Clifford Grew Up Dreaming About Becoming Basketball Coach
by John Denton
Magic head coach gained inspiration from father & other mentors
ORLANDO – Every day that Steve Clifford steps onto the basketball floor, be it the Orlando Magic’s practice court or the Amway Center parquet, he thinks about his unlikely journey to this point, the lessons taught by his coaching father and basketball-loving mother and the manner in which his mentors seriously approached the profession.
Clifford, 57, is not only a coaching lifer, but also an amalgamation of the dozens of coaches who he has either learned under, played for or coached alongside of. They might not know it, but they have been with him every step of the way along this unlikely journey from coaching high school basketball in Maine to several small-college basketball stops along the East Coast to his NBA jobs in New York, Houston, Orlando, Los Angeles, Charlotte and back to Orlando again.
As he’s heading into his first season as the Magic’s mentor and trying to tackle the tall task of getting this franchise back into contention, Clifford reminds himself daily of why he got into the coaching profession more than three decades ago. Coaching is all he’s ever wanted to do since childhood, and he loves everything about the job, from trying to coax greatness out of players to attempting to bring teams together for a common purpose. So many of the coaches he’s been around taught him savor the grind and embrace the challenge and those lessons are with him every day as he attempts to win big with the Magic.
``You know what I think about, I think about all of the people who dream of getting to this level,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic open the regular season on Wednesday night at the Amway Center against the rival Miami Heat. ``I think back to my dad coaching at (the high-school) level. I don’t know how much money he made, but I know he did it because he loved it. I know when I was at Woodland (High School in Baileyville, Maine), I made $1,600.
``What I’m saying is, I don’t ever take this for granted,’’ Clifford continued. ``I’m not someone who had this goal of being an NBA head coach. I’ve literally never had a year that I didn’t enjoy this job – I loved being a high school coach, I loved being a college coach, and in the NBA, from Day 1 with Jeff Van Gundy and the Knicks, I’ve loved it. The level of play, the purpose of play, it’s something I have always enjoyed. So, I take that with me into this job every day.’’
Clifford is plenty excited about being back in Orlando – a place where he worked as an assistant coach from 2007-12 and experienced some of his greatest success by getting to the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. Whereas those Magic teams were loaded with established, veteran stars, Clifford’s current Orlando team has a solid core and a group of young prospects loaded with length, athleticism and potential.
Even though the Magic have been in a six-year rut of missing the playoffs, he doesn’t think the franchise is far off at all from being back in contention. He knows that it’s his job as head coach to work hand-in-hand with President of basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond to make sure that happens.
``I’m very confident that we can get it done here,’’ Clifford said candidly. ``The hardest thing, obviously, is the roster building. To give yourself a chance in this league, you’ve got to have the right players. What Jeff and John have done with the roster since they’ve been here, we really have the beginnings of the right pieces of what’s winning in this league – two-way players with positional size and versatility. I believe whole-heartedly that that’s what wins, and it’s just about adding to that and getting breaks. I really believe that there’s so much in place here now to win.’’
That’s a feeling shared by players on the Magic roster who are hungry to find success and take the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. In addition to having a diverse base of talent on the roster, many with the Magic are confident that the franchise is on the right track because of the organized, no-nonsense approach that Clifford has brought to the team. He won over his players early on in the process by sitting down with them and talking about the future not long after he was hired as head coach in late May. Clifford rarely pulls any punches, being blunt with players about their performances, roles and mindsets, and that honesty tends to make players wholeheartedly believe in their coach’s mission.
``He’s really a coach who exchanges with his players in a very honest way. You can have an honest conversation with him about what’s going on and how things can be worked out,’’ said guard-forward Evan Fournier, who has played for seven head coaches in seven NBA seasons with Denver and Orlando. ``He’s just very forward in everything he says, he’s very disciplined and very hard. … He’s been around so many players and coaches, and when he talks to us, we can feel that (knowledge base) and it makes us feel more comfortable.’’
`BASKETBALL WAS ALWAYS A CONSTANT IN MY LIFE’
Clifford has built up that deep base of experience by dedicating his life to the game of basketball and how coaches excel at it. His first memories of basketball came from his father, Jerry, serving as a high school coach in North Country Union in Newport, Vermont. Clifford saw the dedication that his father poured into the coaching by organizing and impacting every minor detail of his program so that his school could experience success. Clifford played basketball for his father in high school, and he knew all along that he wanted to someday be just like his father and coach basketball as well. To this day, Clifford still occasionally talks to dad Jerry and mother Teresa before or after games and they usually have some coaching suggestions for him.
``Basketball was always a constant in my life and I think I just always knew (that he wanted to be a coach). My dad was a high school basketball coach and I always knew that’s what I wanted to do,’’ Clifford remembered. ``I remember back then, there were the old film reels and my dad would have all the assistant coaches over to the house and they’d watch film. Usually, he would let me sit in there and watch – as long as I didn’t talk. And he’d let me go to practice with him as a kid.
``My dad has a knowledge level – even now – about everything about the game of basketball,’’ Clifford added. ``Talk to him about ball pressure or defenses and he understands it. And he really gets the overall organization of how you do the job. He ran it all at his school – from third and fourth grade all the way up to the high school level. He was there on Mondays and Thursday coaching the younger kids and he met with the junior high coaches every week. His organization was so great and that’s how he was able to build such a great program.’’
As he was playing basketball at Maine-Farmington, where he was a team captain and a defensive specialist, Clifford was working on his degree in special education all so that he could eventually become a coach. He always assumed he would simply be a high school coach, he did just that in 1983 after landing his first job as a mentor in Maine.
