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For the love of the game: Kenny Atkinson’s journey

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

One thing that’s not is dispute, not up for debate is this: Kenny Atkinson’s love of the game.

That’s the point Alex Schiffer makes in his Athletic profile of the Nets coach Tuesday. Kenny Atkinson has, time and time again, found his way into locker rooms and onto basketball courts when few —maybe only him— believed he was ready.

Schiffer writes about how the 52-year-old wanted to stay in the game after his playing career ended, how he first thought he might be an agent, then decided coaching was his future. In particular, Schiffer tells a story about how the Nets coach button-holed Mark Fleisher, the new owner of Paris Racing Basket, at Summer League, hoping for an assistant coaching job.

After spending days looking for Fleisher, Atkinson finally found him; at a hot dog stand in the main lobby of the Delta Center, the home of the Utah Jazz. Atkinson was hoping to get him at a better time, but decided to give Fleisher his elevator pitch.

“Hey, I’m Kenny Atkinson,” he told him. “I heard you just bought the team in Paris. I heard you just hired a coach. If you need any help with an assistant coach, I’d love it. I speak French, my French is pretty good.”

Fleisher told Atkinson that he was still sifting through everything that comes with buying a team, but took down Atkinson’s information. Atkinson left the conversation with Fleisher’s promise to touch base soon.

Ultimately, Fleisher offered Atkinson a job, but not a paycheck. If he agreed to sacrifice a salary — and accept a rent-free apartment near the Eiffel Tower, the assistant coaching position was his. Atkinson told Schiffer he had saved enough money as a player to allow him to pay out-of-pocket his first year as a coach.

Then, he discovered something else. He loved development, helping players get better.

Atkinson quickly developed a reputation among the players for being detail-oriented and a wizard at player development, which became his calling card to the NBA...

Atkinson created complex drills for the players that could be applied in games, and spent hours watching film with them, pointing out subtle ways they could improve on a play or on their overall game. When players struggled to grasp what Atkinson was trying to say, he found a better way to convey it: do it himself.

Still fresh from his playing days, Atkinson regularly jumped in drills with players to show them what he was seeing and why.

Before there was Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell, there was John Linehan, Atkinson’s first science project.

“I credit him for a lot of my success in Europe,” Linehan said. “He taught me the approach to be a professional. He was hard-nosed. Mainly known for my defense, working with him every day, watching film with him and not really understanding the professional game. He helped me understand the European way of basketball.”

Getting into it with his players became as trademark ... and it continues through today. Listen to what Garrett Temple told Schiffer.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Temple said. “Gets into drills, runs the point guard, or the two or three, tries to jump in and do verticality drills, gets dunked on all the time. But a guy that is so invested, he really enjoys doing things like this. I’ve never seen anything in terms of a coach being in a drill like Kenny is...

Four months into his tenure with the Nets, Temple said he doesn’t understand why any player wouldn’t want to play for Atkinson, because his desire to play with his players shows how he can relate to them and display his investment in the team.

Atkinson’s big jump game in 2008 when Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, offered him a job that he wasn’t sure he’d take, a player development coach in Houston. He was, as he noted, a Europhile, loved France. Among those who convinced him to take the chance was Shaun Fein, a friend in French basketball who he later hired first as a video coordinator then Long Island Nets head coach.

“I was one of the ones that said, ‘You’d be crazy not to do it,’” Fein said. “And to get back to the States, be around family and things like that.”

Schiffer says that Atkinson has not forgotten his experience, offering help and tips to those who are on the way up. The game is the thing.