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  • Budd Bailey

Braves' New World: Mike Silliman

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Buffalo’s basketball fans only had a brief look at Mike Silliman, and when they did he wasn’t at his best. Based on the descriptions of others about when Mike was in his prime, seeing him play was quite a treat.

Michael Barnwell Silliman was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 5, 1944. His parents were named Clarence and Margaret. Mike’s father worked as the marketing director for Star Hill Distillery, and was a veteran of World War II. The Sillimans had two other sons and two daughters.

Mike, it can be assumed, spent his childhood in Louisville. He attended St. Xavier High School there, and as of 2021 was one of three NBA players to come out of that school. The most famous was Scott Padgett, who spent eight years in the NBA after playing college ball at Kentucky. The other was Scott Hagan, who played in the ABA around 1970 for two seasons. The Tigers have won state titles in almost every sport, in part because the all-male school has more boys enrolled than any Kentucky high school.

It’s an understatement to say Silliman was a great high school basketball player. He was a first-team selection for the Louisville Courier-Journal & Times’ all-state team in 1960, 1961 and 1962. In the last two years of his career at St. Xavier, he was the leading vote-getter for all-Kentucky honors. The culmination of that career came as a senior in 1962, when he was Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball.” He averaged 24 points (tops in Louisville) and 20 rebounds a game, and led the squad to a state championship. Mike finished his career with 1,972 points.

"He was a powerful guy,'' said Joe Reibel, Silliman's coach for Mike’s senior year at St. Xavier. "He took so many shots inside people thought he couldn't shoot from outside, but he became a good shooter in college. He was an exceptional player.''

Silliman had 55 college scholarship offers, including one from the University of Kentucky. It seemed like a natural connection, but Mike had other plans. He enrolled at the United States Military Academy in West Point. He even missed the annual all-star game between the top seniors in Indiana and Kentucky because he had to be at West Point. If Mike had gone to Kentucky, he probably would have been the center of the Wildcats’ team that reached the NCAA tournament final against Texas Western in 1966.

‘I’ve never regretted it,” Silliman told the Louisville Courier-Journal & Times in 1976. “I decided it was a good challenge and a good education. Also, there was the (military) draft and I knew I was going to have to serve my country sometime.”

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity ball in 1962-63, so Silliman watched the Cadets go 8-11 under George Hunter. Mike’s junior varsity team, meanwhile, was 17-0. Hunter left after that season and was replaced by Tates Locke – a future Buffalo Braves coach. Silliman was a sophomore sensation at West Point. He averaged 20.5 points and 12.3 rebounds to lead both categories on the team. Army had a solid season, and then won two games in the NIT before losing to Bradley in the semifinals. The Cadets finished 19-7. The 1964-65 season was something of a re-run for Army and Silliman. The center again averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds per game in leading the Cadets. The team went back to the NIT, and it reached the semifinals again. This time St. John’s was in the way, and Army finished 21-8.

Locke decided to jump to Miami (Ohio) at that point, and he was replaced by a young man of 24 years of age named Bob Knight. The new coach had played on Ohio State’s national championship team in 1960 as well as the national runners-up in 1961 and 1962. Knight coached a junior varsity team in Ohio for a year, and then enlisted in the Army. He took an assistant coaching position at West Point, and was promoted when Locke left.

Silliman saved his best for last as a member of the Cadets. He averaged 22.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game as a slightly undersized (6-foot-6) center. It looks as if Silliman played his first game in Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo on January 29, 1966. His team lost to Canisius, 81-77. As for Army, it reached the NIT semifinals for the third straight year – this time losing to Brigham Young.

Silliman helped the Cadets stay competitive on a national level despite height restrictions, a difficult academic environment, and a post-graduate service commitment that hampered recruiting. For years, Knight described Silliman as the best player he ever coached. Mike finished with 1,342 points for his career, making him the Academy’s top all-time scorer at the time. He participated in six tournaments while in college, and was an All-Tournament choice each time. During his time at Army, he also lettered for three years on the baseball team. Silliman graduated with honors with a degree in mathematics and engineering.

