Chris Silva Strives for NBA Dream to Help Build Up Basketball in Gabon

NEWBURY PARK, Calif. -- Chris Silva had every reason to be nervous.

He was about to leave his home in Gabon for the first time and head across the Atlantic Ocean to live in the United States before his 16th birthday. There, he would see if he could turn his hoop dreams—earning a scholarship to a Division I program en route to the NBA—into reality.

In doing so, though, he would have to adapt to a brand-new culture, a totally different climate and a language that, for the native French speaker, might as well have been Martian.

But before he could face all those obstacles, Chris had to pass another crucial test: his first airplane flight. And then his second, third and fourth—all in rapid succession. And before that first flight even took off to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, he had to figure out how to fold his then-6’8” frame into a cramped seat.

“It was a lot of stress,” Chris tells CloseUp360 during the Professional Basketball Combine at the MAMBA Sports Academy outside of Los Angeles. “But I was more motivated by my dream, so I wasn't scared.”

Chris did whatever he could to pass the time during those long flights. When he wasn’t napping, Chris flipped through movies, TV shows and music—all to distract himself from the foreign physical sensations of air travel.

Upon landing in Ethiopia, Chris was able to follow a stranger, who could bridge the gap between French and English, to the proper connecting flight in Dallas before splitting off on his own in Washington, D.C. From there, it was a quick trip up to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he hopped into a car with little more than his luggage and four words of broken English to offer the coach who’d picked him up.

“Coach,” he said, “I go NBA.”

Nearly seven years later, Chris is on the verge of fulfilling that promise from his 15-year-old self.

Chris Silva

Chris took four plane flights to get from Gabon to the U.S. when he was 15. (Arthur Puu)

For Chris, daily life in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, was simple, even if his own underpinnings were complicated.

Without much in the way of money or resources, Chris and his peers did what they could to get by while enjoying the spoils of their coastal home. He was never far from the beach, where he often spent his free time swimming and surfing.

“Anything with water,” he says, “I'll go for it.”

While on land, Chris most often played soccer, in large part because that’s what all the other kids in the neighborhood played. But even in a country that lacked much in the way of organized basketball, he felt an almost innate pull to hoops.

For one, his father, Jose, had played for the Gabonese men’s national basketball team. And his mother, Caren, was a track star. Between those two, Chris was blessed with the height to hoop—and outgrow soccer by the time he was 12—and the speed and wind to run up and down the playground courts all day long.

But Chris’ parents weren’t always around to bestow that sporting education on their son themselves. They were young when they met and had him, and split shortly thereafter. When Chris was a kid, Caren went to South Africa to continue her studies. Jose, meanwhile, traveled overseas frequently to play ball.

As a result, Chris wound up in the care of his paternal grandparents, Avelino Silva and Domingo Gomez. They became his foundation, and did their best to raise him amid an environment that was as challenging as it was picturesque.

“I see my granddad and my grandma like my mom and my dad,” he says.

Chris, though, maintained loving relationships with his actual parents. His dad, in particular, gave him a glimpse of a path he could follow into a better, more worldly life through basketball.

“From a very young age, I always been around him,” Chris says, “and like seeing him playing, going all over the place, I always want to surpass him and play at the highest level.”

The first big step came at the age of 14, when Chris, by then a couple years into his fuller commitment to basketball, started playing for a local club called Espoir. In that setting, the spindly teenager tested his mettle—as well as moves he had learned from YouTube videos of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and others—alongside and against grown men.

Though he was still exceedingly raw, Chris caught the attention of a man named Joe Touomou, who was doing some scouting for the Gabonese national team. Joe, who hailed from Cameroon, had played college basketball at Georgetown with Allen Iverson before embarking on a career as a player development coach and talent scout for teams in the NCAA and NBA. Through his work in the U.S., and specifically on the AAU hoops scene, Joe had fostered a relationship with Tommy Sacks, an assistant coach at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey.

In 2012, Roselle’s coaches were on the lookout for a big man to bolster the school’s basketball team. So Joe sent a short clip of Chris playing to Tommy, which was enough to convince the coach to arrange for this mysterious teenager to make a life-changing journey from the west coast of Central Africa to the tri-state area.

