From the backyard to the CYO gym to St. Anthony's HS, Kenny Atkinson's basketball story is a Long Island story.
"A hotbed," the Brooklyn Nets coach says of the Long Island hoops scene in the 1970s and 80s, the environment that molded him and sent him on to a life in the sport. On winter nights, the high school gyms were packed for rabid rivalries headlined by future Division I and NBA players. It was a cradle for coaches too, on their way to the Big East and the bright lights of March Madness.
Atkinson played his own part in the show before taking his game to the University of Richmond and the NCAA Sweet 16 with an upset of defending national champion Indiana in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. It was on to Europe to play for a decade, and a coaching career that got its start in Paris.
But the path to an NBA bench really began with take-no-quarter games in the backyard of the Atkinson family's Northport home.
"On days it was like 10 below zero, my dad would be like, 'we're going out there.' Saturdays, Sundays, we're going out there and playing," said Atkinson. "My dad was a big influence. All my brothers played. And there were just wars in the backyard. Three-on-three, four-on-four, around the world. Always competing. And you're just around that? That's where it started."
When it came time to play organized ball, the first stop was CYO hoops at St. Phillip's.
"Little church, tile floor, stage," said Atkinson. "Make a layup and you get nailed. We had an eighth-grade team, I think we went undefeated. We had an unbelievable team. We beat Roosevelt, we beat all the teams. I started to realize, I could be pretty good at this. After that was going to Gus Alfieri's All-American basketball camp, which was out in Smithtown. That's when I started getting a global look. Because everybody from the island would come to that camp and compete and I started to realize I can compete at this level."
There was no shortage of hoop heroes for Atkinson to emulate. Start at home, where he was the seventh of eight brothers. When they weren't battling in the backyard, Kenny was watching his brothers play high school ball at Northport. He easily rattles off the names of the players he saw along the way: Mitch Kupchak of Brentwood, who went on to North Carolina and the NBA, and to become GM of the Lakers; Jeff Ruland at Sachem, a future NBA All-Star; Holy Trinity's Matt Doherty, who went on to win a national championship with Michael Jordan at UNC; St. Dominic's Tim Kempton, who played at Notre Dame; current Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan of St. Agnes (now Kellenberg Memorial), who went to the Final Four playing for Rick Pitino in 1987 and won two national championships coaching at Florida.
On the sidelines were future Pitt coach Ralph Willard at St. Dominic and Bob MacKillop at Holy Trinity and Long Island Lutheran. MacKillop today is in his 29th season at Davidson, where he coached a Steph Curry-led team to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2008.
"It was a great time," said Atkinson. "I always felt like Long Island basketball wasn't respected enough. I always have my pride when we beat the city in the Newsday Classic. That was cool. A lot of pride there. It was a great environment for me."
At first, Atkinson followed his brothers to Northport. As a sophomore he helped lead an upset of a loaded North Babylon team stocked with future Division I players. He says that win was always his father's favorite. But for his junior year, he moved on to St. Anthony's in South Huntington, where coach Gus Alfieri had won two state championships.
"What a big-time program it was at that time and really springboarded me to understanding what serious basketball was," said Atkinson. "I think we won the Catholic league once and then fell short the next, lost to Holy Trinity. I went 8 for 17 from the foul line. I'll never forget. I think I told these guys, I went from being a bad free throw shooter because of that game. I said that would never happen again. I became like an 88 percent free throw shooter in college, just because I was embarrassed.
"Gus was such a tough-nosed coach and disciplined and learned so much of the game. He was a great player at St. John's. My dad was really the impetus behind me going there and pushed. He saw some talent in me. Let's put him in a different environment."
Playing for Alfieri, Atkinson says, helped him earn a spot at the fabled Five Star camp and draw the attention of Division I college coaches. Outside St. Anthony's, he'd chase the competition at playground hotspots in Northport or South Huntington, especially once he started driving. He didn't tell his parents about the trips into Brooklyn to play at Prospect Park.
And the summers? The summers were for basketball.
"My day was All-American basketball camp from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon," said Atkinson. "And then at four in the afternoon we'd have a summer league game in Smithtown, probably a five o'clock game. Then we would go to Rockville Centre, it was an outdoor league and all the best Catholic league and Nassau County teams were in there. And then Gus, after the Rockville Center game, he'd sit us on the grass and he'd give us a critique for 30 minutes. So we'd end up driving home, 10:30, 11, and then we'd do it the next day. All summer long. I couldn't help but become a decent player. The perfect environment to grow as a player. And under structure. Learning the game."