Mike Scotto sat down —and maybe did some walking, too— with Kenny Atkinson recently to talk not just coaching but how he views life as well.
From his first coaching “job”, a volunteer gig with a French club, to the Nets, the 51-year-old third-year coach is all about two things: avoiding failure and helping his charges get better, whether it’s Jeremy Lin or Al Horford or Joe Harris.
Fear of failure is, he admits, the bigger motivator.
“The pain of a loss stays with you longer,” Atkinson told The Athletic. “Listen, that could be the cynical New Yorker in me. When my dad came home it wasn’t, ‘Hey, I had a great day on the LIRR today busting my tail commuting two and a half hours there and back.’ It was, ‘Oh man, the train broke down. Your mother was late to pick me up at this train station.’”
But turning the marginal into the rotational isn’t far behind, he said, explaining a bit how it’s not just about practice.
“Off the court having lunch with guys, some of my best coaching is done through text,” Atkinson said. “Al Horford. Texting him after a game, and I think they appreciate that whether it’s, ‘Hey, unbelievable job’ or it could also be, ‘We could’ve done this a little better’ or ‘I’ll talk to Bud about this.’ It’s that relationship where you can talk to a player. I’ll text guys after the game all the time.”
After doing development gigs with the Rockets (one year), the Knicks (four years) and the Hawks (four years), Sean Marks gave Atkinson his first shot at the head job. The two were both new to the big jobs and that, plus the understanding of the long road ahead, gave them an easy bond from the beginning.
“I think because Sean and I had a common culture we shared,” Atkinson told Scotto. “Although I think there’s a misconception that we were really close. Sure, we talked all the time, but we had common people and a common culture with the Spurs and the Hawks kind of being joined by that tree. It was more laid-back. It was more let’s get to know each other a little bit more. Sean was in flip-flops and his Hawaiian shirt, and we talked hoops, we talked culture, and we talked life.”
They talk all the time, before games (after Atkinson walks to Barclays Center from his Brooklyn apartment) and afterwards in Marks small office at the arena. Atkinson says Marks brings a unique perspective to the relationship and the job.
“I bounce a lot of things off him in terms of style of play, everything. This is unique, too, a GM who played in the league and then coached in the league. He’s done scouting in the NBA Finals. He’s a great listener and a great guy to bounce things off of. Am I hanging out with him three nights a week? I just think our culture, we do tons of team dinners, so we’re together a lot. He travels a ton with the team, so we’re constantly in contact.”
(Another Athletic writer, Moke Hamilton, talked about another aspect of Marks’ style in an article last week: He wants to know everything he can about the rest of the league. Hamilton wrote, “If there is any story to be told of Marks, it’s that he’s always informed on what other teams across the league are thinking and doing. His proactivity is what enabled the Nets to land productive players.”)
Atkinson and Marks may not finish each other’s sentences (yet), but the coach and GM have a “collaborative” relationship, says Atkinson.
But the head coach knows the big weight falls on him. As he says, the difference between his nine years as an assistant in the NBA (and a few years overseas as well) and being the top guy is that, pardon the cliche, it’s lonely at the top.
“It can be lonely. It’s lonely in the sense that, when you’re not an assistant you almost become like the principal. The teachers don’t want to talk to you. You’re not part of the inside jokes anymore.”
Right now, the coach with the 48-116 career record can be anonymous, walk the streets, take his family for an ice cream, but the Nets have to hope that anonymity starts to fade as the Nets start to win. Atkinson would happily deal with that.
“I don’t want people to look back, especially being from New York, I’m like, ‘Man, he did a good job.’ There’s no need to be carried up in a parade, or in arms like I’m the savior or anything. That’s not my dream. If I have a dream it’s, ‘Oh, shit, we just lost by five. What could I have done better?’”
- How a VHS blunder and the fear of failure still motivate Nets coach Kenny Atkinson - Michael Scotto - The Athletic New York