WATERVILLE — From boys of 11 years old to men of 18, two generations of basketball players have flocked to Pine Tree Basketball Camp with the vision of being like Mike. Or Larry. or Magic. Or LeBron. Or Kobe.

This year’s celebrity clinician offered the campers lining the court of Colby College’s steamy Wadsworth Gymnasium an alternative Monday evening. As part of his 45-minute lecture, NBA assistant coach Steve Clifford implored his captive audience to revere Rashard.

“Rashard Lewis has the right approach,” Clifford said. “One, he’s a worker. He practices. He puts in the extra work. Two, he’s coachable. He listens. He’s an all-star, a successful NBA player with a huge contract. He’s set for life. But he’s willing to do whatever you ask him to do. He never talks back to his coaches. And three, he studies.

“If we practice at 10 o’clock in the morning, he’s there at 9:30, every day. It doesn’t change if we played back-to-back games or five of the last seven nights. He has a routine. He’s always the first guy in the gym. If he’s having a bad day in a particular area, he’s the first guy to say, ‘Hey, Cliff, I’ve got to stay late and work on this.’ ”

Clifford, a native of Newport, Vt., and a 1983 graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington, knows the player and the game.
He was an assistant coach for the Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic last season. Clifford also spent four seasons as an assistant with the Houston Rockets and three as a coach and scout for the New York Knicks.

At Pine Tree, the respected camp coordinated by Colby’s Dick Whitmore and UMF’s Dick Meader, Clifford preached to the campers that NBA talent isn’t necessary in order to accelerate their interscholastic game to a higher level.

The gospel according to Clifford included the finer points of the pick-and-roll, a PG-rated disclaimer about defense, and a few words about elements of the game that don’t involve access to a court or a weight room.

“There are two things other than the rules that every guy coming into the NBA needs to learn,” Clifford said. “One is how to guard great players. Nobody’s guarding Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce by themselves. And the second is pick-and-roll basketball.”

Clifford was named UMF’s top defender as a team captain both his junior and senior seasons for coach Len MacPhee.

Defense was Orlando’s calling card on its surge to the NBA Finals, too. The Magic were No. 3 in the East in scoring defense and second in field goal percentage allowed.

The coach’s passion for such airtight resistance boiled over briefly when the five campers chosen to carry out Clifford’s Xs and Os didn’t immediately carry out his instruction to be vocal.

“Up until now you guys have been good, but that’s some b—s— basketball right there,” Clifford said. “You’ve got to talk, and you’ve got to be loud. You watch every time Kevin Garnett plays defense, they don’t even have the ball past halfcourt and he’s yelling what they’re going to do. You’ve got to talk early.

“If you’re talking, it tells me as a coach that you know what you’re doing. If you’re not talking, I’m wondering what the hell I’ve got you doing in the game. You’re confused, which means you shouldn’t be out there. And you’ve got to be talking the same way. If you’re saying different stuff, there’s no way you’re ever going to be that good. Before you can play well together, you have to know how to talk to each other. There’s nothing more important than that.”

Clifford pointed out that the game’s brightest stars tend to be its top communicators.

Magic big man Dwight Howard is far and away the team’s most verbal defender, Clifford said. Ditto for the Celtics’ Garnett and the Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

“And if you watch the Lakers, Kobe Bryant runs the whole damn defense. Those guys talk and talk and you can hear it from the bench,” Clifford said. “Talking has nothing to do with ability. It doesn’t take talent.”

The much-traveled Clifford coached briefly at Woodland High School in Washington County before college stops at St. Anselm, Fairfield, Boston University, Siena, Adelphi and East Carolina.

Perhaps the textbook example of someone who followed a non-traditional road to the pinnacle of his profession, Clifford urged the campers to make the most of this week’s first installment in their hoop dreams.

“You have an opportunity here over four or five days to get better as a player. I’ve been around the country to just about every camp, and this is as good a teaching camp as there is. You’ve got an opportunity to leave here and be a better player next season,” he said.

“I believe it was 29 years ago that I came to this camp for the first time as a freshman at Farmington. One of the best experiences of my life was coming to this camp, and I mean that.”

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