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Clifford’s health problems latest in a disturbing trend

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

As Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford was checking himself into a local hospital Thursday night, worried about sudden chest pains, Denver Broncos coach John Fox was about to be released from another Charlotte hospital.

Charlotte had become the unfortunate epicenter of a recent trend: Head coaches in their 50s in major American pro sports who are experiencing a health crisis. There have been three of them in the past week.

Clifford, 52, was No.3. He had a procedure Friday morning where doctors inserted two stents in his heart. By mid-afternoon, Clifford was talking with Bobcats associate head coach Patrick Ewing, who coached in his place Friday night in a 101-91 home loss to the New York Knicks.

“He sounds great,” Ewing said before the Bobcats and Knicks tipped off. “He was joking with me. He’s chomping at the bit to get out (of the hospital).”

Fox, 58, who was the Panthers’ coach for nine years and still has an offseason home in Charlotte, had his aortic valve replaced Monday. He will miss Sunday’s Broncos game and an undetermined number of others before returning this season.

It is unclear when Clifford will be back.

“He’s still in the hospital,” Ewing said. “So he’s not going to be here (Friday or Saturday), but hopefully be back on Sunday.”

I hope the Bobcats, who next play at home against Atlanta on Monday before going on a two-game road trip, will be overly careful with Clifford. They might need to save him from himself and keep him from hustling back the way he always wants his players to do on defense.

This is scary stuff. Clifford has had a fine start in his rookie season as Bobcats coach, going 3-2 in his first five games before Friday, and it’s natural for him to want to return quickly. “Cliff” is a pleasant man and one of those guys who is completely wedded to his job.

But we’re talking about life, not mere games, in the cases of Clifford, Fox and Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, 52, who suffered a very public mini-stroke at halftime of Houston’s game against Indianapolis on Sunday night.

Kubiak fell to his knees and was rushed to the hospital. He has been released and has been to a Texans practice since, but he will miss this weekend’s NFL slate. Like Fox and Clifford, he also has an interim coach supervising things in his absence.

“When stuff like that happens, it scares me,” said New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who is 55.

Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a good friend of Clifford’s, told reporters Friday of the job of an NBA coach: “Sometimes you get wrapped up in it. You have the tendency to grind. You’re always grinding. Once the season starts, you’re never off.”

Ewing, who wants to be in charge of his own team, didn’t want his first NBA game as head coach to be like this. He said before Friday’s game he was nervous and the “butterflies were flowing.” Ewing added that it was very ironic he was coaching against the Knicks, the team where he starred for 15 years.

“Coach Clifford and I have been friends for a lot of years now and worked together for over 10 years,” Ewing said. “This is definitely not the way I wanted to start my head-coaching career, with him being in the hospital. Our prayers and thoughts are with him.”

Ewing said he talked with Bobcats owner Michael Jordan before the game. What did Jordan say?

“He called me and told me if I don’t win, I’m fired,” Ewing joked, who was still employed at the conclusion of a Bobcats loss in which he said the team didn’t show enough fight.

Certainly, there are plenty of other jobs with as much – or far more – stress compared to that of an NFL or NBA coach.

But what has happened over the past few days makes you wonder.

When you hear Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula – about as laid back a coach as you will find – say that even he thinks he could spend 24 hours a day in his office and still feel like he hasn’t prepared for everything, you wonder.

We don’t want to wonder about Clifford.

Take your time, coach.

The Bobcats aren’t going anywhere. Make darn sure you don’t, either.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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