Atkinson in it for long haul with ‘patient’ Nets
Northport native hits all the right notes during introductory presser
Kenny Atkinson didn’t miss a beat during his introductory press conference as the 21st head coach in the history of the Nets, and the sixth that’s been hired since the franchise relocated here to Brooklyn in 2012.
The Northport, Long Island native met the local media for the first time Monday afternoon at the team’s new training complex in Industry City, expressing gratitude and growing extremely emotional throughout the day.
Atkinson, 48, intimated that he grew up listening to Nets games on the radio as a tot, and revealed that Julius Erving, who won the then-Long Island-based team two ABA championships in the mid-1970s, was his favorite player.
He also gushed about Brooklyn’s strong connection with basketball, invoking the names of local hoops legends Chris Mullin, the recently deceased Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and Ed Davender from his teen years.
The St. Anthony’s High School (L.I.) alum and former Richmond University point guard took the time to express his love and admiration for his mother, who was in attendance along with his seven brothers, and his long list of coaches during his formative years.
Atkinson paused several times during the meet-and-greet to compose himself, nearly bursting into tears on more than one occasion.
After all, he’d spent more than four decades as a gym rat, playing and learning and working his way up to the podium that he shared with Nets general manager Sean Marks on Tuesday.
It was a touching scene, and one that will stick with Brooklyn fans for years to come.
If, of course, Atkinson is permitted to stay on the job long enough to put he and Marks’ design for building a winner into play on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
“I think it gives you pause because you look at the past,” Atkinson admitted of Brooklyn’s well-chronicled coaching carousel, which has included Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins and interim head coach Tony Brown since the NBA arrived in our fair borough.
“But that’s why you meet with ownership,” Atkinson, who traveled the globe playing in virtually every league but the NBA during his 14 year stretch as a professional, added.
“And that’s why my relationship with Sean was important, because [we] had an intimate conversation, and when I came up here to interview with them, that was part of my question.”
The question will remain an ongoing one.
Will billionaire team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who displayed a win-now-at-all-costs attitude during his initial five years at the helm, be able to sit back and wait for Atkinson and Marks to build the Nets from the bottom up, perhaps enduring a season or two more of 20 to 30 wins after Brooklyn reached the playoffs in each of its first three years here?
Atkinson, at least at first blush, believes so.
“I was more than satisfied with the answers,” he said of his initial meeting with Prokhorov, just prior to his official hiring on April 17. “We’re going to build something sustainable. We’re going to build something for the long term, so that excited me and convinced me.”
Marks, who learned at the side of legendary NBA coach Gregg Popovich and top executive R.C. Buford during his years in San Antonio, also has been assured that Prokhorov is willing to let this new tandem take the reins for a while in the hopes of creating a long-term solution to Brooklyn’s current basketball malaise.
“We’re well aware that it’s going to take patience; it’s going to take time,” Marks said.
“Not just the wins and losses, but the development of a whole new style. [Atkinson’s] in here early enough, his staff is going to be in here early enough; my staff is in here early enough that we’ll be doing a lot of things together, we’ll be collaborating together. We’re all in this together.”
But so were former GM Billy King and the coaches that preceded Atkinson, none of whom were saddled with a roster quite this bereft of big-time talent, not to mention that the Nets won’t control their own first-round draft pick again until 2019.
Atkinson, who is coming off assistant coaching stints for the Knicks and, most recently, the Atlanta Hawks, felt compelled to pursue what has been a very tenuous and volatile position during Prokhorov’s regime with great fervor.
Not just due to his local roots and long-standing appreciation for Brooklyn basketball, but because of his belief in forming a great working relationship with Marks, whom he first met in San Antonio five years ago when he visited the club’s facilities as a Hawks assistant.
“I really felt that Sean was someone I could form a partnership with, someone I could collaborate with and someone I could trust,” Atkinson said.
“That really excited me and made me aggressive in pursuing this job,” he added. “This is a guy I’d love to work with on a daily basis with, be in the trenches with, so I’m excited to go forward with Sean and build a strong Brooklyn Nets team, a sustainable club that’s going to be patient, but looking to improve over the long term.”
The short term isn’t looking very positive for the Nets, who will have to lean heavily on Marks’ ability to wheel and deal to get them back in the draft or pick up a critical free agent or two during the summer.
Over the long term, Atkinson is noted as one of the league’s top player-development coaches, someone who can find room for improvement in some of the younger Nets players, who were in attendance Tuesday to greet their new on-the-court boss.
“Here, it’ll be putting players around Kenny that he can mold, he can develop, but also want to play his style of basketball, the one he’s used to, which is unselfish basketball,” Marks said.
“Build patiently and intelligently,” Atkinson added. “The challenge will be to keep focused, and our measurements have to be improvement.”
The ultimate challenge for Atkinson and Marks will likely be to convince Prokhorov that losing in the short term can result in long-term winning at some point over the next few years.
No Brooklyn coach has lasted more than 119 games at the helm under Prokhorov’s ownership here, that’s less than a season-and-a-half in the NBA, if you’re counting along.
Atkinson and Marks hope to become Brooklyn’s first true head coach and general manager duo, a tandem that both the franchise and community can embrace for years to come.
“This isn’t San Antonio. This isn’t Atlanta,” Marks noted. “This is Brooklyn and we’re going to make it our own.”
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