These days, when Pauline Atkinson gazes out the den window of the home in which she has lived since 1959 in Northport Village, she sees an expansive, lush green side yard, a proper Long Island lawn her late husband, Neil, would have loved. But when they were raising a band of eight brothers, the yard and the backyard basketball court were a dusty, well-worn field of intense, sometimes heated, family combat.
“We didn’t have any grass,” Pauline, 83, said recently, recalling the commotion from bygone days of all the football, baseball and basketball games. “They wore it out.”
The Atkinsons and their neighborhood friends battled year-round on that proving ground that spawned an unbelievable family athletic legacy in Northport. It began with Mike, the oldest brother, who played basketball and soccer at Northport High. Then came Tom (basketball, soccer), Steve (football, basketball, baseball), Dave (who quarterbacked Northport to a Suffolk County title), Brian (football, basketball, baseball), Scott (another quarterback who went on to start at Fordham), Kenneth (basketball, soccer at Northport High and St. Anthony’s in Huntington) and finally Robert (football, basketball).
Looking back, it makes sense that a man who spent his entire life swimming upstream against daunting obstacles would be identified just over a year ago by Nets general manager Sean Marks as the perfect partner to help him with the NBA’s toughest rebuilding project. Not that Kenny Atkinson ever set out to be an NBA head coach, but he is perfectly suited for the Nets’ challenge.
Atkinson attributes his determination directly to the mettle he had to develop as the seventh son.
“My brothers and father did not make things easy on me, and that was one of the reasons I became so competitive and was not willing to give in easily,” he said.
“I was at all the Northport High School basketball games and football games. That was the environment. You couldn’t be a bum. You had to carry the torch a little bit. I don’t know if it was pressure, but you were surrounded by it. I loved it.”
There was no escaping the passion for sports and competition that Neil Atkinson brought to his family life. He had Kenny bouncing a ball by the time he was 3 years old.
“My husband would say, ‘Bounce and catch, bounce and catch,’ ” Pauline said. “To Kenneth, it came naturally.”
AGE IS NO EXCUSE
The 12-year age difference between Kenny and his oldest brother Mike didn’t diminish the expectation that everyone would compete on some level. Tom, 61, who is 11 years older than Kenny and coached him as a 6-year-old on his first organized basketball team, said all the brothers played basketball against their father as a rite of passage. Neil Atkinson commuted to Manhattan, where he worked in ad sales, but he was an ex-Marine who also was a lifeguard and had athletic ability.
“My dad was a good player,” Tom said. “He had this hook shot. I couldn’t stop it. At 14 or 15, I figured out how to step around and block it. I started beating him, and I was done. He went on to Steve. Everybody had to kind of go through my dad.”
By the time the last three brothers, Scott, Kenny and Robert, came along, their dad had switched to mandated games of two-on-two. “At 5 o’clock every Sunday, we’d play two-on-two 12 months a year,” Kenny said. “In December, he’d shovel off the snow. I’d say, ‘We’ve got to play?’ And he would say, ‘Orders.’ That was it.”
In truth, Kenny was far from a reluctant warrior. He immersed himself in following his older brothers’ games from a young age. Steve, 60, recalls his mother bringing Kenny and Robert to Northport basketball games, where they sat in the front row and paid rapt attention.
“At the end of the game, Kenny would say, ‘You did this wrong, you did that wrong,’ ” Steve recalled with a laugh. “He kept score, and he’d put a star next to whoever he thought the star of the game was. At 6 or 7, he knew what it was about. Most of the time, he was right on with his critique.”
Middle brother Brian, 56, said it was clear Kenny wasn’t worried about living up to the standards set by his siblings. “From the get-go, he said, ‘Whatever this bar is, I’m going to drive right past it,’ ” Brian said.
“You could argue he would have done it anyway, whether it was two brothers instead of eight. But this environment was full-contact living from the time you woke up until the time you hit the pillow. There really is no other way to describe it. My father and mother set the tone and encouraged it. It drives all of us today.”
Winning was expected in the Atkinson family, but defeat and heartache are part of sports. Kenny’s brothers quickly realized he couldn’t handle losing. Brian once told a TV interviewer that it wasn’t the desire to win that drove Kenny as much as his hatred of losing.
