Just shy of 7 o’clock on a gray, cloud-covered summer morning, the city that never sleeps actually looks rather sleepy. Not Ken Atkinson. He is an hour into his day, having already guided two visitors from Richmond on an all-access, behind-the-scenes tour of the Brooklyn Nets’ sparkling new, they-thought-of-everything training facility.
The 49-year-old Long Island native and Spider Hall of Famer is in the infancy of his first NBA head coaching job. He’s the first Richmond Spider ever to be head coach of a major league professional team, and he’s not about to waste time.
He takes a seat at an oversized conference table in his still undecorated, spacious eighth-floor office with a panoramic view of New York’s skyline. It’s the same table where in two hours he will sit with his hand-picked assistant coaches — cobbled from Cleveland, San Antonio, Atlanta, and Denver. He will lead them in mapping out a new era of basketball in Brooklyn. But for now, he cradles a cup of coffee and reminisces about the glory days of his alma mater.
“Remember the midnight game?” Ken asks. “I tell that story all the time.”
I remember, but my colleague across the table, Will Bryan, the director of public relations for Spider men’s basketball, is too young to know. It was 1990, Ken’s senior year, and ESPN was beginning to carve its college basketball niche. Its public relations machine thought it could attract viewers by televising East Coast games that tipped off at midnight. Richmond at James Madison featured the two best teams and the best rivalry in the Colonial Athletic Association.
An hour before the game, Ken, Richmond’s star point guard, stomped onto the court, smiling and laughing confidently while dribbling a basketball — slamming it, really — into the hardwood right on the Dukes’ logo at midcourt. The kid knew how to make an entrance. The arena was buzzing with JMU students. They let Ken know he was the marked villain.
Sitting at press row, I saw that reassuring Ken Atkinson look. He lived for moments like this. He’d led the Spiders to signature wins at Navy with David Robinson, at nationally ranked Georgia Tech, at the Richmond Coliseum against VCU with a last-second 40-footer, at the Meadowlands — in his backyard — when he banked in his only three pointer against Fairfield to tie the game at the end of regulation, sparking the Spiders to a win in triple overtime. Of course, there was the 1988 NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16 with wins over defending national champ Indiana and Georgia Tech.
There was no reason to think tonight would be any different. Then the clock struck midnight.
“They beat us by 40, I think,” Ken said. He wasn’t far off; the score was 77-43. “The place was rocking. We were never in that game. But it became our sole motivation to get them again in the CAA final. I was a little scared because I was thinking, ‘Are they really 40 points better than us?’ They had great talent. When you’re a young guy and you lose like that, and you’re embarrassed on ESPN, well, it stuck in our craw.”
A month later, in the CAA championship game at the Richmond Coliseum, the Spiders earned a 77-72 victory over that same JMU team. Ken scored 25 points and carried both the championship and tournament MVP trophies back to the Robins Center. “To come back and beat them in the final was incredible,” he recalled.
It would be his crowning moment, the 84th and final triumph in his Spider career, making his class the winningest in school history, a record that stood for two decades before Kevin Anderson and his 2011 classmates eclipsed it with 91.
“That was a goal of mine — to be the winningest class,” he said. “I don’t know how, when I was that young, that I thought that way, but that was my mindset. I was so proud of the guys I played with there, the teams we had, the effort we gave, and how competitive we were. There’s no doubt I’ll take those lessons I learned from Coach (Dick) Tarrant and those teams at Richmond.”
Dick Tarrant, the winningest coach in Spider history and a Richmond Hall of Famer, called Ken “one of the most important recruits we’ve ever had here. He certainly falls in line with the other great players we’ve had. Everyone respected the fact that he was such a gym rat. He was a fierce competitor. That’s such an important thing in an athlete, and now as a coach. He had good leadership qualities. He was a tough nut — a tough little guy.”
Getting him to Richmond in the first place proved to be tough enough. A Long Island kid who went into the playgrounds of Brooklyn looking for pickup games, Ken and his large family knew little of UR’s picturesque campus.
“He was recruited by some pretty big schools,” said Steve, the third of Ken’s seven brothers. “Richmond came after him hard. I remember Coach Tarrant calling my dad and saying ‘Mr. Atkinson, I need a point guard. I need your kid.’ He didn’t so much recruit him as he demanded him — as only Coach Tarrant could do. Kenny really made the decision himself, and obviously, it was a great one. He loved the school.”