For foreign kids coming to the U.S., food can be a significant hurdle. But Chris didn’t have any problems coping with the richness of American cuisine or any particular longing for the familiar flavors of home.

“I'm not picky,” he says. “I'm not like somebody to always care about that stuff. So it was really easy for me.”

Just about everything else, though, proved to be a challenge for Chris.

For one, he traded the warm, beach-friendly weather of Gabon for the winters of New Jersey, where the bitter cold made practicing and playing basketball painful on his long, lanky fingers—even while indoors.

Where once Chris had been constantly surrounded by family and taken care of by his grandparents, he now found himself without any support system readily available. The only relative he had in the U.S. was his uncle, Miguel, who lived in Boston. As such, Chris didn’t have nearly the backing enjoyed by his teammates at Roselle, some of whose families were skeptical of this tall, skinny kid who came from a world away.

Throw in the language barrier between Chris’ French and Portguese and the English he encountered in America, and it was only natural that this self-described “shy guy” would turn inward.

Step by step, though, Chris began to find his footing.

He picked up bits and pieces of English with the help of Google Translate and his college-level French classes, wherein he was regularly tasked with translating French into English and vice versa.

Basketball helped, too. He listened to, studied and memorized English phrases that head coach Dave Boff would bark out. Trouble was, with little experience playing in a structured setting, Chris didn’t have much of a native reference to which he could compare the instructions he was hearing.

“I had to learn to translate from just playing pickup all my life to actually transition into formal games and organized basketball,” he says. “So that probably was the hardest part.”

That led to a rocky start for Chris, who earned a technical foul during his first game at Roselle for failing to check in at the scorer’s table before entering. But in time, he found his rhythm, on and off the court.

By the end of that first season, during his sophomore year, he was not only starting for Roselle, but also shutting down nearby St. Joseph star center Karl-Anthony Towns in the hallowed Tournament of Champions. By his senior season, Chris was putting up monster numbers against the likes of Montverde Academy sensation Ben Simmons and garnering scholarship offers from around the country. After considering Seton Hall and Rhode Island, among others, he settled on South Carolina—for the coaching staff as well as the weather.

“South Carolina was a little bit hotter. It felt like home,” Chris says. “Coaching staff was amazing, so I decided to take my chances.”

With a greater understanding of basketball and the English language—and a more agreeable climate—Chris found a much smoother transition to life in Columbia than he had in Roselle.

On the court, he jumped into head coach Frank Martin’s rotation as a freshman in 2015-16. As a sophomore, he established himself as a key cog, especially defensively, for the Gamecocks squad that advanced to the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament Final Four in 2017. As a junior, he was named to the All-SEC first team and the SEC All-Defensive team while splitting conference Defensive Player of the Year honors with Texas A&M star (and eventual 2018 first-round NBA draft pick) Robert Williams.

Along the way, Chris became a regular on the SEC’s Academic Honor Roll while majoring in integrated information technology.

“I went from a kid to a grown-ass man,” he says, “learning how to live my life on a daily basis with some rules and some perspective.”

Chris’ successes spurred him to test the NBA draft waters after his junior years. As far along as he had come, in as short a span of time as he’d done it, he found that he still had a long way to go to be a pro.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” he says. “I think the first workout I went [to], I forgot my shoes.”

Even with those errors, and even after withdrawing from the draft pool, Chris came away from the pre-draft process with a fresh perspective. The teams he worked out for—including the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose coach (Billy Donovan) was friendly with Frank—offered him feedback on his game.

Their emphases? Finishing around the rim and shooting from the outside.

So Chris went back to Columbia with a renewed focus for his senior season. He upped his field-goal percentage overall and knocked down half (23-of-46) of his threes (after shooting 5-of-12 the previous year and attempting just one through his first two). He also repeated as first-team All-SEC and SEC All-Defense, and completed his course of study.

With all that out of the way, he once again turned his full attention to the dream he’d come so far to achieve.

It’s a sunny Wednesday in Southern California. Chris knows there’s a beach somewhere near here, though he’s not quite close enough to lay eyes on it himself.

“Even when I got here, I was, like, ‘Yo, it's close from the coast,’” he says. “So I was trying to see if we can see, because even back home, like when you sit here, you can see the beach and where it is. So I'm always trying to find the ocean.”

