Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford speaks to students at Ellsworth High School on Sept. 14. Returning to his home state of Maine for the weekend to visit family and lead a coaching clinic at the University of Maine at Farmington, Clifford offered words of advice to students at EHS, where his brother, Dan, is principal. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

NBA head coach Steve Clifford shares words of advice with Ellsworth students

ELLSWORTH — There aren’t many places the sport of basketball hasn’t taken Steve Clifford.

Throughout Maine, Steve and his brother, Ellsworth High School Principal Dan, spent years coaching at the high school level. Years before that, they became immersed in the sport as their father, Gerry, coached everywhere from Mattawamkeag to Lincoln to the other side of New England near the Vermont-Canada border.

For Steve, the sport has launched a career that’s landed him one of the most prestigious titles in professional sports: NBA head coach. Speaking at Ellsworth High School on a return trip to his home state Friday, the Orlando Magic head coach shared some of the lessons and experiences that took him from rural Maine to coaching in the best basketball league in the world.

“I’m 56, and I’m still evolving every day,” Clifford said. “I’m different at 56 than I was at 54. That’s what keeps me happy as I get older is that I’m constantly learning, and you will all learn that, too, when you get older.”

Long before Clifford reached the NBA ranks, his coaching career began in Downeast Maine at Woodland High School. Yet whether Clifford’s players have been high school freshmen or professional superstars, there are some qualities he’s has seen in everyone he’s coached.

“The thing that I tell people that they don’t understand is that [NBA players] have the same emotions that you and I have,” Clifford said. “They have good days, they have bad days, they have times when they question themselves and they have times when they’re disappointed.”

Steve Clifford signs student Brett Bragdon’s shoe Sept. 14 at Ellsworth High School. The Magic named Clifford head coach in May after he was fired from the same position with the Charlotte Hornets the previous month. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Although coaching professional basketball has been a dream come true for Clifford, the nature of the job is a brutal one. As a result of the NBA’s results-oriented nature — nine of the NBA’s 30 head coaches at the start of the 2017-18 season were fired by year’s end — most head coaches, assistant coaches and front-office members have experienced multiple firings.

Clifford has been no exception. Prior to being named the head coach of the Magic in May, he had been replaced at three straight jobs as an assistant coach and once as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. Although such situations are rarely ideal, controlling what he can control has put in positions to resurface in a business that makes survival a difficult prospect.

“Good days start with being happy with yourself,” Clifford said. “Everyone wakes up in a bad mood some days, but if you want to have a good day, you have to talk yourself into it. The people who usually come out on top or have that advantage are the people who keep persevering.”

Following his trip to Maine to visit family and spent time at a coaching clinic at his alma mater, the University of Maine at Farmington, Clifford was set to head back to Orlando. The Magic had workouts and practices scheduled all day Monday and Tuesday as it continued its preparation leading up to the start of next month’s regular season.

Clifford knew two long sessions with his players and his assistant coaches would bring up obstacles and challenges the same way any other day in his professional or personal life would. Just as he planned to anticipate the obstacles he would experience on the job, at home or wherever else his life would take him, he inspired Ellsworth students to do the same.

“Chances are that four or five of those guys are going to do something that really ticks me off Monday or Tuesday, but I understand that. So I’m not going to let that get me down,” Clifford said. “More than likely, two or three more things are going to wrong for me after that: disappointment, frustration, whatever it is. It’s how you handle that when things go against you that determines how happy you are.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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