Two years in, there are some nights when Kenny Atkinson still has to shake his head and laugh at where the road has taken him. He literally traveled the world when he was young, chasing a dream and a basketball jones he always hoped would lead to the NBA.
And it did. And it happened in a most extraordinary place: in Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, 45 miles west of Northport, on Long Island’s north shore, where he grew up. Maybe he isn’t wearing his original vestments of choice — that would have been a basketball uniform and not a jacket and tie — but at 51, he’s home.
And sometimes that’s enough to make his blood pressure soar.
“It’s everything,” the Nets’ head coach says, relaxing at the Nets’ practice facility on the Brooklyn waterfront after one of the final practices of preseason. He meant working here, in New York, where every home game his wife, Laura, is in charge of keeping Atkinson’s vast network of friends and family — seven brothers, 30 nieces and nephews for starters — armed with tickets.
“That’s why I put so much pressure on myself. I want to succeed here so badly, I don’t want it to be two or three jobs down the line in another city. I want this so bad for New York, for Long Island, for my family, for guys I played with. I mean, what would be better than that, getting the chance to win big here?”
“Here,” he says, again.
The road here has been a circuitous one, and Atkinson laughs when he’s told about a story Mike Woodson told a few years ago.
“Everyone who ever plays basketball has an epiphany,” the former Knicks coach said. “There comes a moment when it finally hits you: I’m not as good as this guy. I’ll never be as good as this guy. Sometimes that moment happens in junior high school. Sometimes it happens when you guard Michael Jordan. But it happens for everyone eventually.”
Atkinson says, “It’s true. And when I realized I couldn’t play anymore, that’s when I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Looking back, I probably should have quit playing sooner and started coaching quicker.”
It makes his ascent from a player in 2004 (last stop: Hermine Nantes Basket in the French LNB Pro B League) to a head coach by 2016 that much more remarkable. And it explains why Atkinson believes he is only now fully empowered to maximize his potential as a head coach.
He has already gained a reputation across the coaching community for coaxing 46 wins out of a couple of desperately thin Nets teams, going from 20 wins his first year to 26 his second. His work ethic is unquestioned, as is his innate ability to be patient with young players in teaching them the more collaborative aspects of the game.
“I’m much more comfortable now,” he says. “Everyone tells you about how hard that is, moving one seat over, but it isn’t until you get the opportunity to do that you really understand. It was bigger I thought: the amount of decisions you have to make before a game and then how fast it comes at you in the game: the substitutions, the timeouts, the adjustments.”
It was made more difficult by the fact that, for the most part, the only real experience Atkinson ever really had as a head coach (prior to a brief stint leading the Dominican Republic team in the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament) was as a counselor at All-American Basketball Camp, which his coach at St. Anthony’s High, Gus Alfieri, has run for 50 summers.
Coaches need reps. And it isn’t easy collecting them while learning on the job.
“You can never replicate being a head coach,” he says. “There’s no flight simulator. The only way you can really learn is to just jump in.”
That was his rookie year as a coach. Year 2 was more of it, with a few more successes. The Nets aren’t expected to swell that win total all that drastically, but there is a looming offseason and salary-cap room and an organization hungry to prove that its innovative approaches will have tangible benefits.
And a third-year coach eager to do his part in getting that done.
“We will be fun to watch because we really do play hard every game,” Atkinson says. “By January, February, people can expect to see a team that’s collaborative and works together and getting better every day at their roles and responsibilities.
One that mirrors their boss.