While Away from Coaching, Coach Clifford Gains Balance, Perspective

By Sam Perley

There’s no denying that the first half of the 2017-18 NBA season hasn’t gone quite as planned for the Charlotte Hornets. Coming off a 36-win campaign last year, expectations were rightfully high for a team hoping to make a third trip to the playoffs in five seasons. While there is still plenty of time to turn things around, the absence and return of Head Coach Steve Clifford has surely helped put a lot of things into perspective.

For the past few years, Clifford has been suffering from debilitating headaches every so often. Not only have they been extremely uncomfortable, but they eventually began to disrupt his sleep schedule. Combine exhaustion with a steady dose of stress, constant travel and limited exercise and you’ve got a recipe for a potentially scary situation.

“At first, I could just deal with them with Tylenol Extra Strength,” said Clifford on Jan. 12. “It got to be that that didn’t work. I went to [Hornets Head Athletic Trainer Steve Stricker], I started working with [Team Physician] Dr. Joe Garcia. We used a little bit stronger pain medication. Got through the season, got through the playoffs. The summers weren’t as bad. Sometimes, I would have them, [but] not nearly as frequently and not nearly as harsh or severe.”

According to Clifford, the pain reached a close-to-intolerable level during a late-November road trip and by the time the team returned to Charlotte, he knew it was time to seek additional help.

“It was really difficult. I couldn’t sleep at all,” he recalled. “The pills weren’t strong enough to help me. I got back here and had a tough weekend. We decided to try and do something a little bit stronger. The Monday when we had Orlando [on Dec. 4], I was in here trying to get ready for the game [and] it scared me.”

“I called Strick and Dr. Garcia came and saw me and then we started with the neurologist that day. We did the testing. Basically, the results were internally, I was fine. These were external issues – job-related. As much as anything, it was sleep deprivation. That’s my number-one problem.”

This was unfortunately not Clifford’s first health scare since coming to Charlotte. In November 2013, he has two stents inserted into his heart after experiencing chest pains, although missed just one game and was back to the team within three days. The headaches (entirely unrelated to his heart), would require time off in order to properly be addressed.

For the first week or so he was away, Clifford says that coaching was the last thing on his mind. He watched every game on television, kept in contact with his staff and players and had his family come visit him from out of town. Being a tireless leader for a team he had given everything to the last few years had ultimately become a double-edged sword.
Clifford’s treatment, led by Dr. Garcia, and local neurologist, Dr. Ki Jung, was broken up into primarily two parts. First, he needed to be educated on the issue. Clifford learned all about the science of headaches, what causes them, how they got as bad as they did for him and what could happen if he continued to live the way that he was.

Secondly, changes needed to be made with regards to how the Hornets Head Coach lived his life and did his job. A regular six-hour sleep cycle was implemented, which will hopefully be stretched to seven in the near future. Working out more has helped. Physically, he appeared noticeably brighter and more vibrant during his first press conference on Jan. 12.

“It’s been – I don’t know if you’d say life-changing – definitely altered the way I’ve look at things,” he said. “I don’t just have to do my job differently, I have to live differently. [The doctors] explained that to me and that’s what I’m going to do. I appreciate them and I’m fortunate that I was able to work with the two of them, who have been terrific.”

While Clifford made sure to give the doctors credit for helping get his health back on track, he also made a point to thank a number of other people within the Hornets organization as well.

“I want to thank our owner Michael [Jordan] for really incredible support and patience with this whole thing,” he said. “[On the night of Thursday, Jan. 11] after the doctors cleared me, I met with Michael, [Hornets Vice Chairman] Curtis Polk and [Executive VP of Operations] James Jordan and it was the same message. The first part of the meeting was ‘How you feeling? What’s gone on? Where are you at?' I left with the three of them reiterating that my health was the most important thing. If I didn’t feel that way seven or eight weeks ago, it’s how I feel now.”

He added, “The coaches have done a great job and obviously, I want to single out [Acting/Associate Head Coach] Stephen [Silas]. Besides the fact the way the team has played, the most difficult thing to do in this league is particularly when you’re not an ex-player, in my opinion, is to establish credibility to where you can get them to move forward. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s an easy thing to lose. He had great credibility because of his knowledge, his communication skills and the relationship that he has with players, which is what coaching is all about.”

“We’re just happy that he’s healthy,” said Kemba Walker. “We were all just worried about Coach’s health, but I think [Coach Silas] did an amazing job along with all the other assistants. They’ve all done a great job while Coach Cliff was out.”

“I was ecstatic [when I heard the news],” said Silas. “I’m so happy that he got everything resolved and took the time to actually get better. For him to be coming back is great for everybody. My job is to help him and with him gone, my job was to help him keep the team together. Now that he’s back, my job is to keep assisting him. I’m really, really excited.”

“It’s always good to know anybody you spend time with or anybody that you know period is in good health,” said Dwight Howard, who has known Clifford for over a decade. “To have him back, we’re all thankful that he’s healthy. That’s the main concern. As much as we love this game, health is the main thing for all of us. It’s hard when our leader, our coach has to sit out and miss games and stuff because of health issues. We’re just happy that he’s healthy and the basketball stuff will take care of itself. His health is the number-one priority.”

What Clifford went through certainly isn’t unprecedented in the NBA. Two years ago, Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr missed the first 43 games of the season because of headaches stemming from back surgery complications. He was also forced to sit out 11 postseason games last year because of similar issues as well.

“It sucks on many levels. It hurts to not be there with your team, it hurts to not – from a selfish standpoint – to not do what you love. Most importantly, it just sucks that you’re not healthy. Everybody just wants to wake up and feel good every day,” said Kerr when the Warriors were in Charlotte back on Dec. 6.

Assistant Coach Luke Walton replaced Kerr during his first extended absence with the Warriors and provided some personal insight on the overall experience.

“It’s hard. I had a great relationship with Steve [Kerr] and I’m assuming [Coach Clifford and Stephen Silas] have the same thing here,” said Walton, who is now Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. “In a coach’s position, it’s always doing what’s best for the team. When I took over for the Warriors, the whole team stepped up because they knew I was young and new at it. It was a group effort in trying to fill in for [Steve Kerr] until he was able to come back. I think it made us closer as a group that year.”

Another recent example, Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Jason Kidd missed 17 games midway through 2015-16 season after undergoing right hip surgery. Regular medication and cortisone shots weren’t doing the trick anymore for Kidd, who believed the injury was likely a byproduct of his 19-year NBA playing career.

“The pain has been to the point where I can’t function,” stated Kidd in an interview with Bucks.com in December 2015. “I have to fix myself and we move on and get back to work. [This injury] is one that has taken away from me being able to sleep and function. [I’m doing] the right thing, especially when I’m trying to help [the team] be the best they can be.”

NBA coaches do not lead the easiest of lives. For every two hours fans see them pacing up and down the sidelines during games, there’s an immeasurable amount of preparation put in beforehand. The toll of traveling to 41 regular season road games (even more with playoffs) lends way to a chaotic schedule hardly conducive to health and wellness. It takes a lot to get ready for every outing on the NBA schedule and sometimes, personal well-being simply and inadvertently takes a backseat.

Above all else, Clifford’s body and mind seem to finally be at peace. He fully recognizes the physical commitments he’s had to make to regulate this issue and it’s surely weighing less on him mentally at this point. Moving forward, he’s healthy, happy, comfortable and back to doing what he loves.