ELLSWORTH — Dan Clifford’s closet is about to look a lot different.
On the walls of his office and all throughout his home, the Ellsworth High School and former Bucksport High School principal has a collection of jerseys and other gear sporting the team colors and logo of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Clifford’s reason for amassing this collection has been a good one: His brother, Steve, recently spent five years as the team’s head coach.
Before next season begins, though, Dan and his family will be looking for gear of a different team. That’s because Steve was announced last Wednesday as the newest head coach of the Orlando Magic.
“It’s definitely going to be time for all of us to renew our wardrobes,” Dan said. “We have all the gear from when he was in Charlotte and had the NBA team package so we could watch most of the games on TV to support him.”
Steve Clifford was hired as the coach of the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2013 following two abysmal years in the Queen City franchise’s history. Taking over a Charlotte squad that had gone a combined 28-120 in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Clifford proved his worth as an NBA-caliber coach by leading the team to 43 wins and a playoff appearance in his first season and 48 wins and another playoff appearance in 2015-16 following the team’s rebranding as the Hornets.
Yet when the 2017-18 season concluded, the situation in Charlotte changed. The team hired a new general manager and, on April 13, announced it would be going in a different direction and conducting a search for a new head coach. Steve Clifford was out of a job.
Fortunately, Clifford’s period of unemployment didn’t last long. Soon after the Charlotte announcement was made, other teams began contacting him about various opportunities.
“There were a bunch of teams that soon contacted Steve’s agent about head coaching positions or assistant coaching positions,” Dan said. “The Magic had gotten in touch with him, and he was also a finalist with the Milwaukee Bucks and the [Detroit] Pistons.”
Milwaukee eventually went a different route to fill its coaching vacancy, but Orlando’s search began to zero in on Clifford as the weeks passed. Before rumors of an impending Magic hire began to circulate on social media last Wednesday, Steve phoned his brother to tell him the news.
“He called us in the morning on the day he was hired as we were getting ready for school, and I knew he had been meeting with the Magic the night before,” Dan said. “He said, ‘Hey, it’s done. It’ll be on ESPN later this morning, and there’s a press conference later today.’”
There were, of course, other candidates for the position, but Clifford offered something particularly enticing: years of experience within the organization. He had been an assistant coach for the Magic during a 2007-12 stretch that included four seasons of 50-plus wins and an NBA Finals appearance in 2009, and the prospect of hiring someone who had played a part in that era of team history proved too much to turn down.
“This is our fifth coach in seven years, and it’s very important that we start to establish our identity,” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said in announcing Clifford as head coach last Wednesday. “That was a big part of what we were looking for as we went into this search: someone we felt we could build with and would have a long life philosophically and organizationally with the team.”
Although Steve might be the only member of the Clifford family with an NBA track record, he’s far from the only one with a passion for coaching basketball. Dan coached the Ellsworth boys’ team from 1996-2005, and the brothers’ father, Gerry, coached at now-defunct Mattawamkeag High School and at North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt.
Steve, who was born in the small Aroostook County town of Island Falls and grew up in Mattawamkeag, began his coaching career at Baileyville’s Woodland High School in 1983. One of his earliest memories at Woodland was that of an exhibition game on the road against Bucksport, an experience about which Dan invited Steve to speak during his time as Bucksport High School principal following the 2013-14 NBA season.
“We got smoked,” Steve said in summarizing the game in front of Bucksport students. The experience, he said, had a major impact on his outlook on life and served as a message that his approach and ability to respond to challenges mattered more than how — or where — he started.
As for Dan’s hunt for more Magic gear, there’s one piece of team clothing that’s already in his family. Following Game 7 of Orlando’s triumph over the Boston Celtics in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals, his daughter, Madison, asked 6-foot-11, 270-pound center Dwight Howard if she could have his jersey as he made his way past her and toward the TD Garden locker room Howard obliged, and Madison had a new keepsake.
“I guess it was a sign of things to come,” Clifford said. “We’ll just have to make sure the next piece of Magic clothing we get is a little bit smaller.”