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Kenny Atkinson's NY roots a plus for Nets

Atkinson, who now lives in Brooklyn, grew up in Northport and played at St. Anthony's High School. 

Head coach Kenny Atkinson of the Brooklyn Nets

Head coach Kenny Atkinson of the Brooklyn Nets during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 in New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Kenny Atkinson’s Nets players are comfortable enough with the boss that they are not above teasing him, especially about the way he sounds, and especially when he is yelling at them.

“The players all the time make fun of my Long Island accent,” the coach of one of the NBA’s most surprising teams said after practice on Tuesday. “I’ll say something and the players, they mimic me, they mock me, which is pretty funny.

“I think that shows [they think], ‘Hey, this guy is from here. He’s got the accent and everything.’ Pretty cool.”

That might seem a trivial part of the job requirements for a New York coach. But Atkinson, 51, who grew up in Northport and played at St. Anthony’s High School, believes it is a significant help that he has known the turf since birth.

That includes everything from how he deals with players, fans and journalists, to the support of nearby family to simply navigating day-to-day life in a region many non-natives find intimidating.

“I’m not sure I get this job, first of all, without my New York roots,” said Atkinson, a Knicks assistant from 2008-12. “That might be underselling myself, but I think it really helped me in terms of getting the job. And I absolutely think it’s a huge advantage.”

Atkinson believes “the players themselves like that you kind of know the area and know the history and know the market . . . I do think it gives you credibility with the players. They know you kind of know the whole deal here.”

But the benefits extend well beyond that.

“It just makes me a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Everybody [around the league] is like, ‘Oh my gosh, you got a job in New York?’ I can imagine another coach having to [adjust], but I’ve been around it my whole life.

“We subscribed to Newsday and The New York Times, so I grew up reading the papers. I grew up watching all New York sports and I’m all over sports radio, too, so I know all the personalities and all the players and all the reporters.

“I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable in another market, if I was in Chicago or something, because there is not that connection.”

Atkinson has fully embraced Brooklyn. He lives in Cobble Hill, walks to games at Barclays Center and sometimes walks or bikes to the Nets’ practice facility in Industry City.

“I wanted to, but I also thought that was the right thing to do,” he said. “If you’re going to coach in Brooklyn you should live there. And also it’s close to my family. I can go right out to Long Island, where my whole family lives.”

Walking everywhere means interacting with fans everywhere, and Atkinson is all for it, especially now that after two losing seasons the Nets are legitimate playoff contenders.

Still, Atkinson — the only current coach/manager among the nine New York-area major pro teams who grew up around here — has a long way to go to match some predecessors.

The list includes some of the biggest names in their franchises’ histories — Joe Torre, Bill Parcells, Red Holzman — but over the decades others have flopped, such as Rich Kotite.

Newsday ranked the top 10, with some ground rules: Pro achievements only. (Sorry Nat Holman and Lou Carnesecca.) Immediate metro area only, as defined by high school attended. (Sorry upstaters John McGraw, Jeff Van Gundy, Pat Riley and Tom Coughlin.)

Perhaps someday Atkinson will be on the good list himself. For now, he endorses the idea of it. “I could be wrong about this,” he said, “but I do think there’s an appreciation for coaches here.”

As long as they win, yes.

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

Our top 10 New York pro coaches who attended a high school in the immediate New York City vicinity.

1. JOE TORRE, YANKEES

St. Francis Prep (Brooklyn)

Yes, Torre managed the Mets, too, without much success, from 1977-81. But that is not what landed him atop this list. Four World Series titles with the Yankees did. And six American League pennants. And 10 AL East titles. All in only a dozen seasons.

2. BILL PARCELLS, GIANTS

River Dell High School (Oradell, N.J.)

Being a gruff “Jersey Guy” was part of Parcells’ image, but so was winning. He led the 1986 and ’90 Giants to Super Bowl victories, lifting the franchise out of two dark decades. Then it took him only two years to get the Jets to an AFC title game.

3. RED HOLZMAN, KNICKS

Franklin K. Lane High School (Brooklyn)

Holzman led the Knicks to their first championship in 1970, then another in ’73. They still await a third. A standout player who won an NBA title as a Royal in 1951, he later was a scout before winning big with a much-loved style of team ball.

4. KEVIN LOUGHERY, NETS

Cardinal Hayes High School (Bronx)

The Nets never have won an NBA championship, but they did win two on Long Island in the ABA coached by Loughery, in 1974 and ’76. It did not hurt that starting with the first of those seasons Roosevelt’s own Julius Erving arrived to help the cause.

5, ALLIE SHERMAN, GIANTS

Boys High School (Brooklyn)

To recall Sherman for the “Goodbye, Allie” chants near the end of his term does not do him justice. He was NFL Coach of the Year in his first two seasons, 1961 and ’62, and took the Giants to three consecutive NFL title games, losing them all.

6. BOBBY VALENTINE, METS

Rippowam High School (Stamford, Conn.)

In six-plus seasons, there rarely was a dull moment with Valentine, including playoffs in 1999 and 2000, the latter ending with an NL pennant and a Subway Series loss to the Yankees. His work after the 9/11 attacks might be his greatest legacy.

7. JOE LAPCHICK, KNICKS

No high school (Yonkers)

Most sports fans recall Lapchick more for his years at St. John’s, but he spent a decade with the Knicks, from 1947-56, during a formative time for the franchise and NBA. He also won, taking the Knicks to NBA Finals in 1951, ’52 and ’53.

8. WILLIE RANDOLPH, METS

Tilden High School (Brooklyn)

The Randolph Era lasted only 3 ½ seasons and is recalled for falling one game short of a World Series in 2006 and an epic late collapse in 2007. But get this: Randolph’s .544 winning percentage is second only in Mets history to Davey Johnson’s .588.

9. RICK PITINO, KNICKS

St. Dominic High School (Oyster Bay)

While it is true Pitino had a tad more success in college than the pros, his brief time with the Knicks had its moments. He took over a 24-win team, won 38 games his first season and 52 in his second – their highest total between 1973 and ’93.

10. RICHIE ADUBATO, LIBERTY

East Orange High School (East Orange, N.J.)

The WNBA was only two years old when Adubato took over the Liberty in 1999, and he quickly developed a knack for the league, reaching three WNBA Finals in his first four seasons, during which the Liberty thrice finished first in the East.

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