ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Steve Clifford knew very quickly that he was going into the family business. His father was a teacher and a high school coach in a tiny town in northern Vermont, and when he was a sophomore on his dad’s team Clifford was telling his parents that he intended to head down that very same career path.
The NBA was not on his radar.
“Never,” Clifford said. “Not at all.”
But he got there, and he’s persevered since. He dealt with a heart scare a few years ago, with debilitating headaches that left him unable to coach for a long stretch of last season, even getting fired by Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets this past offseason after five years and two playoffs berths there. And now he’s got a new challenge, taking over the Orlando Magic and leading a team that has the Eastern Conference’s longest active playoff drought.
Regardless of how much turmoil he’s gone through, Clifford is still counting his blessings — even now, as he inherits a rebuilding project.
“There’s definitely times when you go home, you’re cooking dinner, you go out for dinner, whatever, and say, ‘I don’t know how this happened for me,’” Clifford said. “No, seriously. I don’t want to be corny but in many ways, you’re living your dream. I don’t think coaches in this league take this for granted. It’s a grind, but these are great jobs and this is a great existence.”
So not only is he happy right now, but he’s also healthy.
And he’s making personal adjustments to stay that way.
Clifford missed 21 games last season with headaches — so severe that often he couldn’t even get to sleep without the aid of medicine, and sometimes that wouldn’t even do the trick. Clifford needed a procedure to insert two stents back in the early days of his Charlotte tenure, and even that only kept him out of one game.
The solution to the headaches, he’s found, is about 90 more minutes of sleep a night. At 57 years old, he knows he can’t go-go-go the way he once did.
“Physically, I feel so good,” Clifford said. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
He’ll have to balance his new approach to ensure he’s available every day to turn things around in Orlando.
Over the last six seasons, no NBA team has won fewer games than the Magic. They haven’t reached the playoffs since 2012 and haven’t won a postseason series since going to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010 — back when Clifford was in his first stint in Orlando, as an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy.
When Orlando fired Frank Vogel after last season, the perception was that the team was taking a very long time to find its next coach. Turns out, the Magic had their guy in mind all along.
“What really attracted us is the long haul,” Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said. “His teams, all five years, led the league in defensive rebounding. They committed the fewest turnovers. The bottom line is when you play a Steve Clifford team, you have to beat them. They won’t beat themselves.”
Clifford officially got the Orlando job in May, though might have won it five years ago.
Weltman and some other current Magic officials were in Milwaukee at that time, and Clifford was one of the coaches they considered hiring to lead the Bucks. Before they could get Clifford in for a second interview, the Hornets signed him.
Weltman never forgot how Clifford got away.
“He’s been a target ever since,” Weltman said.
Clifford teaches a simple game: Rebound. Protect the basketball. Play hard.
Basic and simple, what Clifford thinks works best.
“He’s been to the playoffs with multiple teams and he knows what it takes to get there,” Magic star Aaron Gordon said. “So we’re bought in. We’re buying in. We’re learning, quickly, in this small period of time that we have. It’s really fundamental basketball. Minor details, very simple, very easy, but if they mean six to eight points, that’s usually what you win or lose by.”
The biggest part of this offseason for Clifford was getting to know his team. He went to California to spend time with Gordon. His office sits above the Magic practice court, so from his desk he can see when players are working out on their own and when it’s time for a chat. There are whiteboards scattered all over that office, covered with scrawls of lists and plays and ideas.
“We’ve faced his teams twice in the playoffs,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who counts Clifford as a friend and has since their time as scouts nearly two decades ago. “Very tough. That’s both physically and mentally tough and they play the right way, play together. We have nothing but respect for Steve and his staff and the environment they are able to create. Unless you play against it, you don’t really see it and notice it.”
Clifford’s belief in right-place, right-time goes back long before that Milwaukee interview.
It can be traced even further, all the way back to 1985 when he was a coach at Jim Boeheim’s camp in Syracuse and wound up meeting Jeff Van Gundy. They became friends, and Jeff Van Gundy brought Clifford to the Knicks for his first taste of the NBA life. Then Stan Van Gundy brought him to Orlando, and now Clifford is back there running his own show.
He was born in Maine and raised in Vermont, but Orlando feels like home for Clifford.
“I have a comfort level living here,” Clifford said. “I still have many friends here. I was able to find a place to live quickly. And I enjoyed it here. And I’m enjoying it again.”