Staff Writer

Steve Clifford graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, and had his first head coaching job at Woodland High School. The odd thing is, if he was still at either place, he’d have a game to prepare for right now.

Clifford hopes to be soon entering his fifth season as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Orlando Magic under head coach Stan Van Gundy. The reason he’s only hoping, of course, is the NBA lockout, which is threatening to cancel the entire season.

Clifford is not permitted to give interviews about the lockout. But in an interview last week, he talked a lot about coaching.

For one thing, as you might have guessed, the lockout is essentially acting as an extended offseason. Coaches are still studying film, trying to learn about themselves and their opponents. Clifford said each summer, Van Gundy will assign “projects” to assistant coaches with the goal of eliminating a weakness on the team. Or Van Gundy might watch film of certain games, then have his coaches watch the same games, to see if they pick up on similar things.

“If you’re coaching in Class B in Eastern Maine, then a good part of your preparation for the next year, I would think, would be to challenge yourself to become an expert on all those teams that you’re going to be playing,” Clifford said. “That’s one of those things that Stan does every offseason. If you walk by his office, he may be watching film on Miami or the Celtics to see the things that we needed to do better when we play those teams. That part of the study is one of those things that he’s exceptional at.”

When he’s looking to learn about coaching, Clifford said he still talks to high school and college coaches in Maine — like Jim Bessey at Mt. Blue, Bob Brown at Cheverus, Dick Meader at UMF or former Colby College coach Dick Whitmore.

“But one of the challenges in the NBA that makes it different than high school or college is this: When you address a team, you’re always going to have a handful of veteran players,” Clifford said. “You may be coaching guys who have already played for three or four really outstanding coaches. So when you say, ‘Hey, we want to run the pick-and-roll this way,’ that could be totally different than what they’ve heard from another really good coach.”

So, Clifford said, even if you’re a successful NBA coach, if you’re going to tell a player to try something different, you have to have studied the film, so you know the player’s game, and can explain to him why this change works for him as well.

The Magic have been successful with Clifford on the staff. When Van Gundy and Clifford joined the team in 2007, the Magic hadn’t won a playoff series since 1996. Since then, they’ve won at least 52 games every year, and made the NBA Finals in 2009.

But that has meant more pressure. When the Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs earlier this year, this time it was a disappointment.

“At any level, it’s turned out to be that type of profession where when things go well, you get to keep going. When they don’t go well, there’s always that chance of being let go,” Clifford said. “I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been involved with teams where you had a chance to win big, and then with other teams where there just wasn’t enough talent to be a contending team.”

The key, Clifford said, is just to keep learning.

“This game changes every year,” he said. “If you’re not up-to-date, there’s no way you’re going to be successful. That’s at any level. You’re watching. You’re taking things that you see work for other things, and you’re trying it with your team. It’s not always going to be a fit, but for sure, you’ve got to stay up-to-date.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]


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