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Steve Clifford cleared to return to Hornets after month-long layoff
Headaches forced coach to sidelines
Published Friday, January 12, 2018 2:19 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Hornets coach Steve Clifford, left, with Kemba Walker, has been cleared to return to work.

Fifty-six is too young for heart issues and life-altering headaches.

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford has history with both. He had two stents placed in his heart in 2013, but that wasn't the issue for a recent month-long medical leave that sidelined him as medical professionals sought to get his headaches under control. Clifford received the go ahead on Thursday to return to the sidelines on Jan. 16, with his anticipated game return Jan. 17 against Washington. Clifford met last night with Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan, Vice Chairman Curtis Polk and Executive Vice President of Operations James Jordan to discuss moving forward. All four agreed that Clifford’s health remained paramount.

“The first part of the meeting was ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? Where are you at?’” Clifford said. “We all have bosses or people that you work for, but last night I left with them reiterating that my health was the most important thing. Frankly, if I didn’t feel that way seven-eight weeks ago, that’s how I feel too.”

Clifford has struggled with headaches causing sleep deprivation the last two years, but during shootaround before a Dec. 4 game against Orlando, he couldn’t take it anymore. He walked home from the arena, as he did not feel capable of driving.

“It scared me,” Clifford said.

From Dec. 4-14, basketball took the backseat.

“For the first 7-10 days, coaching was the last thing on my mind,” Clifford said.

Clifford’s brother suffers from migraines, but he does not fall into that category.

“My brother has migraines, and with him I know he can’t talk, he has to be in a room with no light, no noise,” Clifford said. “[For me] it pounds. They’ve been using the term migraine some. I wouldn’t say it’s that severe. I couldn’t sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. The lack of sleep leads to being more tired, and then you take a pill, and it’s good for a couple hours, and then it gets worse.”

Hornets team physician Dr. Joe Garcia and Novant Health neurologist Dr. Ki S Jung have implemented lifestyle changes for Clifford rather than increased medication to “get through the season.”

“They have me on a plan that’s working well, and as importantly, they’ve educated me on the science of headaches; how they come apart, how I’ve gotten to the place that I was at, how I have to live going forward,” Clifford said. “It’s been, I don’t know if you would say life-changing, but definitely altered the way I look at things. I don’t have to just do my job differently. I have to live differently. They’ve explained that to me, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

From increased exercise to training his body to form better sleeping habits, Clifford currently gets about six hours of sleep per night, and has eliminated taking naps to help. Ideally, he will sleep seven hours per night for optimal function.

Clifford’s headaches began two years ago around the All-Star break. Traditional headache medications worked at first, but as the issue became more severe and his body built up a tolerance, they became ineffective. Then he approached Hornets athletic trainer Steve Stricker and Garcia.

“We started using a little bit stronger pain medication,” Clifford said. “Got through the season. Got through the playoffs. The summers weren’t as bad. Sometimes I would have them but not nearly as frequently, or severe.”

Garcia sent Clifford for an MRI prior to the All-Star break last season as the severity increased.

“It came back clean,” Clifford said. “At that point he told me, ‘your problem is your job, and the way that you do it. I don’t see it being anything else.’ I got to the summer, and once in a while I would have one, but nothing that I couldn’t handle.”

Clifford’s medication was increased at the start of the season to combat the headaches’ frequency.

“The last trip, at Toronto, at Miami, it was really difficult,” Clifford said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. The pills weren’t strong enough to help me.”

Charlotte stood 8-13 with a four-game losing streak when Clifford left.

“The Monday we had Orlando, I was in here trying to get ready for the game. It scared me, frankly,” Clifford said. “I called [assistant coach] Pat Delany. It was his game plan. He was coming in, and I just told him, ‘I can’t do the shootaround.’”

Clifford met with Stricker and Garcia, then saw Jung that day.

“We did the testing,” Clifford said. “Internally I was fine. This is what Dr. Jung calls ‘external issues.’ They’re job-related. As much as anything, it’s sleep deprivation. That’s my No. 1 problem. It’s job-related, so a lot of it is stress. Some of it is I don’t work out as much as I should. I have been lately. Some of it could be diet, but like he told me, 85 percent of it is I’ve gotten older, and I’m trying to sleep like I did when I was 45.”

The travel an NBA schedule demands – from late night games and flights in different time zones to early arrivals – makes it difficult to establish a consistent sleep pattern.

“Without having the ability, because of travel and stuff, to sleep the same way every night, and then all those other factors come into play, there were two ways to go,” Clifford said. “We could up the medication. [Jung] said, ‘what you’re doing with headaches,’ which I never realized, ‘is when you’re taking medication for headaches, you’re not taking care of the headache. It’s a Band-Aid approach. The way to take care of headaches for me is more rest—more sleep.”

Assistant coach Stephen Silas stepped in for Clifford during his leave, going 7-11 during that span. Yet Clifford noted his delight with the way Silas established “credibility” in order to “get [the team] to move forward.” Something he described as “a hard thing to do, and an easy thing to lose,” which he attributed to Silas’ “knowledge and communication skills, and the relationship he has with players, which is what coaching is all about.”

Charlotte sits 11th in the East, six games out of eighth at 15-24 with a home back-to-back this weekend, starting with Utah tonight and Oklahoma City Saturday.



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