Chris isn’t in Newbury Park to get a head start on an endless summer. Instead, he’s at the MAMBA Sports Academy to showcase his skills for a selection of NBA scouts and team personnel at the Professional Basketball Combine (PBC).

Despite his success at South Carolina—and despite leading his team to victory at the annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia—Chris wasn’t granted an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this past May.

Instead, he flew out from Jersey, where he’d returned to work with his old coaches and trainers from high school, to drum up interest in his services at the secondary combine. If Chris were to be drafted, he’d be the first participant in the PBC’s three-year history to do so.

“The image of me getting drafted is, I can't think of it,” he says. “It's like priceless, you know, something you dreamed of that everybody back home around you just doubted, but yourself. And finally doing it and seeing your family like finally recognizing you for your effort and hard work, you just, I mean, it's something that...I don't know.

“Somebody's gonna have to record it, so I can watch it over and over again after I'm done.”

Whether or not Chris hears his name called at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, his dreams are and will be bigger than just making it to the league. He wants to leave a lasting impact back in Gabon. He hopes to host basketball camps and clinics there, to help train and expose the burgeoning talent in his home country.

“There is good basketball players in Gabon,” he says. “It's just, you don't get the chance to actually showcase their talent to media and that kind of stuff. There's not a lot of people recording and having cameras when there's a little tournament, like taking videos and stuff to showcase to the rest of the, not even the world, but the rest of the country.”

Chris has already begun those efforts—albeit in a limited sense—with his younger half-brothers: Lucas and Phillip on his father’s side, Matthew on his mother’s.

My brothers keep texting me and like telling me, ‘Yo, I wanna play basketball and stuff’ and all that. Can you give me advice, videos and all of that?’” he says.

Chris, too, has gotten a glimpse at the effect he could have back home. In the summer of 2017, following South Carolina’s Cinderella run, he returned to Gabon for the first time since he’d left some five years prior. He wanted to keep things low-key, so he declined to tell anyone—not even his own family—that he was coming.

So when Chris went to see his mom, who had since returned to Gabon to work and raise her two younger sons, she was surprised to the point of joyful tears. His grandmother was tipped off to his arrival, which, looking back on it now, he suggests was for the best.

“I think one of my uncles or somebody [was] telling her that, ‘Okay, I'm coming there,’” he says, “so she doesn’t have a heart attack or something like that.”

For two weeks, Chris did his best to maintain a low profile while catching up with family and friends, and indulging in his grandmother’s Gabonese cooking. But as the tallest kid in the neighborhood returning as a triumphant figure from the United States, he could only keep the cat in the bag for so long.

“When people start noticing and knowing that I was there, a lot of people would ask me, like, ‘Why didn't I tell them?’” he says. “They would've had the media and all that stuff coming to the airport and receiving me. I didn't want that much attention. All I wanted was to see my family after all these years spent alone.”

Odds are, Chris won’t be going back to Gabon this summer. One way or another, he’ll be busy playing in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in July. If he’s drafted, he’ll likely get to work after that with coaches and trainers in whichever city he lands. And if he’s not one of the 60 players selected, a strong showing in Sin City could help him earn an invitation to an NBA training camp, which would require plenty more training and preparation before then.

Chris Silva

Chris hopes to become just the second Gabonese player in NBA history. (Dylan Houseworth)

Eventually, Chris hopes to be able to repay the favor his grandmother did in raising him by bringing her to live with him in the U.S.—and not just so he can enjoy her cooking day in and day out.

“She’s getting pretty old,” he says. “Like, if she wants to cook, she will have everything she wants.”

Whenever Chris does make his first trip to Gabon as a pro, he’s not sure whether he’ll alert the locals ahead of time to set up a media brigade and welcoming committee accordingly, or simply sneak his way in to spend time at home (relatively) uninterrupted.

“A lot of people back home seeing me like a role model,” he says. “So I don't know if I want to make it big and tell people I'm going back home. It's all up to me.”`

By that time, it might not be. Chris could be the second Gabonese player to ever set foot in the NBA, after Stephane Lasme. Even if he doesn’t reach his dream just yet, Chris would still stand out as a 6’9” man, even more so than the beanstalk-of-a-teenager who left Libreville to brave a new world and build a better life for himself.

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.