For 13 seasons, Steve Clifford sat on NBA benches for most of the games.
He wasnt boisterous. He didnt jump out of his chair at a questionable foul call for the cameras to catch him.
And for most of those 13 seasons, he didnt get a serious look as a head-coaching candidate until this offseason.
The new Charlotte Bobcats coach is a self-motivator, and after building his resume as an assistant for more than a decade, he never really wondered if his time to be a head coach would come.
Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy used to tell me your greatest strength is usually your greatest weakness, and that one of my weaknesses was youre not ambitious enough, Clifford said Wednesday at his introductory news conference.
For me, as much as Ive wanted to be a head coach, Ive been totally fulfilled working with the coaches Ive had, on the staffs that I have with the experiences that Ive had. I love the NBA. I did from Day 1. To be honest, Ive never lost a lot of sleep about it. I have just always wanted a job. I wanted to be working.
Clifford has been an assistant in the NBA since 2001 after joining Van Gundys staff with the New York Knicks. From there he went to Houston (2003-07) and stopped in Orlando (2007-12). He was considered for Portlands head-coaching position last year but accepted an assistants job with the Lakers.
If you want to be good as an assistant you have to challenge yourself every day no matter where you are, Clifford said. If you want to keep up, if you want to be good, you have to work at being prepared every day. The next game plan, the next time you watch film with a good player, if youre not on it, then youre not getting better.
Others around the league had taken notice of Clifford before the Bobcats called. His agent, Steve Kauffman, said three years ago then-Hornets general manager Jeff Bower had his eye on Clifford.
Kauffman said Bowers top targets were Tom Thibodeau, Monty Williams and Ty Corbin, and he had written their names on a piece of paper. But Clifford wasnt considered seasoned enough then to be a head coach.
To the side, he had written down the name Steve Clifford and underlined it twice, and Im going to be honest, I kind of remembered his name, Kauffman said. I asked, Why is that guys name over here? Bower said to me, You know what? Hed be the guy Id hire if I could get away with it.
In Clifford, the Bobcats get a coach striving for a balanced team but with an eye first for defense. This season, Charlotte ranked next-to-last in scoring defense with 102.7.
He mentioned the word challenge several times Wednesday. There will be the obvious challenge of bringing this Charlotte franchise out of the NBAs cellar, where it has dwelled for much of its existence.
There also is the challenge of sliding over from assistant to head coach. And one piece of advice that has stuck with him came early in his NBA coaching career, and he plans to apply it in Charlotte.
When I first got to the Knicks, Jeff hired me, but I had to meet with (Knicks President) Dave Checketts, Clifford said. And he told me, I dont know if Im one of the best 30 presidents or if Jeff is one of the best 30 coaches. You can never really judge that. What we do know is, theyre the best players.
If you want to stick in this league, never forget that. If you can help the players, you have value for an organization.
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