Growing Up Atkinson

By Cory Wright

If you want to understand how Kenny Atkinson became the man he is today, start by doing a simple math problem. 

Eight boys divided by two bedrooms. And one basketball hoop.

“We had bunk beds,” his brother Steve said. “Two bunk beds [per room], we used to fight over who had to go on the top and who on the bottom. We loved it, we wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had our battles like brothers have, but today we’re all close.”

Atkinson grew up as the second-youngest of the Atkinson Eight on the north shore of Long Island. There were plenty of squabbles over sleeping arrangements and who’s getting the next shot on the family hoop. As the seventh child, Kenny didn’t always win those battles, but it shaped the man he is today. 

“Growing up the way we did, him being the second-youngest, really helped him as far as his competitiveness and desire,” Steve said. “He saw the older guys, how we did it, how we didn’t do it. He knew he had it figured out at a pretty early age.”

Kenny used to play basketball against his brothers, some of whom, like Steve, were 10 years older at the time, channeling Pete Maravich as he dribbled around. Steve remembers his feisty little brother’s competitiveness at an early age, but upon looking back, he recognizes the signs that Kenny had the coaching bug in him. 

Steve remembers Kenny coming to watch his high school games as early as six. Rather than play tag or run around the bleachers, Kenny would just sit and watch intently, writing out who he thought the star of the game was after every contest. And it wasn’t always his brother.  

“Six years old and he’d critique me,” Steve joked. “Sometimes not in the nicest way either. He had that vision for it at a young age and a love for the game. Most kids, you bring them to a game and they are running all over the place, he just sat there and watched, never moved an inch. I’ll never forget that. I can still picture him watching.”

Kenny Atkinson on The Vertical Podcast

Kenny played his high school ball at St. Anthony’s in South Huntington under coach Gus Alfieri, who also runs the All-American Basketball Camp, at which Atkinson would later coach. Atkinson keeps ties with Alfieri, and invited him to his introductory press conference, a gesture that flattered Alfieri. 

Atkinson’s high school claim to fame was winning the 1985 Newsday Classic, his Long Island team upsetting the New York City All-Stars for the first time. But Alfieri remembers most the day-in, day-out work ethic.

“He’s such a hard worker,” Alfieri said. “Are there guys that can speak better than him? I’m sure. Are there guys that are bigger and stronger and had an NBA career, I’m sure. But I tell you, it’s going to take hard work, and [the Nets] made the right move. They’re very smart. Look at the trend now in coaching; player development, forget about going and getting someone who is going to drink with the boys, he’s a guy that at 3 o’clock in the morning is going to be working on getting your team better.”

At the press conference, Atkinson joked with Thaddeus Young that he’d meet him at 6 a.m. the next day for practice. The crowd chuckled, but Alfieri said Atkinson means it. 

The Atkinsons are a tight-knit family, but for nearly 20 years, Kenny wouldn’t get to see a lot of them. He played four years at the University of Richmond (1986-90), and after a few NBA tryouts, went over to Europe to play, beginning an odyssey that brought him to France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands for 14 years. Keeping in touch wasn’t as easy as it is today. 

“When I first started playing there was no internet, that’s how old I am,” Atkinson said. “It wasn’t easy.”

But the Atkinsons are committed. There were trips, his brothers and parents coming over to see him play in exotic places. 

“I watched him play in Naples, Italy,” Steve said, also recalling trips to France among others. “After the game – he made the winning shot, of course – they’re interviewing him in Italian. He’s speaking in Italian. It was so cool. My father and I are standing there listening to him and we looked at each other like, wow, this is amazing.”

That was just a snapshot of Atkinson overseas, constantly moving countries, learning new languages and new cultures. Atkinson said he doesn’t actually speak five languages – his French is still okay – but that he picked up enough to get by wherever he went. If the Nets decide to go the international route to find talent, they’ll have a patient and understanding coach, a guy who can really relate to their situation.  

“His experiences are just so much different than the usual basketball player and coach,” Steve said. “Wherever he was, whatever country he was [in], he’s going to immerse himself into the culture, which he’ll do here. He’ll be a Brooklynite, he really enjoys that.”

Jetting around Europe fresh out of college sounds great to most undergrads, but it wasn’t the playing career Atkinson had in mind. Being an NBA player never panned out for Atkinson, but after getting his first coaching job in Paris in 2004, there was a new path for him into the Association. 

But even that took time and cause for more pause; the hard-working coach wondering how much more work it was going to take. 

“I was with the Republic of Georgia [as an assistant coach],” Atkinson said. “The Georgians back then [2006] had a tough time back then getting across borders with their passports. We had to drive, I forget whether it was Hungary or Romania, but we couldn’t get in the border, so we had to drive the bus around the country to get to another country to come in. It was like a 23-hour bus ride.” 

Twenty-three hours. The drive from New York to Miami is shorter. 

“On one hand I’m like this is tough, ‘what am I doing in this business?’” Atkinson said. “And then I also embraced that and that’s part of my experience that I think has helped me, working for the Ukraine and the Dominican Republic this summer, we’d had great stories and it’s influenced the coach I am and the person I am.”

Kenny Atkinson on SiriusXM NBA Radio

In 2007, he made it back stateside as the director of player development for the Houston Rockets. Now, with an American phone number and improvements in mass communications, he was easily accessible for his family, even if he wasn’t quite home. 

“When I got to the NBA it was on,” Atkinson said in a media scrum after Monday’s press conference. “They would text me after every game, stuff we did wrong, stuff we need to do better. It’s great to have that support system and to have a family that’s truly into it.”

A reporter asks if he’ll get seven texts after every game. Atkinson answered. 

“I might have to change my number.”

But with his foot in the NBA door, things started to take off. One year later, Kenny took the next step, an assistant coaching job with the Knicks under Mike D’Antoni. From there, he went to Atlanta, studying under Mike Budenholzer, and was part of the Hawks contingent that travelled to San Antonio for summer workouts, the first time he met Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks, then with the Spurs. The pair made an impression on each other. 

“I’ve always admired the way he works and I’ve watched him from afar developing players on the court,” Marks said. “For me it was always about the way he was able to communicate with those guys. It’s so important.”

When Marks was hired as Nets GM, Atkinson said he aggressively pursued the job, regardless of whether or not he knew he was Marks’ number one target. That’s one thing about Kenny that those close to him know: when he wants something, he fights for it. 

“He’s very aggressive, but he’s not somebody who’s comfortable talking about himself,” Steve Atkinson said. “Humble, but if he wants something, he’s going to get it.”

Whether he was fighting for a bunk, a shot on the family hoop, battling through the creeping doubt on long bus rides in Europe, Atkinson never gave up. He had the support of a large family with him every step of the way, including Monday’s press conference. 

“I want to thank my family,” Atkinson said. “My wife, two kids, seven brothers. My mother who raised eight boys. She’s the real deal, the real reason. It’s tough to raise eight kids, let alone eight boys.”

The family, taking up a pair of rows at the press conference, was all beaming. 

“We’re very proud, we’re thrilled,” Steve said. “It’s something that we were hoping for, you hope, but you never really talk about it that much.”

They would have been proud anywhere, but there’s something extra special about it being in Brooklyn. 

“Probably the best thing, the coolest thing about it is that he’s home.”

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