CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hornets coach Steve Clifford has battled headaches for the past two years.
But when the pain became so intense before a Charlotte home game last December it frightened him, and he couldn't ignore the problem any longer.
The 56-year-old Clifford walked away from the Hornets that day to undergo medical testing on his brain and get his life in order. Results revealed no internal problems, but the doctor's diagnosis was one other workaholic professional and college coaches may want to pay attention to: Clifford was suffering from severe sleep deprivation. And, if he didn't do something about it, the condition was only going to get worse.
Clifford returned to practice Tuesday after six weeks off, feeling refreshed.
He'll be back on the sideline Wednesday night following a 21-game absence when the Hornets host the Washington Wizards, the start of a five-game home stand.
"It was a scary thing," Clifford told The Associated Press of the ordeal.
Doctors determined that more than 18 years of working as a NBA coach had worn him down to the point where his brain was telling him he needed sleep. With the league's brutal travel schedule that includes 82 games — including 41 on the road — Clifford had grown used to nights where he would regularly sleep four or five hours then get up and begin working again.
"It becomes a vicious cycle," Clifford said. "It was a lack of sleep that leads to headaches, and then the headaches are why I'm not sleeping."
The headaches began in 2016 and Clifford initially handled them with over-the-counter medication. But over the past two years the headaches grew more severe, and he received stronger prescriptions to deal with the pain.
That helped mask the problem for a while.
But when he walked in the team's downtown Charlotte arena the morning of Dec. 4, 2017 for shoot around, Clifford could no longer take the pain.
The Hornets had just returned from a road trip to Toronto and Miami where they played two games in three nights, a common NBA occurrence.
"I hadn't been able to sleep much on that road trip," Clifford said. "And that is when the doctors told me we're going to have to stop right here and do some testing."
This wasn't Clifford's first health scare as Charlotte's coach.
In 2013, Clifford had two stents inserted into his heart. However, he returned to the sideline three days later to coach a game and finished out the season.
But he said the issue with the headaches were different — and more worrisome to him.
"The doctor basically told me it's your long-term health versus your career," Clifford said. "And he told me the medication doesn't cure the headaches. The medication for a headache is a Band-Aid. You have to take care of the issue. (The headaches) will keep getting worse until you stop what is causing them. And my problem was my job, my lifestyle."
In the end, Clifford said it was "a pretty easy decision" to take a leave of absence.
While away, he monitored Hornets games on television but also took naps during the day and started to train his body to sleep more at night.
Clifford was greeted by smiles, jokes and some hugs from players on Tuesday. And it didn't take long for him to begin harping on some of his old messages, as he preached defense on the first day back.
The Hornets were 9-12 under associate coach Stephen Silas with Clifford out.
"It felt good to have him back," Hornets All-Star point guard Kemba Walker said. "Almost an immediate impact. We have been missing him. He's our leader."
Moving forward, Clifford said he plans to delegate more to his assistant coaches and his goal is to get seven or eight hours of sleep every night, even on the road.
Whether or not he's able to do that given the inherent stress and travel schedule that accompanies the NBA coaching profession — particularly when it comes to leading a struggling team that is eight games under .500 and five games out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — remains to be seen.
But Clifford said he's making it priority.
"I'm going to live differently," Clifford said. "And it doesn't have to be a significant change. ... As the doctors both told me, you don't have to work differently, you have live differently. So as much as anything I have to sleep more. That's it. I have to train my body to sleep more."
Then, Clifford quickly added with a big smile, "Once I do that our defense will get better, our offense will take off and we will be good to go."