A lifetime of relentless work has carried Chris Silva from Gabon, to South Carolina, to his new NBA home with the Miami Heat.
There are long days that separate the few minutes when Chris Silva is free to let loose, to dive to the floor or elbow his way past an opponent for a rebound. During the quiet in between, he calmly looks out the hurricane-proof glass of his hotel room, over swaying palms, and waters gentle and coarse, imagining what might be on the other side.
Silva is an undrafted rookie and spent his first few months in the NBA on a two-way contract with the Miami Heat. He never traveled to Sioux Falls, where the Heat’s G-League affiliate is based because it is cold and lonely and basketball can be your only focus. But the team arranges for the room and when they travel and Silva is with them, he packs away what few belongings he keeps with him and puts them in storage, then undoes the process upon his return.
It’s a little inconvenient to be uprooted, Silva acknowledges, but he’s grateful for the opportunity it has come to symbolize. The hotel also has some advantages. There’s a restaurant downstairs and a few others around the corner. It’s just blocks away from the AmericanAirlines Arena so it’s easy to walk — headphones on, shoulders hunched — unrecognized to work. Best of all, there’s that window, the one with views beyond the palms and Biscayne Bay and the waters that become the Atlantic Ocean, connecting Miami to the powdery beaches of Gabon.
A connection to home.
Silva used up his English vocabulary in one shot. “I told him ‘Coach, I go NBA.’”
Eight years ago, Silva boarded the first plane of his life on a flight from Gabon to Addis Adiba, then another to Rome, a third to Dallas, before finally arriving in Washington, D.C., confused and lost and without much knowledge of English beyond four words. An assistant coach, Tommy Sacks, with ties to Gabon had arranged for Silva to begin his American basketball journey at Roselle High School, a Catholic private school in New Jersey. He had never met Silva, didn’t know what to expect when he asked the gangly 6-foot-5 teenager what he wanted to do after spending over a day flying across time zones and those same Atlantic waters. Silva used up his English vocabulary in one shot. “I told him ‘Coach, I go NBA,’” says Silva now with a laugh.
The English has improved considerably, and Silva nestles easily into a leathery booth in that restaurant downstairs, some 6,000-plus miles from his hometown of Libreville. The hotel is awash in an edgy, sexy kitsch. A portrait of a woman’s mouth chewing on a heart-shaped lollipop hangs nearby. A metal sculpture of…something glistens in the corner. In the background, a fusion jazz trio rehearses before the evening crowd arrives to pay too much for the sea bass and questionable ambiance. A gym bag sits to Silva’s right, a paper bag with takeout lunch to his left.
The Heat had the day off but Silva put in some work anyway because it won’t count toward the 45 days his contract allowed him to spend at practice or in games. A teammate who drives recommended a Tex-Mex place in nearby Wynwood, where artists and aficionados from around the world had flocked for the art fair known as Art Basel (pronounced “Baah-sel”). Perhaps they can afford the sea bass but Silva was just there for the burritos.
He has adjusted to this new life in the United States and appreciates the food growing cold by his side. “But I miss my grandma’s home cooking. A lot.” He talks about the freshness of it, how he considers that Gabon has the best pizza in the world. He can’t explain why it was so good, but nostalgia might be the best ingredient of all.
His earliest basketball memories are of chasing after his father, Jose, a player with the Gabonese men’s national team who also played professionally for a number of international leagues. “I have pictures in my head of me saying, ‘I wanna watch you play basketball,’” as he’d walk into packed arenas buzzing with excitement. Young Chris would watch Jose intently, on the court as well as off, a celebrity who knew everyone, playing a sport that seemed to have a huge following in Gabon.
David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
As he grew, Chris and Jose spent less and less time together but basketball had already taken hold. In Gabonese schools, teachers who taught “sports classes” would also teach at local clubs, and Silva earned academic points for his participation. He started playing for the pure enjoyment of it, practicing in gyms that became emptier and emptier almost in direct contrast to Silva’s love of the sport. He made new friends that had a passing interest in basketball but developing as a player was impossible as that interest waned. “Basketball just died in my country,” Silva says.
