Kenny Atkinson sat on a high stage in front of a large group of reporters and other basketball types. Behind him was a bright silhouette of the New York City skyline -- the highlight of Brooklyn's immaculate brand new practice facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He spoke confidently, yet humbly, having accepted his first job as a head coach after more than 14 years of playing professional basketball and more than 10 years of coaching.
Back in his home state, Atkinson told reporters, "Brooklyn is basketball."
Less than three years later, Brooklyn basketball is defined by the morals and values Atkinson has brought to the Nets. He preaches a team-first, blue-collar mentality that's helped blossom a culture. Egos are checked at the door.
Atkinson and his assistant coaches were reportedly extended this past Tuesday. The details of Atkinson's extension are unknown at this point, but the team has not denied reports.
Atkinson will become the first Nets coach to be extended since Lawrence Frank back in 2007. He's also the longest tenured coach in New York sports.
The Nets fired Avery Johnson in 2012, then fired interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo the following summer. Jason Kidd resigned after a power play for a higher role in the organization. Lionel Hollins was axed in 2015, and interim head coach Tony Brown was fired the next summer.
But they hit gold with Atkinson, who took over a team with an empty cupboard. He was brought in as a development coach, specifically one that would turn "nothing" players into "something" players. He needed to be the guy that players would buy in and believe in a long-term process that would help the individual and the organization as a whole.
"I thought he was funny the first time I met him because he always talked sh-t," Spencer Dinwiddie told SNY. "I mean that in a good way, because the talking was just another way to bring the competitiveness out in me."
Atkinson and his staff gained a reputation for getting involved with the players, a first-hand approach in developing young players. Atkinson was a guard at Richmond University. One of his primary assistants, Chris Fleming, also played at Richmond with him. These are just two of several Brooklyn coaches who played at a high level.
"I think what differentiates Kenny from different people is that he played at a really high level, so he's very understanding of what we're going through," Dinwiddie explained. "For me, for DLo [D'Angelo Russell], for Caris [LeVert], etcetera, he really helped all of us grow. He was a primary ball handler back when he played, he's shared some of those same mentalities on how we play the game and he's open, he's willing to be collaborative as a coach, as a leader, and it really helps all of us out."
"They're like player-coaches," Caris LeVert told SNY. "They're younger, they played the game, they're easier to talk to and they're very competitive. They want to win just as bad as we do, and that's somebody you want to play hard for."
Atkinson's helped players throughout his career, namely guys like Al Horford, Jeremy Lin, Jeff Teague, Carmelo Anthony and several others during his years as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. When he came to Brooklyn, he churned out gems such as Dinwiddie, Russell, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, LeVert, DeMarre Carroll and even Brook Lopez, who is no longer with the Nets.
"For me personally, I've been lucky to have coaches here that are really invested in me, invested in the players, so that should really be attributed to Kenny and how entangled he is with us," Jarrett Allen told SNY. "He focuses on all of us, does one-on-one workouts with all of us and that's unique in my opinion."
Atkinson had to grind to get where he is today. Unsure about his career after Richmond, Atkinson considered other options. He was hesitant to go overseas because he wasn't making much money, but with encouragement from his family, he followed his dreams and played in more than three countries in the span of 14 years, from Italy to Spain to Germany.
Nothing he got was handed to him. He had to work for it.
"His foundation is strong. Kenny's background didn't permit him to skip steps. He wasn't allowed to. He had to build brick by brick to get where he's at, so traditionally when you have to build in that fashion, you know even when you get knocked down a step, you have all that foundation to stand upon," Dinwiddie said. "You're not taking as long or as deep of a fall as some others might because they're only used to being at the top, and so they hit rock bottom when they're not at the top. With Kenny, you punch him, he's gonna take it but he's gonna get right back."
It goes beyond his work ethic and past in professional basketball.
The morals and values thing? It goes with how he was raised, and how it molded him.
His father was a marine. He grew up the second youngest out of eight competitive brothers. Toughness isn't something he just picked up. It's in his DNA. He recalls a story about playing in his dirt paved basketball court in Northport, Long Island, where he scrapped and clawed just to compete with his brother. As he got older, it was clear that Kenny had something special. But nobody in his family was going to just let the youngest of eight take over.
And this is how Atkinson has the Nets playing -- the "little brother" team that fights and claws, night in and night out. He took over and his putrid roster finished 20-62 with two glaring positives coming from his first season: Players were improving, and his guys were playing hard for him.
In year two, his team finished eight games better at 28-54. The Nets had something. Their blue-collar identity, culture was growing, players were developing, and the Nets were sticking in games with minimal talent -- finishing with 50 games in which the Nets were within five points with five minutes or less.
In year three, Atkinson and his team blew way past expectations and are currently the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with three games remaining.
His background molded this Nets team. His character, work ethic, and family mentality became a huge reason why players bought in -- from veterans like Jared Dudley down to teenagers playing in the biggest market in the entire nation.
The 20-year-old Allen recalls a story from his first encounter with Kenny and the Nets. He was 19-years-old during the time he was drafted by the Nets, and he spent his entire life on the other side of the country in Texas. Believe it or not, these players are humans too -- and re-assuring their families is something that goes a long way into trusting somebody and believing they're looking out for your best interest.
General manager Sean Marks and Atkinson prioritized family. They invited Allen's parents to sit down and discuss his role with the team, his future, and things more complex than they may seem, such as a 19-year-old picking up and living in Brooklyn.
"My first impression of Kenny was that he was gonna help me. You see the work we do on the court, but the thing I noticed first was how inviting he was of my family. He came in with a family mentality and that made me feel good right from the start."
These are things you don't teach. They're leadership traits you cannot just simply show somebody how to do. It's embedded in Atkinson and his personality helped him not only land his dream job but keep it and build for years to come.
When Atkinson said, "Brooklyn is basketball" at his introductory press conference, he wasn't wrong. But now that he's gotten time to put his imprint on the team, it's become more apparent that Brooklyn basketball is identified by all the traits that Kenny Atkinson possesses.
And now he's really standing on the high stage.