For Kenny Atkinson, the love of the game can most easily defined by the list of teams —and countries— he played over a 14-year career from the time he left the University of Richmond in 1991 till he went into coaching, first with Paris Racing Basket, in 2005.
He played in Atlantic City; Salmanca, Spain; Naples, Italy; Braunschweig and Paderborn, Germany; Monpelier, Golbey, Mulhouse, Evreux and Nantes, France; as well as Amsterdam in the Netherlands ... among others. Some of the gigs were short, a few games here and there.
The Long Island native was a basketball vagabond. Like we said, the love of the game.
Now, Atkinson is firmly ensconced in his dream job —remember, at his introductory press conference, he said, “Brooklyn is Basketball.” He and his staff just got extensions and more importantly, he is respected throughout the NBA and most importantly in his own locker room.
As Pooch writes, his players respect his journey because of how it often mirrors theirs (without the passport stamps.)
“I thought he was funny the first time I met him because he always talked sh-t,” Spencer Dinwiddie told SNY. “I mean that in a good way, because the talking was just another way to bring the competitiveness out in me.
“I think what differentiates Kenny from different people is that he played at a really high level, so he’s very understanding of what we’re going through,” Dinwiddie explained. “For me, for DLo [D’Angelo Russell], for Caris [LeVert], etc, he really helped all of us grow. He was a primary ball handler back when he played, he’s shared some of those same mentalities on how we play the game and he’s open, he’s willing to be collaborative as a coach, as a leader, and it really helps all of us out.”
Atkinson, in fact, is nearly unique in his hands-on approach, particularly with guards, but also with his players.
Jarrett Allen told Pooch. “He focuses on all of us, does one-on-one workouts with all of us and that’s unique in my opinion.”
He, like his boss, Sean Marks, understands (perhaps from that vagabond experience?) the value of family. Allen noted how when he first met the Nets brass, they invited his parents to the meeting. to talk about everything from their plans for him as a basketball player to how the Nets understood a 19-year-old would need help living alone for the first time ... in New York.
“My first impression of Kenny was that he was gonna help me. You see the work we do on the court, but the thing I noticed first was how inviting he was of my family. He came in with a family mentality and that made me feel good right from the start.”
Allen isn’t unique. When Marks and Atkinson opened the post-draft press conference last June, the first thing they did was thank the Musa and Kurucs’ families for attending.
And that goes as well to Atkinson (and Marks) appreciation of character.
“Kenny’s background didn’t permit him to skip steps. He wasn’t allowed to. He had to build brick by brick to get where he’s at, so traditionally when you have to build in that fashion, you know even when you get knocked down a step, you have all that foundation to stand upon,” Dinwiddie said.
That goes for the staff Atkinson assembled.
“They’re like player-coaches,” Caris LeVert told SNY. “They’re younger, they played the game, they’re easier to talk to and they’re very competitive. They want to win just as bad as we do, and that’s somebody you want to play hard for.”
Dzanan Musa said something similar about Shaun Fein, the Nets development coordinator (and himself a 14-year veteran of European basketball.)
“If I have words, I would say that guy is amazing. Amazing,” said Musa of who he calls “my guy.”
”He always stays calm. When we are nervous, anxious, he gets us up. He’s a guy you want to have around all the time. Most important thing from the player-coach relationship is trust. So every guy on the club trusts him. Me personally, I am very thankful that I have the guy (working with me).”
Now, the head coach is asking his players for that last ounce of work to get them (and him) into the post-season. Whether or not they succeed, Atkinson has a lot of what he set out to achieve, including respect.
- With Kenny Atkinson getting extended, Nets players talk about what makes him special - Anthony Puccio - SNY