In December, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford stepped away from coaching for nearly six weeks so he could resolve stress-related headaches caused by a lack of sleep. Last week, Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue, at 40, did the same for an undetermined amount of time because of chest pains and what he called other “troubling” symptoms.
The Timberwolves’ Tom Thibodeau coached with Clifford in New York and Houston and the two remain fast friends. Thibodeau and Lue worked together for a season in Boston and exchanged texts the day the Cavaliers announced Lue’s leave.
If he’s concerned about the job’s demands, Thibodeau didn’t show it when asked if Clifford’s issues in particular changed at all how he does his job, even if Wolves veteran Taj Gibson worries about his driven and demanding coach’s blood pressure.
“Yeah,” Thibodeau said dryly, “I sleep all day.”
It’s a flippant answer to a real question about a job that, despite its many financial rewards, can present too much stress, too many hours, too much travel and not enough sleep.
“I worry about all of us,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Coaching is hard. It’s a high-stress job. It’s a tough job. It really is.”
Now coaching a 19th consecutive season, Rivers knows whereof he speaks about a job that requires not only such time but what he calls a coach’s “heart and soul.” He coached on for a month last season despite losing weight and feeling ill until the team’s trainer finally ordered him to stop and undergo tests, which found he had a parasite.
“I just wasn’t taking care of myself,” Rivers said. “Coaches, we have to do a better job of that. We all have to have better discipline. I have to get in better shape. Physically, this year has been a brutal year. I’m in the worst shape of my life and that takes a toll on you and your body. I know it, but I still don’t have time to do anything about it.”
There is little time away for a coach like Thibodeau, who maybe lives the game more than any other day and night, summer and in season.
Gibson said he worries about a man for whom he has played six seasons now “having a stroke or something crazy” because he gives so much to the game and relentlessly coaches every possession.
“I worry about Thibs, I worry about Thibs all the time,” Gibson said. “Thibs is a guy who really loves the game. He spends hours and hours in the gym. When he’s on the road, he really looks at the team like a family, like a real family. He really puts his all into it. Even in practice, you always worry about him. … That’s why it’s really important we have to do the best we can to support him.”
Thibodeau calls the job’s stress an unavoidable part of professional sports.
“It’s the grind of the season,” he said. “You’re reading more and more about the importance of sleep. Sleep is your recovery, whether you’re a player or a coach, for everyone. It’s so important you can’t overlook it.”
Rivers deems himself as “passionate” about his job as he has ever been but said he has learned to get away in summers.
“I’m on Tom about that all the time, even in the summer,” Rivers said. “I make him come to L.A. and just hang out with me. Of course, he comes to L.A. and he’s in his room, watching film when I’m golfing.”
Whether any NBA coach believes it or not, the games will go on without him.
“We think the game needs us that much,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t, it really doesn’t. It needs you healthy. That’s what the game needs. We need Ty Lue healthy. We need Cliff healthy. We need Thibs healthy. We need everybody healthy, including the players.”
• Thursday’s Atlanta-Sacramento game was delayed, then played in front of a high school-sized audience after protesters demonstrating the death of Stephon Clark — an unarmed 22-year-old black man shot and killed by Sacramento police officers — blocked Golden1 Center entrances. Thousands of fans returned home while those few already inside the arena stayed and watched. “If I didn’t have a job to do, I’d probably be out there with them, peacefully protesting because what’s going on has to stop,” injured Kings player Garrett Temple told reporters. “It has to stop.”
• New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry claims back-to-back games aren’t the disadvantage that some presume. His Pelicans proved him right last week, when they became the first team since the 1979 NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics to win home games on three consecutive nights. They also went 4-1 while playing five games in six nights over that stretch, because a Feb. 7 date with Indiana was postponed to March after the Smoothie King Center’s roof leaked. “Mentally tough,” Pelicans star Anthony Davis told reporters about a team that has moved up to the West’s fourth place.
• The NBA started the regular season early this season, hoping a longer season allows players more rest and lessens injuries. It doesn’t feel like it’s working, at least for Doc Rivers and his injury-riddled Clippers. “I don’t have any theories,” Rivers said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve literally played games with four and five starters out. There’s no end in sight, at least for us.” His theory: Train less and play more basketball year-round, like ever-young Jamal Crawford does. “I’ve said that for two years, I’m going to keep saying that,” Rivers said. “My diet before games was chips and hot dogs, but we played one-on-one and basketball all the time. There’s probably a happy medium there, and I don’t know what it is.”
Wolves’ week ahead
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Memphis
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Atlanta
Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Dallas
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Dennis Schroder, Hawks
The point guard the Hawks chose to go forward with over Jeff Teague, he scored a career-high 41 points on Ricky Rubio in Tuesday’s upset victory at Utah. Those 41 were the most by an Atlanta player since Joe Johnson scored the same on Dec. 27, 2008.
“I told him that’s what the playoffs are all about. You can do the smallest thing and become a legend.”
Wolves veteran Taj Gibson when a Target Center crowd chanted teammate Gorgui Dieng’s name after he mixed it up with Chris Paul and Gerald Green during a loss to Houston.