by Richard Creaser
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Steve Clifford, a 1979 graduate of North Country Union High School, has been named head coach of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats. Mr. Clifford accepted a two-year, $6-million deal with a club option for a third year. Mr. Clifford spoke with the Chronicle about his new position on Thursday, June 6.
“My dad was a really successful coach at North Country, and I think that’s really where it all started,” Mr. Clifford said, referring to his father, Gerald Clifford. “There were a lot of nights spent sitting around the kitchen table talking basketball. We definitely were a basketball family — it was a big part of how we lived.”
By the time he graduated from North Country, Mr. Clifford had already taken his first steps on the path to the NBA. He entered the University of Maine at Farmington, graduating with a degree in special education.
“I always knew, even from a young age, that teaching and coaching were something I wanted to do,” he said. “It was while in college that I started off coaching at Woodland High School.”
Mr. Clifford made the transition from high school varsity to the collegiate coaching world with a four-year stint at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire. Over the next 14 years he would find himself at Fairfield College, Boston University, and Siena College before landing a head coaching position at Adelphi University.
During his time at Adelphi, Mr. Clifford led the program to an 86-36 record and four straight 20-plus win seasons, including four appearances in the NCAA Division II tournament. Mr. Clifford would then serve one year as assistant coach at East Carolina University before making his first foray into the NBA.
Mr. Clifford’s career in the NBA began in 2000 as an advance scout for the New York Knicks and as an assistant coach from 2001-2003. He then went on to serve as assistant coach to Jeff Van Gundy with the Houston Rockets from 2003-2007 and then as an assistant coach to Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic from 2007-2011 before landing with the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2011-2012 season.
“I didn’t set out to be an NBA coach,” Mr. Clifford said. “I’ve just always loved my job and went where the opportunities presented themselves.”
There are a few simple sounding things that have helped guide him to his current position, Mr. Clifford revealed.
“It starts with finding a profession you have a passion for,” he said. “I go to work every day and I’m excited by it and challenged by it.”
It’s also important to focus on each and every task you encounter. You need to take pride in what you produce each and every time, Mr. Clifford said. When you take pride in your work, others will take notice.
Next you need to be able to handle the good and the bad. It’s never easy to accept bad news, but it is a fact that life doesn’t always give you exactly what you want or how you want it, regardless of what profession you’re in, Mr. Clifford said.
“How you deal with adversity is a big part of life,” he said. “Throughout my career I’ve been fired four times. It’s never easy but you have to pick up and move on.”
But success is not a plateau but an ever-evolving goal. “You need to strive to continually evolve,” he said. “It’s not always easy in this world but you need to be ready to jump at the opportunities that present themselves.”
Along with success there are always drawbacks as well. Some sacrifices will have to be made, even as the head coach of an NBA franchise, Mr. Clifford said.
“The demands of the job will affect your personal life and your family time,” he said. “That’s the biggest negative. It’s the kind of job where you can’t just half do it. It takes a lot of your time and you have to be prepared for that.”
As head coach you’re always under the microscope of the fans, your employers and the media, Mr. Clifford said.
“There’s nothing else I could do to make the kind of money I do at something I love,” he said. “Dealing with the reality of what it is is a big part of being able to move on and do better. You don’t get all of the great things without all of the bad things.”
Taking the helm of a team, at any level, is a test of leadership. It involves establishing credibility with your players and setting a direction for the team, Mr. Clifford said.
“The detail parts are so important,” he said. “Coaching, to me, at any level, is hard. The difference is this: If you’re coaching at the high school level, you’re the best coach that guy has ever played for. By the time you get to the NBA, they’ve played for a lot of great coaches.”
Standing out among great coaches isn’t easy. Despite the challenges, Mr. Clifford is certain that it’s a challenge he’s willing to accept.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s something you never take for granted. There are times when you’re driving home and you’ve just seen the brilliance of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard and you have to think this is the best job in the world.”
contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]