once in to be patient, keep working hard, eliminate distractions and that hard work “always pays off at the end of the day.”
“To have some good in life, you’re going to have some struggle or some bad,” Silva says. “You’re going to have a balance. You’ve just got to focus on what you can control and focus on it and move on.
“It was my dream to make it here, but now that I’m here, I’ve got to set some new goals. People think just because I made it here, that dream is over. But it isn’t.
“I want to have an impact that will stay forever.”
He wants to make a change back in Gabon. He will work summer camps for NBA Africa and give as much as he can to kids.
On the court, Silva has limitless potential, as Spoelstra alluded.
“He’s so young in his basketball life,” Martin says. “When you hit rewind, three years of high school, four years of college, he’s seven years into his basketball life. If that’s good enough for him to be in the NBA, that’s really impressive.
“I pray to God that he stays healthy. Because, if he does, he’s going to have a long, long career in that NBA.”
The day between the Minnesota and Dallas games, Silva moved from the hotel room he had been living out of into a permanent apartment. “I’ve been working to get that apartment, so it’s a relief,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Silva takes a sip of orange Gatorade. A salmon sandwich and rice arrive at the table in a to-go container. It’s time for Chris Silva to head upstairs and take a nap.
Then, he’ll dream.
“My dream is to go as far as I can. Reach for the stars,” he says. “Championships, All-Star. Play basketball and compete with the best of them. Do what I dreamed of when I was a kid, play basketball for a living and to give everything I have to be the best at it.”