Hornets' Steve Clifford opens up on return to team, health issues: 'It scared me'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Clifford just couldn’t do it that night. On Dec. 4 ahead of a home game against the Magic, the Hornets coach was simply in too much pain to do his job.

“I’ll put it this way: it was painful enough so that I called [assistant coach] Pat [Delany], I walked out and got in my car and said, ‘Geez, I don’t need to drive,'” Clifford said. “I live up the street, so I walked home and left my car. It scared me.”

Those around the Hornets organization remained quiet about Clifford’s health, only revealing it was not a cardiac issue, a concern after Clifford had two stents placed in his heart in 2013. He returned to Spectrum Center on Friday afternoon for the first time since his sudden departure, explaining that severe headaches had kept him away from his team for 18 consecutive games.

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The issues date back two years, Clifford says, when he started taking Extra Strength Tylenol to deal with the headaches, then had to switch to a stronger medication. Prior to last year’s All-Star break, the pain became so severe he underwent an MRI exam, which came back clear.

After reaching his breaking point in December, the 56-year-old coach arrived at a fork in the road — continue taking medication to push through the rest of the season, or make long-term health a priority.

“I don’t have to just do my job differently,” Clifford said. “I have to live differently.”

Clifford chose the latter, going through a series of tests with team physician Dr. Joseph Garcia and Charlotte neurologist Ki Jung. He realized he was dealing with “external issues,” namely sleep deprivation and the stress levels of his job. Clifford says he is now easily sleeping at least six hours per night, and he’s hoping to reach seven soon.

“I feel totally different. I’m living differently in terms of sleep being a priority, and I’m gonna make some adjustments here in the way I do my job,” Clifford said. “I have to find a way every day to make sleep more of a priority, or these things are gonna come back.”

After speaking with doctors Tuesday, Clifford met with Hornets owner Michael Jordan, vice chairman Curtis Polk and executive vice president of operations James Jordan on Thursday night. The doctors had seen improvement, and Clifford felt comfortable enough to make a return to the sideline permanently.

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While Clifford praised associate head coach Stephen Silas for establishing credibility and relationships with players in Clifford’s absence — going so far as to say Silas could be an NBA head coach right now — it’s clear the Hornets could use Clifford’s leadership. Charlotte is five games back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and they went 7-11 with Clifford out, including a loss at home Wednesday night to a Mavericks team playing its third game in four days.

Even with the Hornets struggling to find stability, Clifford is focusing on how his players are performing, not the shrinking margin of error for a postseason berth. 

“This is the best team that we’ve had here. And we haven’t played well yet, consistently at all, but I believe it can happen,” Clifford said. “I think that the things that you see when you’re sitting back and you have time to actually digest it instead of just moving on to the next game, the next game, the next game, I think can be helpful in some ways. And that’s really what I’ve been able to do.”

Clifford will fully participate in practice on Tuesday before coaching the Hornets at Spectrum Center against the Wizards on Wednesday. For a guy like Clifford who has worked his way up the coaching ranks from high school to college to the NBA, it’s simply back to business, though that business will require a few adjustments and, hopefully, a few more hours of sleep.

“I’ve coached these guys a lot of games. There will be no speech,” Clifford said. “We’ll go in, we’ll practice and we’ll get ready to play against Washington. That’s what we’re gonna do.”

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