“That’s at the core of who he is,” Brian said. “That burned so bright in him, his competitiveness and absolute desire to exceed any expectations anybody had for him, including himself. When he needed to be that ball of fire and energy just willing things to happen, that’s who he was always.”
Growing up, Atkinson’s aversion to losing often resulted in emotional outbursts. “I cried every time I lost,” Kenny said. “I could not handle losing. Since my brothers knew it, they would tease me.”
A couple of times, disputes turned serious. Once when his parents were gone, some of his brothers locked Kenny in the attic and refused to let him out, to traumatic effect. “It was dark,” Kenny said. “It might have been two hours, but it seemed like 24. I was sobbing.”
Another time he accompanied an older brother who could drive and his friends to a pickup game in South Huntington. “I got on the opposite team from them, and it got competitive and they ended up leaving me,” Kenny said. “I was maybe 14 and had to walk home on Jericho Turnpike. I’m sure I deserved it. But there was no mercy.”
When it came to trash talk or payback, Kenny could give as good as he got. Who knows whether his losses to Steve on the backyard hoop were lodged in his brain, nagging him, but as a ninth-grader at Northport Junior High, he scored a school-record 46 points against East Northport Junior High, which was led by Steve in his first coaching job out of college in 1981. That’s 46 points in a 24-minute game.
“He was scoring at will,” said Steve, who later coached Hauppauge High football for 12 years and now is in his first season as head coach of the Half Hollow Hills West boys basketball team. “It wasn’t about the record. Early in the game, he put both his thumbs down and looked right at me. It was a matter of ‘I’m beating you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’
“That Northport Junior High gym is small. It has a parquet floor, and the place is always loud. When he put his thumbs down at me, oh, the place was going nuts. It was funny.”
Kenny doesn’t recall the thumbs-down gesture, but he regrets pouring it on his brother that way as well as the pleasure he sometimes took at being the guy opposing fans loved to hate. More often than not, his determination had positive results.
His final two years of high school basketball took place at St. Anthony’s under legendary coach Gus Alfieri, 80, now retired. Alfieri first saw a cherub-faced, 10-year-old Kenny Atkinson at his basketball camp. There was no indication yet of how good he might become, but Alfieri was impressed when he saw him as a sophomore leading Northport High to an upset over North Babylon.
“North Babylon was one of the best teams on the Island, and Kenny goes in with Northport, which was not a great team,” Alfieri said. “He got 38 points and they beat North Babylon. That’s what this kid was capable of doing.”
At St. Anthony’s, Atkinson teamed with 7-footer Tom Greis, who later played at Villanova, but the 5-11 point guard ran the show. “Atkinson was one of the best players I ever coached when you look at how hard he worked and where he came from,” Alfieri said. “He had tremendous confidence in himself. If there was going to be an important shot taken, he wanted to take it. He didn’t have the physical tools some of these four- and five-star players have today. But he had the drive.”
STARRING IN COLLEGE
Atkinson spent a year at Maine Central Institute prep school, where he attracted a bevy of recruiters, including Providence coach Rick Pitino, who made a tentative scholarship offer he rescinded at the last minute. Atkinson wound up playing at the University of Richmond for Dick Tarrant against the wishes of his father, who thought Kenny belonged at a higher level.
“Dick Tarrant said to Kenneth, ‘I promise you that, if you come to my school, you’re going to play immediately,’ ” Pauline Atkinson said. “That’s what made the decision for Kenneth. He called here and said, ‘Dad’s not happy.’ I said, ‘Kenneth, you have to do what you want.’ It turned out to be the best decision ever.”
At the time, Richmond was in the Colonial Athletic Association, which Atkinson’s father described as a “bus league.” It turned out to be a commuter league for Neil Atkinson, who often drove down from Long Island to attend home and road games and then turned around and drove home without staying over.
Steve and Tom sometimes accompanied their father. “Some of my greatest memories are going with my dad to Richmond,” Tom said. “Steve and I were at the CAA championship game Kenny’s senior year. Kenny scores 25 points and he carries that team on his back to the title. When he was at Richmond, he hit shots that either won or extended a game into overtime 14 times in his career. He loved to take the big shot.”
When Atkinson graduated from Richmond in 1990, his class held the record for most wins in school history. That included a 72-69 victory over defending national champion Indiana in the first round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament. Keith Smart, who hit the winning shot in the NCAA title game the previous year against Syracuse, missed a similar shot in the final seconds while guarded by Atkinson.