Undeterred, he took the game more seriously than ever before, almost single-handedly trying to bring it back to life. He played on one, two, three clubs, playing against competition that was inferior, even as Silva himself was raw and unskilled. But he was tall, athletic, and determined, and drew the attention of a coach on the Gabonese national team. It was a step but not enough. “In my spirit,” he says, “I wanted to go the NBA.”
A scout and coach with the national team, Joe Touomou, saw promise in Silva. Touomou had played in the United States for Georgetown University, and still had contacts with American coaches. He reached out to Sacks, sending grainy video of a lanky 14-year-old that played with passion and promise, if not much skill. Sacks took a chance and told Touomou that there was a spot in Roselle for Silva if he wanted it. “My coach asked me if I wanted to play in the United States,” says Silva. Even years later, he’s unable to repress a wide grin and turns his long hands over, palms upward in a plea — are you kidding me? — that has already been heard. “‘Man, that’s every kid’s dream! Let’s do it!’” he told Touomou.
Despite Jose’s long affiliation with the sport, he was hesitant to let his son travel overseas by himself and likely fall short of his goal. Carine Obame, Chris’ mother, shared her former husband’s reluctance. Chris was disappointed, heartbroken by the lack of support. But he was more determined than ever, going as far as to fill out whatever paperwork was needed to procure a passport and visa, a teenager cutting through red tape with scissors made of nothing but hope. “Something was driving me,” he says, gathering what belongings fit into a single bag as he prepared to leave home, unsure if he’d ever return. He boarded the first of four planes and embarked on a new life in the United States.
Roselle was cold and unusual, Silva recalls. Technically a sophomore when he enrolled in the school, he was hosted by one family for a year, spent the next with yet a different host, then spent his senior year with a teammate and his family. Silva struggled to fit in. In Libreville, he spoke French as well as a Portuguese-based Creole, neither of which were common among a mostly-white student body of about 300 students. He took multiple courses in French and learned how to translate his native tongue into English.
But when it came to learning from his coaches, he relied mostly on sight, reading lips to understand what words they might be using. “I had no choice, man,” he says today. “You get one or two words and try to figure out the sentence. [I’d] go to work out, and my coaches would say, ‘Take one, two dribbles and shoot.’ and I didn’t know what they meant at first. But from the motion, I would understand what they were saying.” He’d string words together, recognize them the next time they were used, and eventually started to form complete sentences. Within three months, he understood English well enough but it would take him years before he was comfortable speaking it.
He was a good high school player, frenetic and tireless. He lacked fundamentals and the experience; didn’t have a support system intent on him reaching the league. Still, he outworked even the best players in the nation, top recruits like Karl-Anthony Towns, and was productive despite skills that were as limited as his grasp on English. When scholarship offers from top schools began reaching him at Roselle, Sacks advised him to consider an easier route.
“‘You wanna go to the NBA? The plan is to go to a low major. Ball out. Hope for an NBA scout to see you instead of going to a school with a lot of good players and struggling.’” Prudent advice, maybe, but not exactly encouraging. The words still sting years later, even if they just add fuel to Silva’s inexhaustible competitive fires. “I was like, ‘Man, you think I can’t do it?’”
One offer came from the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks head coach, Frank Martin, had a longstanding relationship with Sacks, who continued to laud Silva to schools around the country. “He was so raw, so brand new to basketball,” says Martin. Silva had good hands and was athletic, and he was competitive and didn’t shy away from physicality. “More importantly, Tommy just raved about Chris’ character.” Martin’s deep bass reaches reverential levels when discussing character, views it as the greatest quality of any recruit he’s considering. He doesn’t dismiss talent outright. “But work ethic and character, that’s what allows players — and people in general — to succeed. That’s just life.”