But it was a softer side of Tarrant, an ex-Marine like Ken’s father, that made the most lasting impression.
“I’ve got to give Coach Tarrant a lot of credit,” Ken said. “He wrote me a two-page letter — handwritten letter — with all the reasons he thought I could help his program. And he did it without blowing smoke. It was very realistic, very personal. I still have it somewhere.
“And then the Robins Center just blew me away. I never knew how this little school had this type of arena. Obviously, they were starting to get really good with Johnny Newman and that group. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I had no idea this place existed.”
Four years later, he left with two NCAA appearances, one NIT, 1,549 points, and one regret.
His father, Neil, who passed away two years ago, regularly made the 12-hour round-trip drive to watch his second-youngest son play, usually dragging a family member with him — sometimes Ken’s mom, Pauline; more often than not, Ken’s brother Steve.
“I was a teacher and a coach,” Steve said. “I went to all the weekend games, most of the time my father and me. I would practice with my team at 8 in the morning, then meet him off the Long Island Expressway, and we’d head to Richmond. We made 5 o’clock Mass at a church near campus, then headed over to the game, watched the game, talked to Kenny for like 10 minutes, and that was it. We’d get in the car and go home. Every weekend. Away games, too.”
And there’s Ken’s regret. “I should have gone to dinner with my dad after those games, but he wanted to get back, and I wanted to get with my friends and teammates and college life. That’s part of this story: the sacrifices my dad made to come watch me play. I still can’t believe he wouldn’t stay overnight. He’d always drive back. He was a trooper.
“Richmond meant a lot to him. He’d always chat with people after games. Coach Tarrant. Mrs. Tarrant. Bill Dooley. Pat Dennis. Those people became huge characters in our family. I think this was his dream and it was my dream — together. So, it was pretty cool. ”
What made Kenny a really outstanding college player was how competitive he was. He was a guy who took an enormous amount of time to prepare himself for those moments when the lights were on. —Chris Fleming, Spider teammate
The NBA was young Ken Atkinson’s dream. As a player.
“I honestly thought I was an NBA player. I was a little delusional. I had a heck of a college career, and I went to a few NBA camps and wasn’t good enough. I was close, but quite honestly, not good enough. So I went overseas, and it was a humbling experience. I wasn’t playing for the big teams. I was in mid- to lower-level leagues. I really was humbled by that and really grew up. I had to take stock. This isn’t going to be a storybook NBA career.
“I realized I’m just a good player and I’m going to enjoy this experience from a cultural standpoint. I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity. Travel, do my best to speak the language, bring my family over to watch the games. It became more than basketball, and I grew up. I was pretty immature, even coming out of college. When you’re a foreigner in a different country, it makes you grow up. I always say every American should live overseas for a year or two.”
A year or two became 14 for Ken as a player and coach in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. He learned multiple languages and became a fan favorite.
“We went over and watched him play,” recounted Steve. “We were in Naples. He hit the winning shot. The Italian people went crazy. They’re kissing him. They’re kissing me. So they interview him on the radio, and Kenny’s speaking in fluid Italian. My father and I were like, ‘Wow.’
“If he could be, he’d still be playing in Europe. I remember when he told me he wouldn’t play anymore. I felt bad, but I felt worse for him. We knew that’s what he loved and what he wanted to do. He didn’t play in the NBA, but the European thing really helped him develop his coaching skills.”
He never spoke of, or even allowed himself to think about, becoming an NBA head coach. He simply worked at perfecting his craft and allowed others to take notice.
“I’ve just focused on the job I was given,” Ken said. “I was never focused on the next job. I wasn’t focused on working for the next team. There were times I thought, ‘What do I have to do to prepare to be a head coach?’ It was impossible to do without actually being in the driver’s seat. It was almost a waste of time. Brooklyn came calling, and that was the reward for my patience.”
Ken’s tenacity and commitment were what the New York City press noticed when the Nets announced his hiring. The Daily News called his path to the job “twisted and arduous.” The New York Times said his hire was “based on his reputation as a hard-working, high-energy motivator.” The always colorful New York Post published the headline, “Meet Nets’ Kenny Atkinson, who fought like hell for this shot,” and quoted his old high school coach, Gus Alfieri, who said, “This kid, he paid his dues. He worked his butt off.”
