clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kenny Atkinson: The L.I. underdog who made it with family at his back

Anthony Puccio played his high school and AAU basketball out “on the island.” He takes a knowing look at Greg Logan’s reporting on another baller from beyond the boroughs

Brooklyn Nets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Back in 2005, “Another day, another memory” became the slogan for Long Island.

For Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, there were plenty of days and plenty of memories growing up on Long Island. He was the second youngest of eight boys who grew up in the deep suburbs of Suffolk County where the pavement narrows, the grass fields run deep and the competitive nature lingers in the air.

It’s what made him who he is today.

“My brothers and father did not make things easy on me, and that was one of the reasons I became so competitive and was not willing to give in easily,” said Atkinson in an interview with Greg Logan, part of a look at the coach’s family.

Atkinson was dribbling a ball before he knew how to count. He attended all of his brothers’ games and learned by being a student of the game.

“At the end of the game, Kenny would say, ‘You did this wrong, you did that wrong,’” said his brother Steve. “He kept score, and he’d put a star next to whoever he thought the star of the game was. At 6 or 7, he knew what it was about. Most of the time, he was right on with his critique.”

He started as a student and then blossomed into a young star of the family. His mother Pauline said dribbling a ball came “naturally” at such a young age.

As the underdog playing with older kids —including all those brothers, it’s easy to understand why he would always have a chip on his shoulder. He never fully expected to be where is today, but he never sold himself short, either. He blossomed and grew up to be one of the top high school players in Long Island. He spent four years at the University of Richmond and led his team to the NCAA tournament. He thought he was good enough to go pro here at home, but it never happened ... at least not as a player.

“From the get-go, his older brother Brian said, ‘Whatever this bar is, I’m going to drive right past it,’” Brian said.

He wasn’t selling himself short because he was at a disadvantage. Nope and that’s the way he coaches the Nets, and it’s become their identity, too. They don’t complain about injuries or make excuses because the other team may have more God-given talent. They go out there and give it their all.

“You could argue he would have done it anyway, whether it was two brothers instead of eight. But this environment was full-contact living from the time you woke up until the time you hit the pillow,” said Brian, six years older. “There really is no other way to describe it. My father and mother set the tone and encouraged it. It drives all of us today.”

That’s what makes losing so tough for Kenny Atkinson, who owns a 26-74 record as head coach in less than two seasons of rebuilding in the New York borough where he would find pick-up games. His upbringing helps his competitive, underdog nature. But losing is never easy to deal with.

I cried every time I lost,” Kenny said of his times on the family blacktop. “I could not handle losing. Since my brothers knew it, they would tease me.”

Atkinson recalls a story in which he went to play pick-up in a different town with his brothers and other older guys. Kenny got stuck with the other team and things got heated with his brothers, so much that his brothers left him at the park to walk several miles home at 14 years old.

“I got on the opposite team from them, and it got competitive and they ended up leaving me,” Kenny said. “I was maybe 14 and had to walk home on Jericho Turnpike. I’m sure I deserved it. But there was no mercy.”

He can’t cry after every Nets loss but the hatred of losing continues. His memory of times past won’t let him accept it but it hurts nonetheless. Watch him speak to the media after Friday’s “tough loss, really tough loss.” It’s written on his face.

“Fear of failure is still what drives me,” Atkinson said. “But I think everybody is surprised at my positive nature . . . Being humbled so much, I’ve been through tough stuff, I can persevere. There’s a chip on your shoulder from that 1-27 stretch. It motivated me a lot this summer.”

Atkinson played professionally overseas for 14 years, including stops with mid-level clubs in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. He wasn’t making much money as his mother was often sending money to keep him afloat. He learned a couple of languages, developed a taste for foods not seen on Long Island.

Then he broke through.

He got a job with the Rockets, and then the Knicks where he developed a good young player named Jeremy Lin. Next he was an assistant coach in Atlanta and finally, he got a head coaching gig 40 miles away from that same grass field in Northport where he and his brothers would ball and fight ... Every.Single.Day.

Call it luck, call it hard work, likely a combination of the two. Whatever. He did it. And he’s happy to be here, in Brooklyn, specifically. The feeling is mutual.

“This is it. To come full circle. It’s beyond belief to be 40 miles from Northport. I’ve worked hard, but one thing I want to make clear is how much luck is in this.”

His high school coach, Gus Alfieri always tells aspiring players (including me) to this day, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” It wasn’t luck for Kenny, but rather the competitive nature to keep going, keep fighting for what you want and what someone else has.

That’s what has also made him such a likable person and relatable coach. Empathy is perhaps one of his best traits and it’s helped set a cultural touchstone for a developing Brooklyn Nets organization.

“I told my brother Dave, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but I think Kenny actually has a shot to be head coach of the Nets.’” His brother Steve explained, recalling the weeks after Sean Marks got the GM job and called Atkinson. “‘No way.’ The day it happened was one of the happiest days of all our lives.”