Tommy Sacks, the assistant coach at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey, is fond of telling the story of the first time he met Chris Silva in person.
Sacks was waiting at the arrivals terminal at JFK International Airport, looking for a tall, skinny teenager. He had seen a 24-second video of Silva playing basketball in his native Gabon and believed he had to bring Silva to the United States.
Finally, a young man wearing work boots and a bewildered look on his face emerged. Sacks and Silva made eye contact. “Coach,’’ Silva said, using one of the few English words he knew. “I go NBA.’’’
That was 2012. Fast forward.
Silva, a starting sophomore on the South Carolina basketball team, was sitting in a breakout interview room at The Garden when he was informed that he was closer to his NBA dream than ever imagined.
The No.7-seeded Gamecocks (25-10), who will face the No.4 seed Florida Gators (27-8) Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m.) for the right to go to the Final Four, have been assigned the Knicks‘ locker room in The World’s Most Famous Arena.
And Silva has been assigned Carmelo Anthony’s locker.
“Back home you don’t even get to see NBA games, so when I got here it was like magical, seeing NBA games,’’ Silva said. “I didn’t know I was in Carmelo’s locker. It can’t be true. That’s way beyond my thinking.’’
Which is what the beauty of March Madness comes down to. Plays are made, games are won or lost in a heartbeat and dreams come true.
South Carolina has never been to a Final Four. Florida is the last school to win back-to-back national championships. Knicks center Joakim Noah was one of the key players on those 2006-07 teams.
Anthony, of course, led Syracuse to the 2003 national championship.
Five years ago, Silva stood 6-foot-7 and weighed about 170 pounds. The first time he was told to enter a high school game, he walked onto the court without checking in at the scorer’s table.
He would hand in all of his high school papers in French and English just to make doubly sure he was getting it right. He’s fluent in English now and knows exactly where the scorer’s table is.
Today, Silva is 6-foot-9, 223 pounds and has averaged 13 points on 12-of-25 shooting from the field, going 15-of-17 from the line and tallying 7.3 rebounds in three NCAA Tournament games.
“He’s been great,’’ Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “I said this the other day — I’m harder on Chris than probably anyone on our team, because I think his room for growth is so great; that’s number one.
“Number two, and this is where he is such an awesome kid to coach. We needed him to be a senior even though he’s a sophomore that’s only played ball for less than four years. And he’s been willing to accept that responsibility.
“He took on that challenge. And you know, it’s no secret, all you got to do is watch our season and games that he got in foul trouble and didn’t play well, we struggled to score at the rim. And in games that he has not, we have done a pretty good job of protecting the rim and scoring at the rim.
“He’s a big, big part of what we do. He’s an unbelievable kid. I think he’s going to be an unbelievable player as he continues to get better. But he’s fun to coach.’’