Ken’s international appeal is a quality the Nets figure to accentuate in the melting pot that is New York City. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is Russian. The general manager, Sean Marks, was the first New Zealand native player in the NBA. Ken’s long and respected overseas career is one of the reasons he was Marks’ ideal candidate to be the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.
“International players will be important for us,” Ken said. “Every year the percentage of international players in the NBA has increased. I have some kind of perspective, something in common. You know the clubs they played for, the leagues they were in. I think it’s huge.”
So was reconnecting with former Spider teammate Chris Fleming, ’93, who was part of the 1991 team that shocked Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Fleming poured in 25 points, including seven three-pointers, in the second-round loss to Temple. The two were teammates Ken’s senior season when Fleming sat out after transferring from Connecticut.
“We worked out a lot together,” Fleming said. “Before practice, after practice, and in the offseason. But we never played a game together.”
Unlike Ken, Fleming wasn’t considering playing overseas until he received a call from Isabell Eifert, the girlfriend and future wife of his Richmond teammate and roommate Jim Shields, B’92, who was playing in Germany.
“She thought it was lonely for him and that it would be better if he had a friend over there,” Fleming said. “So she started calling clubs in Germany without even telling me. It worked out. It wasn’t a very professional league. The disadvantage of playing at that level was not making a lot of money. But the advantage was learning the culture, the language, meeting a lot of great people. It was a lot of luck on my part and a lot of help from Isabell Shields.
“I actually got fired as a player and got offered a coaching job at the same time. One door closed, and one door opened, and I just went through the open one. It’s something I thought about, but I thought I’d play a few more years. But the club realized my career was over before I did.”
Fleming’s coaching career in Germany flourished, culminating with his current position as head coach of the German National Team. Ken, meanwhile, became a rising star in the NBA coaching ranks, focusing primarily on player development during stops in New York, Houston, and Atlanta. Fleming, a New Jersey native, returned to the States last year as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets and didn’t hesitate to accept Ken’s offer to join him in Brooklyn.
“The big motivating factor for me coming here was Kenny,” Fleming said. “I jumped at the chance to work with him. What made Kenny a really outstanding college player was how competitive he was. He was a guy who took an enormous amount of time to prepare himself for those moments when the lights were on. I think that same strength is what he uses in coaching. It’s behind the scenes where he’s really prepared himself.”
It's ridiculous that it's Brooklyn. Brooklyn is basketball. ... I grew up watching Nets games with my family, especially my dad. Let's face it. This would be different if it was Memphis or Sacramento. It's a dream. —Ken Atkinson
For the morning meeting with his support staff, Ken moves to the head of the crowded conference table. An athletic trainer, a nutritionist, and a strength and conditioning coach give what Ken refers to as the “weather report” — an update on injuries and conditioning.
“The best way to get them in shape is to play — get ’em up and down the court,” Ken says following a lengthy discussion.
After the support staff departs, Ken listens to ideas and suggestions from his new coaching staff. They are prepping for workouts with young players on the Nets’ summer league team like holdovers Sean Kilpatrick and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson along with rookie draft picks Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead. Each assistant offers a drill he used with his previous team. The coaches will need to learn them before teaching them to the players.
Ken leads the group onto the spacious practice floor – two full-length courts, brightly lit and bordered by large bay windows offering an eye-popping view of the Manhattan skyline.
The coaches conduct their own practice with no players. Each coach explains a drill. The staff runs through the drills with the obvious delight of being a player again, if just for a few fleeting, fantasizing moments. Ken stands off to the side — watching, questioning, and learning.
The players emerge from their spacious locker room. The scheduled 11 a.m. practice starts precisely at 11 a.m. It is a high-energy session, almost with a college enthusiasm — handshakes, high fives, and players rushing to pick up a fallen teammate. Each assistant coach works with a group of players. Ken paces from station to station, looking and sounding very much like a head coach.
“Be a threat to score,” he demands to a group of — naturally — guards who are working through a drill where they dribble to the basket either for a shot or a pass to a teammate.
“Drive the ball to score the ball,” he tells them, words any Spider fan who watched him play will recall him doing over and over in No. 10 red and blue. The practice ends at 12:30 p.m. with a scrimmage.
