Steve Clifford has been a basketball coach for 30 years, starting his campaign to get an NBA head coaching position with a stint at Woodland High School in Baileyville, Maine and continuing through college jobs and a long stretch as an NBA assistant.
He finally reached the pinnacle of his profession this summer when he was named coach of the Charlotte Bobcats. It’s not a sexy job, and the Bobcats have burned through coaches like the Patriots through wide receivers, but it’s one of 30 jobs in the world. It’s coveted.
Just five months into his stint with the Bobcats, Clifford took ill last week while eating at a Charlotte restaurant, experiencing chest pains. Doctors inserted two stents in his heart, and the grinder was back on the sideline for Monday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Lincoln, Maine native coached Wednesday night’s game against the Celtics as if it were a normal night.
But normalcy has been altered for Clifford. He made sure not to compare himself to NFL coaches John Fox and Gary Kubiak, both of whom are missing time because of serious ailments. Fox, of the Broncos, will miss several weeks after undergoing aortic valve replacement surgery. The Texans’ Kubiak is expected to return to the sideline Sunday against the Raiders after having a mini stroke during halftime of the Nov. 2 game against the Colts.
Coaching can be stressful. It can take up all of your time. It can deny you quality time with family. It can lead to poor lifestyle habits. Those points were not lost on the 52-year-old Clifford, who has had to make some immediate changes.
“To be honest, what happened with me is a lot more a byproduct of what I have done for 30 years than what’s happened the last five months,” Clifford said, saying that getting the Charlotte job did not add to his stress level. “My issue is genetic. I do have to take better care of myself, I have to sleep better, I gotta do better with my diet, exercise better. This wasn’t something that happened over five months. Where I’m fortunate is, a lot of people unfortunately don’t get a warning sign and I did.”
Doctors told Clifford that his heart issue could have become serious in the next several months, and he admitted that coaching does not lend itself to good eating habits or allow time for exercise and down time. Clifford, like many of us, is a basketball junkie. When he is not coaching, he is watching game tape or games on television.
Before Monday night’s game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he jots down plays that he may catch on television on paper, or types ideas into his iPad. The coaching clock works 24 hours. There are always ideas simmering, coaches are constantly thinking about ways to outfox their counterparts. The life is obsessive and unhealthy.
Late-night or early-morning travel, attempting to get quality sleep on planes, inhaling a plate of food at near midnight following a long game. Coaches have to pay better attention to their personal health, as the unfortunate incidents with Fox and Kubiak have exemplified.
Clifford labored for years on college and NBA benches as an assistant, including from 1990-94 at Boston University, and spent one season as an advance scout, which he said is the toughest job in the NBA. He deserved the Charlotte job, perhaps his lone opportunity to prove himself worthy as an NBA coach because it wasn’t that sexy hire.
Doctors instructed Clifford to limit his participation in practice, to eliminate the 6 a.m. arrivals at the practice facility, and to leave when the players do. He is relying more on his assistant coaches and staff as he tries to come up with a schedule that is more conducive to his readjusted lifestyle.
More coaches should review their eating and exercise habits and dedicate more time to good health, but with the pressures of having to come up with victories, and 13 NBA coaches having been fired or resigning after last season, an increased emphasis on personal health is highly unlikely.
“Coaching is like you guys [media], you do it because you love it,” Clifford said. “That’s part of the challenge. No matter what, I’m on a limited work day now where they don’t let me do as much in practice. They have me go home right after, but still, I mean, when you’re sitting at home watching ‘Law and Order’ or whatever, you’re still thinking about your team. I’m like you guys. You’re trying to find a way to be better at your job.
“Listen, I think with anything there’s good and bad and we’re all fortunate to be able to do something that we love to do.”
Clifford is closely following his regimen, but eventually with doctor’s clearance, he’ll be more back to his normal grind, spending countless hours attempting to outfox his opponents. Let’s hope coaches around sports use these three recent examples to create more balance in their lives. That would be a significant victory.