ORLANDO -- Steve Clifford’s routine is no more consuming than most workaholic basketball coaches, with a few twists. Besides counting turnovers, defensive stops and wins, he’s also counting sheep and his blessings.
It goes something like this: Prep the Orlando Magic for the night’s game, work the referees, remind the players during timeouts that they won’t win without defense, shout some in-game advice to rookie Mo Bamba, give a brief postgame talk in the locker room and finally, and just as crucial, go home and catch some Zs.
Yes, get more sleep. His career, and certainly his health, depend on that.
You know how coaches give minutes restrictions to players coming off injuries? Well, less than a year removed from a serious health scare, Clifford gave himself a strict sleep ration. Seven hours a night, at least. Doctor’s orders.
“Sleep is important as you get older,” said Clifford, who’s 56. “I never understood that. I had to learn the hard way.”
Clifford caused problems for his body functions because, for years, he stuck religiously to an old-school coaching schedule of basketball games, basketball practice and basketball film during the season. Sleep was secondary. Long story short: He was forced to take a 21-game leave of absence last season as coach of the Hornets, almost two months, after experiencing severe physical complications that threatened his well-being.
Then, after being fired by the Hornets last summer, Clifford was out of a job and his health became a topic of conversation for teams with coaching vacancies, even the Magic, who hired Clifford only after checking medical records and getting assurances he’d sleep after the job (though not on the job).
Clifford is respected among his peers as a disciple of Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, getting strong reviews for his defensive tactics and is the only coach to take the Hornets (Michael Jordan version) to the playoffs twice. In his first season, the Hornets posted a 22-game improvement and finished with a winning record. He’s also been popular in locker rooms because he’s not a confrontational coach. He gets his point across by keeping an open line of communication; all players know where they stand with Clifford.
In that sense, he treated players with more respect than he treated himself.
Clifford actually had two leaves of absences in his five years in Charlotte. The first came in his first season when he awakened to a bad feeling; doctors determined he had blood circulatory issues that could lead to heart problems. So he had two stents placed in an artery that led to his heart.
Sleep is important as you get older. I never understood that. I had to learn the hard way.”
“They put it in Friday and I coached in Boston on Monday,” he said, half-proudly. “I just remember saying, 'I worked too hard to get this opportunity. I’m coaching.’ So the team put restricted time in the office but I told them I wasn’t taking time off.”
Then last December came another scare: Chronic headaches, which began two years earlier, grew more painful and kept hammering him daily. Once, he arrived at work to prepare for that night’s game and started shaking. Instead of driving straight home, he walked, not taking any chances behind the wheel. The game would go on without him.
He underwent a battery of tests involving neurologists, most of which targeted a possible brain hemorrhage.
“Our team doctor told me it was the job, the lack of regular sleep,” he said. “Because in the summers, about two to three weeks into the offseason I would be fine. He told me I needed time off, right away.”
Then Clifford did something unlike him. He replied: “I know.”
He came to the NBA as a coaching long-shot. He started in high school, then worked as an assistant at small colleges, nothing that would seemingly prepare him for the NBA. But then, after a stint at Adelphi College as head coach, he accepted an offer from Jeff Van Gundy, then with the Knicks, to be an advanced scout. A year later, he was on the Knicks’ bench a few seats from Van Gundy.
From there he was almost part of the Van Gundy family, following Jeff in Houston and then joining Stan in Orlando. The payoff was fulfilling a dream; the so-called punishment was being with basketball ‘round-the-clock.
“That’s the way it was working with Jeff and Tom (Thibodeau, another Van Gundy assistant) and Stan,” he said. “If you walked in at 5:30 in the morning they would be like, 'Are you ok? Why are you so late?’ I would get used to getting up so early and staying up until very late. What I did at 48, 49 and 50 years old I couldn’t do when I got to 55.”
But Clifford embraced the pace because, deep down, he was insecure like a lot of coaches. They reach this level and never want to leave, never want to lose their place in line. The lifestyle, the money, the chance to work with the world’s best players and the fringe benefits are all intoxicating. There are only 30 head coaching jobs and all are tough to get. And being an assistant coach isn’t much easier, because those are based on connections.
“When you realize this might be taken away from you, first thing I thought about is an alternative, what could I do in the NBA if I couldn’t coach. From day one when Jeff hired me to be an advanced scout, I loved the NBA,” Clifford said.
But Clifford had to learn to love his health a lot more, and in hindsight he was surprised where health was in the pecking order.
“I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore,” he said. “My thought process was primarily on my health. That’s how sick I was. My headaches were so bad I knew I had to take care of it.”
And if there was any doubt, Clifford had to hear it from the man above.
“You need to get this taken care of,” said Hornets owner Michael Jordan.
During his time off, Clifford changed the way he went about coaching. He stopped taking the job home with him. He stopped watching as many games on TV after returning from one of his games. He limited his viewing of Magic game film. And he strategized sleeping in the same manner in which he would draw up a play with 20 seconds left in the game.
“It makes an enormous difference. My doctor said I would be going home but still coaching the team. That’s one of the reasons for the headaches. Now, I may work a little at night but I watch movies or go out.
“I’ll come in this (coach’s room) and take naps, maybe a quick one. I sleep an hour and a half more at night. I feel great, I feel like I have a lot more energy. Getting seven hours every night, I find that very relaxing. I’ve developed other interests. I’ve gotten more in politics, which I took from Stan; I watch that at night. Not doing basketball, to have other things to think about, is more helpful.”
He began taking sleep enhancers and when his sleep time reached seven hours, he was allowed to return to coaching.
After losing his job in Charlotte, Clifford had to reassure Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, the top basketball people with the Magic, that his condition was under control. After that, it was a rather easy call for the Magic.
I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore."
And so far, it’s a good fit. After a dreadful stretch following the departure of Dwight Howard in 2012 where they’ve never won more than 35 games a season or made the playoffs and appeared stuck in rebuilding, the Magic are showing life this season. At least they’re not in the basement of the East, and own signature wins over Jimmy Butler and the Sixers, LeBron James and the Lakers and took games in Boston and San Antonio.
“It’s all about getting better,” he said. “We have to get better. We feel we can fight for the playoffs.”
That will depend on the development of Bamba and Orlando’s top pick the previous year, Jonathan Isaac, in addition to the chance of Aaron Gordon rising to All-Star status.
“I’m so fortunate it worked out,” Clifford said, sounding like a man feeling blessed this Thanksgiving. “It definitely gives you perspective about a number of things, including how lucky we are to be involved in this. At this time in my life it’s important for me to be involved in this league.”
With that, Clifford excused himself; he had to watch film, but it would take place in a spare office, not at home; and he’d be leaving work in a few minutes.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “I’m sticking to the game plan.”
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