“I think I got under him a little,” Atkinson said. “I was into his hip. It was a borderline foul.”
The Spiders then beat Georgia Tech for the second time that season before losing to top-seeded Temple in the Sweet 16.
As a senior, Atkinson believed he could reach the NBA. He played well at the Portsmouth Invitational prospects showcase but suffered a severe ankle injury that kept him out of the pre-draft combine in Chicago. He had a few NBA tryouts, including with the Knicks, but never made it.
“I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” Atkinson said. “I thought I’d just keep doing it, keep beating the odds. Not making it threw me for the biggest loop.
“Then it came down to the love of the game. I played in the USBL and the CBA. I toured Europe with the NIT All-Star team and really loved it. I thought, man, that would be a pretty cool job. So I went there.”
LONG PRO CAREER
Atkinson played professionally for 14 years, including stops with mid-level clubs in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. He wasn’t getting rich, except in terms of the cultural experience, learning to speak French, Spanish and Italian.
“I don’t know when I totally dove in, but the more years I spent over there, the less time I spent here,” Atkinson said. “In the offseason, I’d find myself lingering a little longer, traveling more.”
It also afforded his family the opportunity to make several trips to Europe, where they had a ready-made tour guide. “He wasn’t making a lot of money,” Pauline said. “I was subsidizing him for a while.”
To Alfieri, the fact that Atkinson lasted 14 years was a testament to his perseverance. “In Europe, they don’t want a 5-11 guard,” Alfieri said. “If they’re going to take an American, they want the big guy. He got like the crumbs, but he never lost faith. That was the quality.”
Atkinson fell into coaching with Paris Basket only because he couldn’t play anymore after retiring in 2004 at the age of 37. His greatest skill turned out to be his ability to develop other players the way he coached himself. When he finally reached the NBA in 2007 as player development coach with the Houston Rockets, his international experience paid off in a league increasingly populated by foreign players.
It was a heady experience for the Atkinson family when Kenny joined the Knicks as an assistant, especially when Jeremy Lin, an Atkinson protege, emerged from the end of the bench to lead the phenomenal run known as “Linsanity” in 2012.
“I remember my father saying, ‘If he’s an assistant coach for 20 or 30 years, he’s done pretty darn good for himself,’ ” Steve said. “When Kenny went to Atlanta [as an assistant], we wondered what was going to happen. I remember looking online and a lot of people said nice things about him.
“I told my brother Dave, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but I think Kenny actually has a shot to be head coach of the Nets.’ He said, ‘No way.’ The day it happened was one of the happiest days of all our lives. The only bittersweet thing is my father [who died in 2014] wasn’t there to see it.”
The first season was brutal. The Nets suffered through a 1-27 stretch and finished with a league-worst 20-62 record primarily because point guard Lin was sidelined with injuries for all but 36 games.
Atkinson’s luck hasn’t been much better this season. Lin suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener and star guard D’Angelo Russell recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery that will shelve him for several weeks.
“Fear of failure is still what drives me,” Atkinson said. “But I think everybody is surprised at my positive nature . . . Being humbled so much, I’ve been through tough stuff, I can persevere. There’s a chip on your shoulder from that 1-27 stretch. It motivated me a lot this summer.”
Knowing the long road Kenny has traveled, the Atkinson family can’t help but believe he can turn the Nets around if anyone can. That backyard athletic crucible strengthened his resolve to withstand any test.
Atkinson’s voice catches when he is asked what it means to have this opportunity so close to that patch of grass where he grew up. “It’s everything,” he said. “This is it. To come full circle. It’s beyond belief to be 40 miles from Northport. I’ve worked hard, but one thing I want to make clear is how much luck is in this.”
Pauline Atkinson shakes her head at that notion. “I told him, ‘Kenneth, you paid your dues,’ ” she said. “It wasn’t all luck. Although to think there’s only 30 of these positions in the world, and to have him right here . . . ”
THE KENNY ATKINSON FILE
Coach, Brooklyn Nets
Born: June 2, 1967, in Northport (age 50)
High school: St. Anthony’s
Playing career 1990-2004
Wichita Falls Texans, Long Island Surf and in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Netherlands
2004–06Paris Basket Racing (assistant)