Against odds and appearances, there really is a compelling New York-area story in this East Regional. The fact that it began in the Atlantic Coast nation of Gabon, Africa, is a story in itself.
Chris Silva left that country in 2012 with little knowledge of English or basketball. He believed he could make a future and maybe a fortune in the NBA, so he enrolled at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey, filling a big-man void the year after Jameel Warney left for college at Stony Brook.
His debut was a bit raw, given that he instantly drew a technical foul for sprinting onto the court rather than checking in at the scorer’s table. That part of the story just shows, in retrospect, how far he has come (to borrow a popular March Madness phrase, which is literally true in Silva’s case).
On Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the 6-9 Silva had 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds to help South Carolina reach the Elite Eight for the first time. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds in the tournament-jolting win over Duke on Sunday.
This is the sort of narrative that makes The Big Dance more compelling than final scores (70-50 this time).
“I mean it’s been incredible, where I came from in Gabon, now I’m here,” the natural French speaker said in English during a formal news conference. “That’s a lot of places, a lot of people I’ve met during the process. I’m just enjoying the process.”
For the 6-9 sophomore, the process Friday night involved anchoring perhaps the best defense in the country, boxing out 7-foot Baylor center Jo Lual-Acuil and keeping the Bears honest so Sindarius Thornwell (24 points) could pop from outside.
Silva might have dreamed about a night like this on the way to JFK Airport from home five years ago, but it is hard to imagine such a transformation being in anyone’s dream vocabulary. He still is not quite sure why he chose Roselle — a town that once produced Rick Barry, whose son Canyon played for Florida in the other East Regional game here Friday night.
“It just happened. I can’t explain it. Before we knew it, I was there,” he said after the news conference in a crowded, buoyant locker room. “I loved it there because everybody who was taking care of me was so nice, gentle, everything.”
He added that he has met Warney, Stony Brook’s all-time best player, during summers. “Cool guy,” he said.
Coach Frank Martin said the other day that he is tougher on Silva than he is on any of the other Gamecocks, which is really saying something. It is like claiming that a monsoon is most severe on one particular boat in the ocean. Martin is a hard, demanding guy. But he evidently has deep appreciation for each player’s journey.
“You’re talking about a kid who left his family behind to have a chance to move forward in life so he can then in turn help his family back home in Gabon,” Martin said on Thursday. “Those are the kind of people I like being around. I like people who want to grow. I like people who want to help others. I like people who sacrifice, and that’s what he’s about.”
Silva’s coaches from Roselle Catholic and a few friends from high school were in the stands Friday night, joining the voices of many South Carolina fans in an atmosphere that became very pro-Gamecocks. “It was awesome to see them, to hear them. That gave us life,” Silva said.
It also added electricity to a doubleheader that lost a lot of juice when Duke and Villanova were eliminated. The way the past two games have gone, who knows where this might end up?
“We’re still hungry,” Silva said. “We want to win. We don’t want to just show up.”
This is turning into quite a story, just as Silva’s is turning into quite a life. Just as he had envisioned, only better.