There is little about Evan Silberstein that suggests a background in New York City. Nothing, actually, suggests New York.
He uses phrases like “mahalos!” “howz’it?” and “shoots!” He rides to and from work on an electric bike. He coaches beach volleyball at the University of Hawai’i. When he’s not coaching beach, he’s on the beach. If he’s not on the beach itself, he’ll be around it, surfing or swimming off the shores of Oahu. And when he’s not doing any of the aforementioned activities, he could very well be teaching yoga, or going through one of his mindfulness exercises.
That guy? A pidgin-slinging, surfing, beach volleyball coach-turned-yoga-teacher?
New York City?
“I am from New York, and I’m proud of that,” Silberstein said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Yoga and Hawai’i are things that I need. These are the medicines that called out for me in my life.
“I had so much energy growing up and so much aspiration and inspiration to take on the world in volleyball and just in life. As I figured things out, I learned how to relax because I had to, coming into beautiful environments, coming into places where I could do what my dream was and whether I was doing volleyball or wellness or supporting Hawai’i. I did go to school out here and learn local politics and local environment so the things I was most passionate about became Hawai’i and beach volleyball.”
Now, Silberstein is as ingrained into the fabric of the Hawai’i beach volleyball culture as any local. Current professionals and Hawai’ians like Bourne, Taylor and Trevor Crabb, and Maddison and Riley McKibbin can all recall, as kids, Silberstein running tournaments at the famed Outrigger Canoe Club, the proving grounds for the wealth of generational talent hailing from the Island.
“I wanted to serve in the Hawai’ian community,” he said. “I wanted to do things that aren’t really tourist based. That inspired me for school and that scratched the itch for volleyball. I’d go to school and train and that balanced out my lifestyle. That gave me the dose of what Hawai’i volleyball was all about in my life.”
Coaching jobs at the university, however, don’t come by easy. With no professional sports on the Island, the University of Hawai’i is the biggest attraction in town. Hiring a new coach is no quick or easy decision. Silberstein first had to leave his own law practice on the Island, taking a volunteer position at the University of San Francisco in order to develop into the right man for the job.
“New York lawyer leaves practice to take volunteer beach volleyball coaching job” is not a headline one expects to see running in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. It’s probably not one Silberstein envisioned either, even when he was picking up his J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i.
But he’d had his dose of medicine, so to speak. He knew what he needed: Hawai’i, and beach volleyball. When, in 2014, Scott Wong, the associate coach for the Rainbow Wahine indoor team, left Hawai’i to take the indoor head coaching position at Pepperdine, it created an opening. Silberstein got his chance to come back.
“It’s been six years,” he said, “and it’s been a good run since then.”
What differentiates Silberstein from most of his coaching peers is not his background — you can count the number of New York natives turned collegiate beach volleyball coaches on one hand — but in his preternatural ability to build rapport on the spot. He gets to know his players as people first, players second. He makes it abundantly clear, from the first interaction, that is the order in which he views them.
Sometimes this comes, for example, in the form of driving a team van dedicated specifically to the more dietary conscious players. That van was nicknamed the “Vegan Vaagen”, coined after Lara Schreiber, who was raised in Freiburg, Germany and preferred, as you may be able to conclude, vegan food.
“That’s more the art side of coaching — relating to the athletes and finding a way to help them get to their potential,” he said. “It’s trial and error at times but good intention, consistency, respect — when those values are infused in the communication it tends to help the athlete go further.”
By extension, that helps the program go further. In 2015, Silberstein’s first year on staff working for head coach Jeff Hall, Hawai’i won 17 of its first 18 matches, earning the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history.
The next season, the Bows won the Big West Championship, finishing fourth at NCAA Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala.
This season, Hawai’i had as good a chance as any to bring home its first National Championship. It was 7-2, owners of a victory over top-ranked LSU, with a lineup so deep that Amy Ozee, a court one mainstay in 2019, was starting on court three. Alas, we will never get to know what could have been. Silberstein is mindful enough not to worry about it. It isn’t productive to dwell on what could have been.
Next year will be here soon enough.
So he’s surfing. Playing volleyball. Doing yoga.
Like any natural-born Hawai’ian would do.