Coach Steve Clifford is on his way back, and you better believe the Charlotte Hornets are happy about that.
Clifford, who has missed the past 18 games with severe headaches that predate the season, will rejoin the team Tuesday for practice. But before Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz, several of the team’s key players spoke to how valuable Clifford’s return will be.
“First and foremost, we’re just happy he’s feeling better,” guard Kemba Walker said. “We love him as a coach, but we love him even better as a person, and we’re all just happy he’s healthy.”
That’s especially true for center Dwight Howard, who came to the Hornets via trade this summer. He and Clifford have perhaps the lengthiest relationship of any player on the team, dating to when Clifford was an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic when Howard starred there from 2004-2012.
Howard said that even in Clifford’s absence, the two remained in touch primarily over the phone.
“It’s kind of hard when someone’s going through things, you don’t want to be overbearing, but you don’t want to make it seem like you don’t care,” Howard said. “We talked basketball, and you know, it’s been really tough for us to talk about anything else.
“I’m pretty sure if you’ve had any problems or whatever, you don’t want to talk about them or the issue – you want to get back to what you do best. And that’s him, and for him it’s basketball and how he can help us get better.”
In Clifford’s absence, associate head coach Stephen Silas took over the team on a day-to-day basis. The Hornets went 7-11 with Silas as acting head coach.
Silas said Friday that his role evolved from simply managing game preparation to managing the personalities on the team in a more wholistic sense, but that when he heard Thursday that Clifford was cleared by doctors to return, he was ecstatic.
“To see him suffer the way he that was with the headaches and struggle, you don’t want to see anybody go through that,” Silas said. “For him to be healthy enough to be able to come back is awesome – I’m so, so happy.”