That may read like the description of a college player who was ready to test his skills in the pros, but Silliman still had service time to give. In the meantime, Mike was picked in the eighth round (69th overall) by the New York Knicks. He tried to keep his skills fresh by playing AAU ball during the next four years. Silliman went to the World University Games in Tokyo in 1967 and helped an American team win its games by an average of 60 points. Mike also played for Team USA in the Pan-American Games that year.

He was the captain of the United States team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The Americans won the gold medal, beating Yugoslavia, 65-50, in the gold medal game. Mike scored six points in that final game. Also on the roster of that squad was Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, Spencer Haywood and future Braves’ teammate Bill Hosket.

“Our team (in 1968) was fairly mature,” Silliman told the Louisville Courier-Journal & Times in 1976. “We didn’t have some of the top college stars of the previous season (such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes) because we didn’t play until October. … We had more of a mixture of armed forces and Amateur Athletic Union players along with college players than they have this year. Now it’s all National Collegiate Athletic Association.”

By 1970, Silliman was done with the Army and ready to give pro basketball a try. But it wouldn’t be with the Knicks. New York had just won the NBA title, and was anxious to keep its core players together. The problem for the Knicks was that the league was expanding by three teams in the fall of 1970, and they could only protect seven players in the expansion draft. New York worked out a deal with Buffalo in which the Braves agreed not to take a particular player with the first pick (probably Dave Stallworth). Buffalo picked Don May, and then received Silliman and backup center Nate Bowman as compensation.

Silliman showed up at training camp behind the rest of his teammates. He hadn’t played that much basketball in the previous four years, and he had surgery on his toe and wasn’t ready to play until mid-November. Mike may have caught a break early in the season, because the new teams were allowed to keep extra players on their roster for a while in order to have extra time to sort out their players.

Silliman made his NBA debut on Nov. 16, 1970, in Memorial Auditorium against Seattle. The forward scored two points in 16 minutes for the Braves. Mike had trouble earning regular duty in Buffalo. Silliman usually played less than 10 minutes per game. His career high in points came on December 30, when he had 12 points in 19 minutes against Baltimore.

Mike played his final game for the Braves on March 20, scoring six points in a loss to Portland. His career only lasted 36 games, scoring a total of 91 points. It’s easy to wonder how he might have done had he not had to wait four years to play in the professional ranks.

“I had a staph infection and the doctors had to remove some bone and muscle,” Silliman said in a 1976 interview. “I still can’t use the foot like I once could. I had a three-year, no-cut contract, but I left after that one year. I told them to keep the last two years (of salary) and use it to pay guys like (Bob) McAdoo.”

Silliman had one more bit of basketball work ahead of him that year. The Soviet national team played an exhibition game in a college gym against some American college all-stars in tiny Canandaigua, N.Y. (south of Rochester) on May 11, 1971. Silliman was an assistant coach for head coach Joe Niland of Canisius. The biggest stars on the American team were Julius Erving, then of Massachusetts, and Randy Smith of Buffalo State. The Soviet team had Alexander Belov and Sergei Belov, two of the best players on the squad that shocked the Americans in the Olympic final a year later. The team from the USSR won the exhibition game, 83-82.

Silliman didn’t pout about the end of the basketball part of his life. He went back to Louisville, and entered the world of business. He put his efforts into business development, as he owned the Silliman Development Company. Some of his projects were the Hunnington Place Office Building and Shopping center, and what is now known as the Louisville Gas & Electric Plaza. Mike also was a vice president of Faulkner Hinton and Associates.

Mike died of an apparent heart attack on June 16, 2000. He was only 56. Silliman’s survivors were his former wife Margaret, son Michael and daughter Marian. He’s been honored over the years by the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, and the St. Xavier’s Hall of Fame. “Just remembering Mike has been such an honor,” Mike’s brother Dan said at that last honor. “It’s been over 50 years since he’s graduated and it’s amazing that they still remember him. It’s great to have the family come together for this.” His uniform number was retired by Army in 2015.

He is still remembered not only for his basketball skills, but how friendly and considerate he was to all he encountered. No wonder he picked up the nickname, “The Gentle Giant.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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