On Tuesday, Steve Clifford spoke to Len McPhee, his basketball coach at the University of Maine at Farmington. Even as he accepted the head coaching job with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, Clifford’s roots were not far from his mind.

“Coach McPhee was a great influence on me. It was great to talk with him,” said Clifford, a 1983 UMF graduate.

Clifford, who was born in Lincoln and grew up in Vermont before attending UMF, was introduced by the Bobcats as their new head coach Wednesday.

“It’s an opportunity to coach in the NBA. There’s only 30 of these jobs and it’s the ultimate challenge for a coach,” Clifford said.

Last season, Clifford was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. Prior to that, he spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic and four seasons with the Houston Rockets. Clifford jump from the college game to the NBA in the 2000-01 season, serving as advance scout for the New York Knicks.

Those who have known Clifford since his days as a defensive standout at UMF said their not surprised by his success.

“Since the day I met Cliff, he has been focused on coaching basketball. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve had the good fortune to know,” Phil St. Onge, a Winslow native and Clifford’s college roommate, said. “Even after all he has accomplished personally in the game, neither of those things has changed.”

Former Colby College men’s basketball coach Dick Whitmore got to know Clifford when he worked as a counselor at the Pine Tree Basketball Camp. The traits Whitmore saw then were still evident a few years ago, when he attended an Orlando Magic practice and watched Clifford teaching his professional players.

“(Clifford) was always willing to learn to get better. He had a knack to teach the fundamentals to young people,” Whitmore said. “He actually coached my kids when they were small. That’s how far back Steve and I go.”

Clifford is Charlotte’s third head coach in as many years, and he inherits a team that struggled this past season. The Bobcats went 21-61 and only Orlando finished lower in the Eastern Conference.

“I don’t think it’s anything you can do overnight. I have to prove (to the players) I know what it takes for them to play well as individuals and I need to prove I know what it takes to win in this league,” said Clifford, whose first coaching job was at Woodland High School.

Clifford said he thinks his team has some talent around which to build, including guards Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

“I’ll be reaching out and establishing that trust,” Clifford said. “Watching tape, the thing that stood out is, there’s some really good competitors.”

Clifford added that another selling point for the job was he feels he can work well with management, specifically president of basketball operations Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho.

“In this league, that’s critical,” Clifford said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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