“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Lou Silver – The man with the wrong name
His name is Louis ‘Lou’ Grant Silver, but after everything he did in basketball, his name should have been Gold. Silver, who was born on November 27, 1953, played and studied in the United States. He was drafted in 1975 by the Kentucky Colonels of the now-defunct American Basketball Association with pick number 73. But that same year, he signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv with the idea of playing there for one year and then returning to the United States. He stayed with Maccabi for 10 years. During that period, he won 10 Israeli League championships, lifted eight national cups, played in four EuroLeague finals and won two of them.
Silver’s time in Maccabi coincided with the Golden Age of the club. In the early 1970s, legendary club president Shimon Mizrahi and his collaborators started a project they called the “Great Maccabi”. The first key move was the signing and naturalization of Tal Brody. The second was the development of the great talent of Mickey Berkowitz. The third move was choosing good Americans. The duo formed by Lou Silver and Jim Boatwright, together with Aulcie Perry, met the third condition without a problem.
History in Belgrade
During the 1970s, Maccabi was already a super-dominant force in Israel, but the directors, the fans and, in some way, the country itself expected something big in the EuroLeague. The moment of glory arrived at the end of the 1976-77 season, Lou Silver’s second with the team. The EuroLeague started that season with the champions of 22 countries – including Maccabi and Al Gezira of Egypt, though the latter withdrew before the start of the competition – and the defending champ, Mobilgirgi Varese. Italy was the only country with two representatives. Maccabi played in Group E with Olympiacos, Dinamo Bucharest and Synudine Bologna, finishing first with a 5-1 record, its only defeat coming in Bologna, 76-60.
In the final stage, Maccabi finished second with a 6-4 record, even though two of those games were forfeits. Due to political issues, Zbrojovka Brno of the former Czechoslovakia and CSKA Moscow refused to play in Tel Aviv. FIBA gave the wins to Maccabi with 2-0 scores. The return games were played in Belgium. Against CSKA, Maccabi won 91-79, but in the group, Maccabi lost four games: twice against Varese (109-79 in Bologna and 81-70 in Tel Aviv) and once each versus Real Madrid (106-94) and Racing Maes Pils (75-66). In a three-way tie with CSKA and Madrid, all at 6-4, Maccabi finished second behind first-place Varese. According to the rules, the first two teams would face off in the final on neutral ground.
The site of the title game was the legendary Hala Pionir in Belgrade. FIBA had chosen Belgrade earlier, but when the two finalists were known, a problem surfaced. Yugoslavia didn’t have any diplomatic relationship with Israel and the entry of Israeli citizens to the country was complicated. However, the government showed great flexibility and, in the end, more than half of the 6,000 fans packing the arena were Maccabi supporters. Their arrival marked the first time ever that a jumbo jet landed in Belgrade.
I was at the game and I have good memories of it, especially because of the atmosphere created in the stands by the so-called Yellow Army. On the court, with many masters of the game on both sides, a special player caught everyone’s eye. He was Maccabi’s number 12, Lou Silver. We knew him by name, but seeing him in action was a pleasure, mainly because of his special way of shooting. He was a power forward standing at 2.03 meters. He could jump well, but his main asset was scoring. He had a peculiar way of shooting the ball, with his hands and the ball starting the shot almost completely from behind his head. That peculiar style made it almost impossible for defenders to block his shot, because it started at an angle that was impossible to reach. Maccabi dominated from the start thanks to Boatwright and Berkowitz, but also thanks to great defense. Bob Morse, the great Varese scorer, had his first points in the eighth minute and finished with 20 – below his usual numbers. At the break, Maccabi was ahead 39-30, but Perry had 4 fouls that were provoked by Dino Meneghin. In minute 26, the Italian team managed to pull within 47-45 and in minute 33 it was tied at 61-61. The ending was full of drama. With Maccabi leading 78-77 and 12 seconds left on the clock, Silver missed a shot, but grabbed the offensive rebound for a new possession. It looked like Maccabi would win, but British referee David Turner, a FIBA favorite at the time, called for a traveling violation that no one else saw. Varese had 7 seconds to win, but great Maccabi defense forced a bad pass and a turnover. Maccabi had won its first continental crown. It was April 7, 1977, a date for the history books in Israeli basketball. Boatwright was the hero of the game, with 26 points, followed by Berkowitz with 17 and Perry with 16. Silver scored 6, but his behind-the-head shot remained in all our memories.
