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Meet Nets’ Kenny Atkinson, who fought like hell for this shot
The news made Gus Alfieri smile when he heard it, because as a teacher you are forever shaped by the successes of your students. It so happened that Alfieri’s classrooms for so many years were basketball courts in Smithtown and South Huntington, where he built a Long Island powerhouse at St. Anthony’s High.
And that one of his star pupils was a kid named Kenny Atkinson.
“He was 10 years old, blond kid, all Irish, cherubic face, 85 pounds soaking wet when I first saw him at my summer camp,” Alfieri said, the cheer still evident in his voice, almost a week after Atkinson was named the Nets’ new coach. “Even then he got your attention, and that’s not easy for a small kid, playing among all those trees.”
In so many ways, as almost 39 years have somehow sped away, that is the image that remains for Alfieri because it says so much about why his old player has this job, and why his hiring has been met with universal praise in an era when just about every coaching hire in every sport is met with skepticism at best and derision at worst.
“This kid, he paid his dues,” Alfieri says. “He worked his butt off.”
Coaching is never an easy path to choose unless you happen to be Jason Kidd or Derek Fisher, million-to-one winners of the skip-the-hungry-years portion of the résumé. But Atkinson’s journey, from the beginning, has been just a little bit harder, just a little more challenging.
He had major-college aspirations when he starred for Alfieri alongside ex-Villanova center Tom Greis at St. Anthony’s in the mid-’80s, but even after putting in a prep year at Maine Central Institute the Big East never called and he wound up at Richmond, then a member of the Colonial Athletic Association.
“He’d love to have been recruited by St. John’s but he wasn’t,” Richmond coach Dick Tarrant said on the night of March 18, 1988, when Atkinson’s 14 points led the Spiders to an upset of defending-champ Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. “He’d love to have played for Looie [Carnesecca], but he didn’t. He’s just a little below what they were looking for. But he’s just right for us.”
Alfieri remembers rushing home from work that day, clicked on the TV in time to see Atkinson lay in the final points of that 72-69 stunner. Afterward, Atkinson would quip, “I thought about dunking it, but thought it wouldn’t be a great idea if I missed it,” and even that says so much about who he was, and is: just confident enough to back up all the work.
“He has seven brothers,” Alfieri says. “He never got much above 6-foot and 165 pounds. As a player, he had to fight for everything. And that’s just been the way it’s had to be his whole career.”
He went to camp with the Spurs when Larry Brown was coaching there, got hurt. He made it to the final cuts with Orlando, pushing no-cut guys like Scott Skiles and Sam Vincent so hard that Magic coach Matt Guokas marveled: “They kept praying he’d get cut so they could breathe again.”
And then, the conveyor belt of basketball, 14 years, so many leagues, so many cities, so many countries. All the while, during summers, he would come back home and work Alfieri’s camps. One time Rollie Massimino came to lecture and said: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world; the harder I work, the luckier I am.”
“That struck Kenny,” Alfieri said. “Because it’s him.”
Now he was the one reaching the 10-year-olds, sitting on the floor with the kids gathered round, glued to him, listening, learning.
“Later, that team won a game and it was like they’d won the national title,” Alfieri said, “and I knew: This kid is not only going to be a coach, he’s going to be a GREAT coach.”
So yes: The smile has stayed with Alfieri all week, will stay there a while longer, the joy reflecting the timeless bond between coaches and players, between teachers and students. He has thought a lot this week about Joe Lapchick, who coached Alfieri at St. John’s from 1956-59.
“If you want to be a teacher,” Lapchick told him almost 60 years ago, “you have to earn the respect of your students. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it.”
“In the NBA now, all these young kids, you have to be a teacher first. The players know where he’s been. They know what he’s done. Sometimes things work out exactly the way they should.”
Source: New York Post