After long overseas career, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson back in New York
NEW YORK (AP) Long before playing in Europe or coaching in Mexico, Kenny Atkinson was a ballplayer from New York.
And when he looked into a crowd of familiar faces Monday that included his family and high school coach, it finally hit him.
Atkinson was introduced as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach, his newest address on a lengthy basketball journey bringing him not far from his original one of Huntington, New York.
The sixth Nets’ coach since they moved to Brooklyn in 2012, Atkinson had to pause to regain his composure in his opening remarks as he talked about his connection to the area and the people who helped him get back here.
“This press conference was like, wow, and I think that’s why I got a little emotional,” Atkinson said. “Just seeing all the familiar faces and family, that was like, wow.”
Atkinson was hired nearly a month ago, but said Monday was his first time in the gym with the Nets. He was an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks and remained with them until their season ended following a second-round loss to Cleveland, then accompanied the Nets to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week.
On Monday, he was in their new training center that looks out over New York, thinking about listening to Nets games on the radio as a kid, or playing ball in the city at a time when Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington were the schoolboy stars.
“So all that stuff comes into play, like my family being here, so it means more than if I was to be a coach of another team in the NBA,” Atkinson said.
General manager Sean Marks, who was hired in February, picked Atkinson as his first coaching hire. He said they knew each other for about five years, both with ties to the San Antonio Spurs, and said Atkinson quickly emerged as the one he wanted as his partner in rebuilding the organization.
“I sat with at least half a dozen and out of those guys it was pretty clear that Kenny was my No. 1 choice,” Marks said. “Going into it there was a familiarity with Kenny. I loved everything he stood for, what he was all about, his grit, his determination, his work ethic, but above all is just the person he is.”
Atkinson spent four seasons as an assistant with the Hawks and four with the New York Knicks, and before that was the Houston Rockets’ director of player development for a year.
His pro career until then was almost entirely overseas. He played in Italy, France, Germany and Spain, and was on the coaching staffs of the Republic of George and Ukraine. He also coached the Dominican Republic last summer in the FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico City.
That sometimes made it hard even for his family to keep tabs, but that won’t be a problem now. His seven brothers and his mother were at the news conference, as was Gus Alfieri, his coach at St. Anthony’s High School.
The Nets could face a slow building process after going 21-61 last season, but Atkinson said he is prepared for whatever criticism comes if the winning doesn’t right away.
“It’s part of the job,” he said. “It’s New York and I get that and I accept it and I embrace it. I embrace the pressure and I know that comes with the territory, especially here.”
Former Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn will be on his staff, and Marks said the remainder of it will be announced soon.
The Nets don’t have a first-round pick but Marks believes Atkinson, with a strong reputation for developing players, could be an asset in free agency. They’d like to eventually build an organization somewhat like the Spurs, where Marks worked his way up from player to assistant general manager, and where Mike Budenholzer was a longtime assistant before hiring Atkinson when he got the Hawks coaching job.
“This isn’t San Antonio, this isn’t Atlanta,” Marks said. “This is Brooklyn and we’ll do our best to make it our own.”
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