Here’s how it worked in New Hampshire on the graveyard shift in the mid ’80s:
Steve Clifford would read for 15 seconds. Then the shoe would come down the conveyer belt and he’d cut off the excess rubber along the sole. And then he’d go back to reading his book until the next shoe came along.
Againand againand again. This occurred in the middle of the night while he was trying to hone his craft as a basketball coach.
“At 6 o’clock in the morning he’d go home for a couple of hours of sleep, and then he’d be in the office,” Bob Brown recalled. “And then he’d go home for a couple of hours of sleep and start this all over again.
“Every day was like that, and he was still great at the coaching part.”
Clifford, 22 at the time, had talked his way into Brown’s work and life. Brown was then coaching Division II St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Thirty-some years later, Clifford coaches the Charlotte Bobcats and Brown’s son, Brett, coaches the Philadelphia 76ers. They play each other Friday and this is quite an event in the Brown household.
The son versus the surrogate son. It doesn’t matter who wins. This is a triumph for a family of Mainers who grew up well off the NBA’s path.
“I think the thing they share is integrity,” Brown said of his son and Clifford. “They both worked their way to this.”
The NBA certainly wasn’t the plan. Clifford says he would have been satisfied spending the rest of his life as a high school coach and special education teacher. He knew there was plenty he could learn from Brown, who also won 476 games and four state titles as a New England high school coach.
“My feeling was if I worked for him, even for one year, I’d learn an extraordinary amount about basketball and teaching and coaching,” Clifford said Thursday. “By doing that, I felt that if I didn’t like college (coaching) I’d at least get a better high school job. So I didn’t see it as such a big risk.”
Brown still chuckles at the jalopy Clifford drove into his driveway. Every time the coach asked how Clifford would survive, Clifford responded, “I’ll take care of that.”
Actually, Brown took care of that. He offered Clifford a bedroom for a couple of days. Days became weeks and then months. Then Brown got Clifford a meal card at the dining hall. Then he approached someone about this third-shift job at the shoe factory.
Meanwhile Brown’s son, Brett, had left coaching for a sales job with AT&T. He was making $85,000 a year. One day Brett called his dad to say he was leaving for Australia.
Nice vacation, Bob Brown thought, until his son informed him he meant quitting sales to start over in Australia. Brown says Clifford and his son share a sense of adventure and a tolerance for risk that served each well.
Brett Brown met his wife while camping on the Barrier Reef. He worked his way up in Australian pro basketball, going from juniors to a top job, then catching on with the San Antonio Spurs under coach Gregg Popovich.
There are parallels in this, too. Like Clifford did with Brown, Brett basically talked his way into the Spurs organization as a volunteer. That led to a player-development position, then a job on the Spurs’ bench and finally an interview to coach the 76ers.
Clifford has had great mentors, including Jeff and Stan Van Gundy and current Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. But that year he spent, not only working for Brown but living with him, shaped his approach as much as any experience.
“By living with him, I saw the behind-the-scenes. How much he thought about it and put into it, whether it was calling the guys at home or whatever,” Clifford said of Brown.
“Knowledge, approach, work ethic, enthusiasm – there’s nothing about coaching that he doesn’t have a definitive philosophy about. Every day he had such enthusiasm and energy for his players, for his staff. That’s really contagious.”