When Kenny Atkinson walks into Nassau Coliseum to coach the Nets against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, it will be far more than just the final preseason game. It will be more like opening a scrapbook of his basketball career and turning to a page that brings back thrilling memories.
Atkinson’s last visit to the Coliseum was April 24,1985 when he helped lead the Long Island All-Stars to their first-ever victory over the New York City All-Stars in the fifth Newsday Classic basketball game. Atkinson was in his senior year at St. Anthony’s in Huntington, and he scored 18 points that night in an 89-83 win, making seven foul shots in the final 1:48 to ice the victory.
“Oh my gosh, that was one of the biggest games of my life,” Atkinson said after practice on Tuesday. “Long Island had never beaten the city. Long Island had some good players, like Billy Donovan, and really good teams and could never beat the city. For a kid from Long Island, New York City basketball was the best. It would be a miracle if you beat them.”
Before he ever played in it, Atkinson recalled attending the famous 1983 Newsday Classic when a New York City team featuring Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, Kenny (The Jet) Smith and Mark Jackson secured an epic 133-132 win over a Long Island team led by Donovan and Russell Pierre. Future Syracuse star Washington scored a record 53 points.
Mimicking Washington lounging casually at courtside before that game, Atkinson said, “He never even warmed up. He sat on the side, and then, they rolled the ball out and he just completely [dominated]. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ So, that was part of growing up. He just went crazy.”
When he was old enough to drive, Atkinson left his hometown of Northport and often searched for competition on the playgrounds of Brooklyn and the boroughs. “I was everywhere,” Atkinson said. “The reputation of the city was the mecca of basketball, the city game. All the great players were coming out of the city at that time.”
So, the opportunity to face the New York City All-Stars, led by future St. John’s standout Boo Harvey, held enormous significance for Atkinson, whose LI team included St. Anthony’s teammate Tom Greis and Hempstead’s Kelvin Lee, who were co-MVPs.
“It was a huge game,” Atkinson said. “Our team came in there, and we beat the city. I think I had a pretty good game, like 17 or 18 points. I don’t usually brag because I wasn’t that good of a player, but that was great.”
In the following day’s edition of Newsday, the game story ended with a quote from Atkinson, who said of the New York City stars, “They’re great players, but we can play with them any day.”
Asked if he expects much family to watch his surprising 3-0 Nets, Atkinson, who has seven brothers, said, “Yeah, a ton. We’ve got 20 tickets, so, it’s a lot of people. It’s a preseason game, but my family is like, “We want tickets.’ I’ve heard the [Coliseum] renovations are great and it’s beautiful, so, I’m looking forward to that.”