The day is far from over for Ken and his staff. Next up is an introductory press conference on Coney Island featuring Whitehead, the first Brooklyn native to play for the Brooklyn Nets. The entourage heads down to the street level of the practice facility. Two vehicles await — a well-appointed van and a large SUV. The drivers greet the staff warmly. It’s obvious this isn’t their first trip together, and they’ve already developed a bond.
The vehicles arrive right on time, and Nets PR director Aaron Harris is waiting on the sidewalk to escort Ken, Whitehead, and the staff to the Nets’ team store across the street from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs — arguably Coney Island’s best-known landmark.
Ken and Whitehead position themselves on barstool-style seats in front of the Nets store that features Whitehead’s new Brooklyn uniform jersey No. 15 with his name on the back.
Just as he was in college, Ken is still comfortable in front of the horde of media and curious fans. He describes the Nets as “off-Broadway” compared to New York’s other more scrutinized and publicized professional sports teams. By those standards, this media opportunity is a success.
In late afternoon back at the training facility, there is another important meeting, this one to discuss free agency. Despite winning only 21 games a year ago, the Nets didn’t have high draft picks, but they do have deep pockets and millions of dollars in salary cap money to lure players who want to be part of a rebuilding process.
One of the Nets’ first summer free-agent signings was guard Jeremy Lin, who in 2012 enjoyed a 26-game stretch for the New York Knicks in which he dazzled with points and assists, and “Linsanity” swept through the NBA. The Knicks’ assistant coach whom Lin credited for his unprecedented success was Ken Atkinson.
“I think there’s a lot of responsibility trying to build a program and all the obligations that go with it,” said Ken, whom the Nets hired in mid-April. “It’s more than I expected right off the bat with the draft and free agency. It’s surreal right now.”
But nothing seems more surreal to him than his own story of a native son coming home.
“It’s ridiculous that it’s Brooklyn,” he admits, looking out his office window toward his childhood home, a mere 35 miles to the east. “Brooklyn is basketball. I always looked up to players from Brooklyn. Bernard King. Chris Mullin. Pearl Washington. I grew up watching Nets games with my family, especially my dad. Let’s face it. This would be different if it was Memphis or Sacramento. It’s a dream.”
The dream is still becoming reality.
“I’m waiting for that moment when I realize I’m an NBA head coach,” he said. “I don’t think it will hit me until I coach my first game.”
His family shares similar emotions.
“We’re going to look at each other and say, ‘This is incredible,’” Steve said. “I know I’ll be thinking about my father, and I know Kenny will be thinking about him. We’ll be so proud of him. It would be great no matter where he got the job, but for it to be Brooklyn is incredible. We were Nets fans. It’s just unbelievable that he comes back to coach the Nets. I can tell he’s so happy because he loves New York.”
At the end of the long day, Ken invites Fleming, me, and my colleague Will Bryan to join him, his wife Laura, and their two children, Anthony and Annika, for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn, where they now live.
“If I’m coaching in Brooklyn, I’ll live in Brooklyn,” he had vowed. Laura spent three days “with her track shoes on, pounding the pavement trying to figure out how to get a place close to the practice facility, close to Barclays Center and with good schools. The neighborhood is pretty cool. I’m thrilled with the choice.”
Walking through the basketball court at a nearby school playground, the two former Spider guards take turns reliving their three-point prowess. While their form is reminiscent of their playing days, the Richmond record they share — eight three pointers in a game — remains unchallenged on the Brooklyn playground, although Ken swishes his last attempt.
During a relaxed dinner, Chris and Ken recount their overseas experiences. Fleming spent all his time in one country, Germany. Not Ken.
“Fourteen years, 14 cities,” Laura good-naturedly reminds him.
The admiration from players and coaches who know this globetrotting, basketball lifer is universal, and it would be difficult to find anyone in the NBA who thinks the Nets made a mistake in making him the first Richmond Spider to lead a North American major league sports franchise.
“I think it helps that people in this business respect my work,” he said. “I know that doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee wins. But it gives me confidence. Maybe we won’t be the most talented team on the floor every night, but we will compete really hard, play together, share the ball, do all the little things that help your team win. Those are lessons I learned from Coach Tarrant and those Richmond teams, and they’re going to be used in Brooklyn, I can tell you that. I think I’m ready.”