The appreciation was mutual. “Coach Frank said, ‘If you come to my school, I’m going to make you work every day,’ and I thought if I go to a coach like that, there’s no way I can’t succeed.” He committed immediately.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
South Carolina was a more comfortable upgrade for Silva, hot and humid with the occasional palm trying to escape the mossy embrace of a weeping willow. The warmth did not extend to the basketball court, however, where Silva’s athleticism couldn’t make up for a glaring lack of experience and skill. “Every day of my freshman year was terrible,” Silva recalls. Martin’s legendarily intense practices were an extreme that even the hard-working Silva wasn’t prepared for. Mistakes were frequent and resulted in running and working to the point of exhaustion for hours at a time. “I was going crazy,” he says, casting his eyes downward. “I would go to my dorm and think, ‘Do I even wanna keep playing basketball?’”
But the goal of the NBA was closer than ever and so Silva recommitted himself, getting lost in the work. He added pounds of muscle to his now 6-foot-8 frame, becoming a fixture in the Gamecocks weight room. Just as he had fought through adversity in Gabon and then at Roselle, he would learn how to navigate through Martin’s constant demands.
I told everyone that called me [before the draft], ‘If you let him in, you won’t let him out.’ And that’s exactly what’s happening.
“I was hard on him,” Martin admits, remembering a time when his wife even pointed out that he might have been gone too far during one particular game. Martin realized she might have been right, and called Silva into his office during the team’s next practice, ready to apologize. “I said, ‘Chris, I can’t expect you to be successful with me criticizing you like this.’ He just got this confused look on his face. I wondered if he was okay, if maybe I had gone too far but then he says, ‘Coach, I didn’t come here for you to be nice to me. I want you to push me like that.’ I was just blown away. I wasn’t used to players like that. But that’s just who he is. He didn’t want the easy stuff. He wanted the challenge. He wanted more.”
Silva would improve during each of his four years in South Carolina, earning All-SEC honors for two years and was selected as the conference Defensive Player of the Year. He was the one that opposing coaches would dread knowing their team’s chances of winning would become that much less likely. Opposing players would roll their eyes in frustration — Man, we gotta play him? — knowing they were going to be outworked, that there would undoubtedly be bruises the following day.
And none of it mattered as he watched the 2019 NBA Draft and never heard his name called.
“I was disappointed that NBA people didn’t believe he could succeed at that level,” said Martin as he rattled off Silva’s accomplishments at South Carolina. “He never caved because of adversity. He grew because of it. I told everyone that called me [before the draft], ‘If you let him in, you won’t let him out.’ And that’s exactly what’s happening.”
The Miami Heat aren’t exactly a pipeline for Martin’s top players but there’s a shared ideology that breeds familiarity. Udonis Haslem, the leading rebounder in franchise history, played for “Coach Frank” at Miami Senior High School. Miami selected Michael Beasley in the 2008 draft after playing for Martin at Kansas State, as did Rodney McGruder, who spent three seasons with the Heat and is now with the Clippers. “We have tremendous respect for players that go through [Martin’s] program,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told The Step Back, “because they don’t skip any steps. They have to be about the same things as we are to be able to make it through there. They wind up becoming the best version of themselves as a result.”
The Heat brought in Silva to work with their Summer League team in July, then signed him to a two-way contract before the start of the 2019-20 regular season. While most two-way players spend time jetting between the NBA club and their G-League affiliate, Silva was a rare exception.
Silva is 23 now and still raw as he adjusts to another level. He doesn’t show off much on offense, not because he can’t but because he understands his role on a team loaded with perimeter shooters. Instead, he just continues to work, providing that constant energy and physicality, chasing after rebounds and finishing at the rim over players with more experience. He took one bag and one goal with him when he left Gabon — to go the NBA — and he’s achieved it.
Spoelstra acknowledges that Silva needs time to fully adjust but shows no concern that it won’t happen, even comparing him to center Bam Adebayo, who became an All-Star in his third season. He raves, as Martin did, about Silva’s work ethic and character. “Chris will continue to evolve because of his commitment. That’s what is going to drive him and make him who he wants to be in this league,” says Spoelstra excitedly, “I don’t think he’ll ever change.”
