Is there enough room in a man’s life for two sports obsessions?
In the case of Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, the answer is a resounding yes.
Clifford, the third-year head coach whose Hornets open the season later this month, has one of the best basketball minds I have ever been around. But he spends much of his downtime on another sort of “beautiful game” – watching and dissecting professional soccer, with the English Premier League as his focal point.
Over the past seven years Clifford has become a fervent fan of Manchester United – the New York Yankees of the soccer world. He can discuss EPL teams’ strategies and star players like the born-and-raised European that he most assuredly is not.
Put it like this: If you’re an NFL fantasy football nut, you know how you have at least some knowledge about the best wide receivers on all 32 NFL teams?
Clifford can do that with soccer.
I asked the Hornets coach five questions about the joy he gets from futbol.
Q. How did this love of pro soccer start for you?
A. It really began when I was in Orlando as an assistant coach with the Magic, maybe about seven years ago. We had Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Hedo Turkoglu as players, and they were all huge soccer fans.
I would just listen to them. Then I started jumping on the Internet and reading about the different soccer leagues, and then I just started watching.
In the English Premier League, they had this coach named Sir Alex Ferguson, who was a legend, and these two guys named Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs who were at the end of their career and I just loved watching them. So that’s how I got started on Man U.
Then when I went to the Lakers (as an assistant coach), it kept going. Steve Nash is a huge soccer fan, as is Kobe (Bryant), as is Pau (Gasol). Now Nic Batum is for us. Nic lives in Paris in the offseason, so he cheers for PSG (Paris Saint-Germain).
Q. The EPL games can now be found on TV in America most of the time. How much of that do you watch?
A. It’s gotten to the point where literally I will plan my day around it if they’re on TV. Most of the games are in the morning here, which works out. The whole way soccer is set up, the way they play, the way they make trades – it’s fascinating to me.
If they’re playing a good game, I’ll just sit in the office, shut the door, sit on the couch and watch. That’s it. There’s no work being done then. Listen, I’ll just stay later that night. Whatever it takes.
Q. Why do you think you have gravitated to soccer rather than any other sport?
A. Conceptually, it’s similar to basketball with the spacing and how you’re trying to spread people out. Then there’s the skill level and the athleticism of the players – and there’s also a lot of strategy. Man U is a bigger team, so when they play Chelsea, another bigger team, they’ll play in a much different way than they do against one of the smaller teams.
Over there, like with Man U, say a guy plays well on one of the smaller-market teams. Well, they just go out and buy him. During the season! The whole dynamic of that is fascinating to me.
Q. What is your own level of personal soccer experience?
A. I didn’t play youth soccer, and then I played my freshman year in high school. The varsity coach talked to my Dad and said, ‘I think he’d be really good.’ So they put me on the JV team my freshman year. I scored a goal the first game – and never scored again. I realized quickly this was not my sport. So it ended there.
But I coached women’s soccer – Saint Anselm College, Division II. For three years in the 1980s, I was an assistant coach of the basketball team and the head coach of women’s soccer team.
I hired a guy who had played soccer in college, and he did the majority of the coaching. I was about 25. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. we got to be good, too, because we recruited well.
Q. Despite all this love for European soccer, you have never made it over to see any of these great games in Europe. When you do that, what will be your ideal trip?
A. I want to do PSG in Paris. Then I want to go to Spain and I want to see a game at Real Madrid and a game at Barcelona. Then I want to go to London – there are like seven teams there and any of them would be fine.
And then I want to go to Old Trafford. That’s where Manchester United plays. I don’t even care who they play I just want to see them play. They call Old Trafford the ‘(Theatre) of Dreams.’ And if I have a bucket list, getting to see Man U play at Old Trafford is certainly on the top of it.