Silver for Silver
Before playing more European finals with Maccabi, Silver made his debut with the Israeli national team at the 1979 EuroBasket in Italy. He helped the team a lot on its way to the silver medal. It was a total surprise, one of the biggest in the history of EuroBasket. On the way to the final, Israel defeated Yugoslavia’s golden generation, a three-peat European champion at the time (1973, 1975, 1977) and the defending world champion. Israel prevailed 77-76. In the title game, Israel lost to the USSR 98-76, but history had already been written. The names of Berkowitz, Silver, Motti Aroesti, Eric Menkin, Shuki Schwartz, Shai Sherf, Boaz Yanay, Barry Leibowitz and the rest, coached by Ralph Klein, were national heroes. Silver scored 27 points against Czechoslovakia, 18 against Poland, 14 against France. His average for the tourney was 14.3 points per game.
The next four years, Silver would play for Israel with excellent numbers: 19.8 points at the 1980 pre-Olympic event in Switzerland, 14.5 at the 1981 EuroBasket, 15.3 at the 1983 EuroBasket and 14.1 points at the 1984 pre-Olympic tournament.
Silver played his second EuroLeague final on March 27, 1980, in Berlin against Real Madrid, who won 89-85, perhaps because Silver had one of the few bad days in his career. He did not score a single point that night. As EuroLeague runner-up, Maccabi took part in the Intercontinental Cup in Sarajevo in 1980 and won the trophy after defeating Franca of Brazil 88-74 with Earl Williams as the best scorer with 28 points for the winners.
The following year in Strasbourg, Maccabi won its second EuroLeague title by downing Synudine Bologna 80-79. Berkowitz was the best scorer with 21 points, followed by Williams with 20. Silver contributed 6 points. The last EuroLeague final for Silver was on March 25, 1982, in Cologne, Germany, where Squib Cantu was better than Maccabi, 86-80. Silver and Berkowitz scored 16 points each, but on the other side were Charles Kupec (23 points), Bruce Flowers (21), Pierluigi Marzorati (18) and Antonello Riva (16).
Mike Karnon, the excellent former press chief at Maccabi, describes Silver as “an all-around player, very clever with a great understanding of the game. He was known for his unique double-handed, over-the-head jump shot.”
Karnon also offers some gems for the data lovers direct from his own documentation: In his ten seasons in Tel Aviv, Sliver scored 3,035 points in 196 Israeli League games (15.4 ppg.) and 1,999 points in 138 European games (14.4 ppg.). Silver also played 66 games for the national team, in which he scored 961 points (14.5 ppg.).
About Silver’s personality, Karnon adds: “Silver, a soft-spoken man, always preferred to remain behind the scenes and away from the media. On the other hand, he was a tough customer when it came to negotiating his contract. During his days with Maccabi, he studied at Tel Aviv University School of Law, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and later got a Master of Law degree from New York University School of Law.”
After having retired, in July of 1987, Silver received a great tribute. Maccabi played against a European all-star team with Drazen Petrovic, Nikos Galis, Richard Dacoury, Panagiotis Giannakis, Stanislav Kropilak and Antonello Riva, among others. Europe won 108-87 but the only important thing that night was the farewell to a great player loved by the fans.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, before a game between Maccabi and Crvena Zvezda, in a small but emotional ceremony in the middle of the court, Silver received standing ovations once more as a new member of the Maccabi Hall of Fame. His great teammate Boatwright, who had died earlier that year, also received posthumous honors.
After retiring as a player, Lou Silver turned his head to business, making good use of his education as a banking and finance expert. Nowadays he is a businessman and attorney, as well as a director in several other companies, and moves between London and New York.