His quick success and deep understanding of basketball ultimately helped him land a variety of jobs at the college level and he worked at St. Anselm (N.H.), Fairfield (Conn.), Boston University (Mass.) and Siena (N.Y.) before landing his first head coaching job at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. in 1995. He found instant success by blending a roster of New York kids and international standouts, leading tiny Adelphi to four straight Division II tournament appearances and 20-win seasons.
A few years before, Clifford started what would become a tight relationship with a fellow small-college coach from the upstate-New York area. Clifford got to know Jeff Van Gundy when the two of them were working a basketball camp for legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, and it would be a friendship that would pay big dividends for Clifford.
``Jeff’s drill station was right beside mine every morning and we just got to know each other, we stayed in touch and it just took off from there,’’ said Clifford, who also considered a close friend of Van Gundy’s – fellow coach, Brendan Malone – a mentor.
Van Gundy hired Clifford as a New York Knicks’ scout in 2000 and he worked as an assistant coach for Van Gundy as an assistant coach from 2001-03 (with the Knicks) and Houston Rockets (2003-07).
When San Van Gundy got the Magic job in 2007, he filled his coaching staff with many of brother, Jeff’s, assistant coaches in Houston. Clifford came to Orlando along with Patrick Ewing and Malone, and he ended up forming a friendship with Stan Van Gundy that is as strong as any he has ever had in coaching.
``Obviously, the two people who have had the biggest influence on me, philosophically and the way I want to do things in the NBA, is Jeff and Stan. And they are two of my closest friends,’’ said Clifford, who recently dined with the Van Gundy’s parents, Bill and Cindy, in Orlando. ``When you do this job, you don’t end up with a lot of close friends, but a lot of my best friends come from coaching.’’
GREAT MEMORIES, BIG PLANS OF WINNING IN ORLANDO
When he’s out and about in Orlando, be it grabbing dinner or simply running errands, Clifford is often approached by Magic fans who want to talk about the franchise’s glory days in 2009 and ‘10. HIs job now, he said, is to change the narrative of those conversations to current-day successes and make the Magic championship contenders once again.
``I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and talk about that Game 6 against Cleveland (in 2009). People still want to talk about Game 4 with Rashard (Lewis) hitting the 3-pointer when we were down one. So, yeah, the people still remember those big games,’’ said Clifford, who worked the past five seasons as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. ``I know how this (Magic) fanbase can really help a team. They did it for us before when we were good and I’m super excited about getting it back that way again.’’
Not exactly the sentimental type, Clifford knows how he is perceived in Orlando will come down to whether he can turn around the Magic’s fortunes going forward. ``You know how coaching goes,’’ he cracked wryly recently, ``if you want to be able to stay here for a while, you had better get your team to play well.’’
Clifford’s tireless desire to get teams to play well got the best of him of last season when he was coaching in Charlotte. His consummation with coaching and grinder mentality led to severe headaches caused primarily by sleep deprivation. Several consultations with neurosurgeons and six weeks off the sidelines helped him change not only the way he coaches, but the way he lives.
``It definitely brought on a change. Now, I’m off all mediation now and I don’t need any help sleeping,’’ he said. ``The only thing really different that I’m doing now is I don’t get here as early in the morning as I used to be. I’ll stay later, but I’ve found that I don’t have to work differently, but I have to sleep differently. So, by getting an extra 90 minutes of sleep a night, I feel so much fresher. … I look back on where I was and I just feel so much fresher now. Your body is just going to tell you that at 54 or 55 that you can’t do what you did at 48 or 49. So, getting more rest now has made me so much fresher.’’
Not surprisingly, Clifford has referenced some of the things that San Van Gundy did to bring the Magic success years ago while dealing with a dilemma on his current Orlando roster. Center Nikola Vucevic is clearly one of the Magic’s most valuable players because of his diverse set of skills on the offensive end of the floor, and he will need to play big minutes this season for the team to be successful. Meanwhile, Orlando used its first-round draft pick on center Mohamed Bamba and the rookie has made a strong case for early playing time with his solid preseason play.
Clifford’s answer to needing to play two centers as much as possible? Get them both onto the floor together for as much as possible.
``My feeling is, again going all the way back to what Stan used to say: `You have to find ways to get your best players on the floor,’ and they are two of our best players,’’ Clifford said of Vucevic and Bamba. ``Two months from now, as Mo learns, (it might work better then), but you just don’t wait until then. If we’re going to become the team that we can become, (Bamba’s) progress is part of that. So, you can’t get into December and say, `(Bamba) is playing well, but two of our best players are at the same position’ and then start it from there. We may as well start it now and make it a part of what we do.’’
Again, Clifford is an amalgamation of all the coaches he’s been around in this life dedicated to basketball. Still, he aspires to be as organized as his father, Jerry, was with those high school teams back in Maine and Vermont. He wants to teach fundamentals as well as his college coach, Len MacPhee, who won 322 games while coaching Maine-Farmington’s men’s program for 24 years. And he wants to be as perceptive with in-game adjustments and overall strategy as Jeff and Stan Van Gundy.
They are all with him on this coaching journey and every time that he steps out onto the basketball court. So, too, are all of the high school and small-college coaches aspiring to get the level that Clifford has gotten. He has given everything he’s got to this profession and that wouldn’t have changed whether he was at the high school, small-college or NBA level.
``I can still remember my dad on Saturday mornings – when I’d get to go to practices with him – and he’d swing by and pick up a couple of the players and then drop them off after practice,’’ Clifford recalled. ``I think, all the time, about how much those coaches put into their teams. I’ve always tried to do the same thing. It’s the only way I know how to do this.’’