That’s not quite true. Silva has changed, although Spoelstra wasn’t aware of it when he was interviewed for this story. Having reached the NBA, his goals have evolved. One is to be the best Gabonese player in league history (Stéphane Lasme, who played 16 games for Golden State and Miami in 2008, was the first). The second, of much more importance to Silva, is to win a championship. Spoelstra nodded thoughtfully as he heard of Silva’s new objective, then quietly said, “I love that about him.”
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Since leaving Gabon in 2012, Silva has only returned once. It was a two-week stay, filled by connecting with family and friends, as well as plenty of his grandmother’s cooking. The Heat had learned about Silva’s journey in bits of pieces. A story from The Miami Herald’s Anthony Chiang had provided the details about his prolonged absence. “His story is so remarkable and…inspiring. Touching. The more I’ve gotten to know him, the more I want to help him. Everyone in this organization feels this way. We want to make his dreams become reality.”
In December 2019, the Heat began looking into reuniting Silva with his mother. But paying for the trip would be a violation of league rules, and so they reached out to NBA commissioner Adam Silver. While Silver made it clear the team could not pay for the trip, the league could fund the expense through its NBA Africa initiative. Obame was contacted by Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s senior vice president of international operations, through an interpreter. On Dec. 27, Obame arrived in Miami International Airport, was picked up by team officials, and made her way to the AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat were wrapping up practice as Spoelstra addressed the team. Obame walked through a tunnel leading to the court. Silva turned, saw his mother for the first time in years, and wept in disbelief as the two embraced. “That’s my mom,” he said over and again as tears fell onto the hardwood.
They spent two weeks together, celebrating the New Year. “Miami is a beautiful city,” said Obame in an interview translated by Silva. She admits that she always thought Chris would be a professional athlete because Jose played the sport and she herself ran track. But she was very impressed by him and adds with a mother’s pride that he’s doing a great job, even as he endlessly toils for playing time. She always knew he was a hard worker, saw it clearly one morning when he was just a boy and she was so sick she could hardly stand. “He cooked for me,” she writes. Obame admits that she was frightened for her son, “so young and alone,” when he went on his journey to the United States nearly a decade ago. She relied on her faith to keep Chris safe in this faraway land. A simple prayer, said over and over. I’m putting him in Your hands.
Silva’s own hands are splayed across the table back in the restaurant of the hotel lobby. Waitstaff lay out silverware around us, casting furtive glances at an athlete they don’t fully recognize. He bears a heavy responsibility, the weight of a nation of two million people. Gabon has been ruled by a totalitarian regime for nearly five decades, long before Chris was old enough to recognize the problem. He raises his hands and slaps them back down in frustration. This is a side he does not usually speak about but he has a voice now and intends to use it. There are resources that can be used to bolster the country’s economy but there are no willing trade partners. “They see how the country is handled,” Silva admits with some reluctance. “Nothing goes forward. People are suffering.”
This is at least part of why he works the way he did, even as he has been doubted wherever he has played the game. “I just think about players from the States. They have their family here. They got everything they need. Me, I think about my family and all they did for me to get here and I can’t just go out on the court and get outworked by somebody.”
This January, his two-way deal was converted to a standard NBA contract and he was finally sent to the Heat’s G-League affiliate, the Skyforce. Among his limited belongings is a single winter coat which will be put to good use. In Sioux Falls, he stays warm because of his goal of a championship. He talks about Toronto’s Serge Ibaka bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy back to his native Congo and dreams of doing the same.
In Miami, he stays positive even during those days when he can’t play. “Somewhere else in my country there’s a kid who needs food. That needs shoes. Every day when I wake up, I think, ‘Why should I be in a bad mood? Why be mad?’” He used to run for miles through the heat to the nearest gym. Now all he has to do is cross the street.
Perhaps the distance is all relative. His journey has already included thousands of miles and might include thousands more. He points in the direction of Gabon, says he knows it well when he looks out across Biscayne Bay, to the waters that carry his hopes and dreams, and might someday reach home.