On Sunday afternoon at 1, the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat will play the deciding game 7 of an NBA Eastern Conference first round playoff series. Outside of the Carolinas, the biggest Charlotte Hornets booster club is probably here in Maine, where Steve Clifford’s longtime friends will be cheering for the Hornets’ head coach.

A 1983 graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, Clifford is in this third season as Charlotte’s head coach. His time in the NBA goes back more than 15 years. His ability to coach goes back as far as his friends can remember.

“We coached against each other for years in basketball camp, and I knew he’d be a good coach. Did I think he’d be coaching in the NBA? No, that’d be crazy,” Phil St. Onge, Clifford’s friend since college, said. The son of a coach, Clifford is a basketball lifer. When Bill Martin, one of his teammates at UMF, met Clifford in 1980, he knew there was something special about him.

“I met him the first day I was on campus. He went out of his way to talk to me. I knew he was a leader on the team. I didn’t know he was only a sophomore,” Martin said.

Clifford was the Beavers’ point guard. He had 125 assists as a senior and was a defensive force, Martin said. It’s no surprise then that in each of Clifford’s three seasons Charlotte has finished the regular season in the top 10 in fewest points allowed per game. This season, the Hornets gave up 100.7 points per game, ninth-best in the NBA.

“He was always our best defender,” Martin said. “He could score, but Steve was really more of a playmaker.”

In his senior season at UMF, Clifford broke his hand. Martin watched his friend and teammate handle the adversity with poise and class.

“His season was over, but he never put his head down. He never let it show how heartbroken he was. He never stopped being a leader,” Martin said.

Clifford’s route to the NBA started in Woodland, where he coached high school basketball after graduating from UMF. Mars is closer to the NBA than Woodland. The road from Woodland to the NBA was used once, then torn out. There were stops at St. Anselm University, and Fairfield, then Boston University and Siena before Clifford became head coach at Adelphi. There was a year as an assistant at East Carolina, 13 years as an NBA assistant coach with the Knicks, Rockets, Magic and Lakers.

Clifford earned a degree in Special Education and his friends say the approach he took to teach is what makes him a good coach, particularly in the NBA. St. Onge and Martin have each sat in on a Hornets practice, watched how Clifford is able to teach NBA players and treat them like men, rather than force a bombastic or authoritative style upon them.

“His style has never changed,” Martin said. “It’s incredible. He hasn’t had to change his personality to adapt to the NBA.”

“He just understands people and knows what he has to do to make them better, and they buy into the team thing,” St. Onge added.

Clifford was constantly studying the game, watching as much basketball as he could, always learning something. Clifford has a remarkable memory, Martin said. He can tell you the specifics of a game played 30 years ago. If that doesn’t help him teach the Hornets opponents tendencies, nothing does.

“In college, he would stay up and watch west coast college games. He was at a different level than all of us. You could tell. A lot of us played instinctively, but he was more than X’s and O’s,” Martin said.

If the Hornets win on Sunday afternoon and advance to the next round, Martin and St. Onge hope to get to Charlotte for a game.

“I’ve become a huge Charlotte fan. I never miss a press conference. I have the Charlotte Hornets app,” Martin said. “Now that the spotlight is on him, I think the country is going to fall in love with this guy.”

St. Onge recalled watching a Georgetown game with Clifford when they were UMF students. Then, Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was one of the dominant players in college. Now, Ewing is Clifford’s associate head coach.

“If I had told him, ‘Steve, that guy will be working for you someday,’ he’d have called me crazy,” St. Onge said. “He’s the same guy he was 30 years ago. I text him and he texts right back. He hasn’t changed a bit. He’s just a down-to-earth guy.”

A down-to-earth guy about to coach one of the biggest games of his career. The Boston Celtics were knocked out of the playoffs Thursday. For as long as Charlotte is playing, be it four more quarters or three more series, Maine is Hornets country.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

<URL destination=””>[email protected]

</URL>Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM