Ex-Nets Head Coach Sounds off on Losing Job, Bouncing Back

Kenny Atkinson, Warriors assistant coach

Getty Kenny Atkinson, Warriors assistant coach

On March 7, 2020, Kenny Atkinson was knocked to the canvas. He was fired by the Nets from the only head coaching position he’s ever held.

Just days before the NBA would shut down and the world would plunge into COVID-19 darkness, he was taking a career eight-count.

“It happens and you just don’t know,” Atkinson said. “You don’t know what to expect.”

But two years and three months later to the day, his hoop horizon was looking a whole lot different as he stood in a back hallway at TD Garden Tuesday.

Kenny Atkinson was a finalist for the Lakers’ job that went to Darvin Ham and he is currently on the extremely short list for the top coaching position with Charlotte. There have been talks with the Hornets and there will be more, with league sources telling Heavy.com that he has been gaining on Mike D’Antoni in the race for the gig.

And — oh, yeah — the reason Atkinson was in Boston on this beautiful late spring day is that he’s lead assistant to Steve Kerr on the Warriors, who have a rather significant game here against the Celtics Wednesday evening.

Clippers, Warriors Gave Atkinson Another Chance

After a year on Ty Lue’s staff with the Clippers and this season with Golden State, the strangeness of his last year in Brooklyn (Kevin Durant rehabbing all year, Kyrie Irving playing 20 of 62 games) has been cleansed from his basketball being. The press release at the end said something about a mutual agreement, but clearly it wasn’t the most comfortable way to exit.

Now he’s back among the Tier 1 people when jobs open.

“I think it’s a little bit of product of being in good situations with the Clippers and here,” Atkinson said Tuesday.

His current situation is so good, in fact, that he has to think twice or even thrice when opportunities are presented. There is a value to being in the championship chat and going to work with people you want to be around.

“One hundred percent,” Atkinson said before the Warriors took the floor for practice. “I know exactly what you’re saying. It’s a great experience being considered (for head coaching jobs), but, man, I’m in such a great place — not only from basketball, but from a living in California, the Bay Area, the whole thing. Kids love the school, wife loves it.

“So it almost takes the pressure off when you’re really in a good situation. I mean, I’m still competitive, and I try to do my best in interviewing and everything, but also in the back of my mind I’m saying, like, man, if I don’t get another shot, I’m in a great, great situation.”

Friendship With Kerr Developed Over Time

The situation with Kerr developed years ago. A relationship developed over a few questions.

“So me and Steve have had this connection for a long time,” said Atkinson. “When I was in Brooklyn, we would like bounce stuff off each other. It started off with me, asking him, ‘How do you guys pass the ball so well? I want the Nets to pass it like you.’ And their off-ball screening. They were one of the first and best at, in transition, screening off the ball. I asked him that, so I think I kicked it off, and then after that he would call me, and, ‘What do you do in the zone?’ Like that.

“We just we just began this back and forth text and sometimes calls, which is weird, right? We’re both head coaches and competing, but he’s the most curious guy I’ve ever met and most curious coach I’ve ever met. It’s insane how curious he is.”

Atkinson was curious, too, but in a different way back in March of ’20. Uncertainty may be a mild way to describe the departure from four years on the job.

“You dust yourself off and you’re like, man, what’s next?” Atkinson said. “And then you’re like, well, geez, I still want it, and there’s still people that I know in this business that think you can add value. So it doesn’t last that long. And I think that’s part of getting back into it right away. That’s kind of the theme, like, let’s jump back into this.

“I think what I looked at was like, what’s the next opportunity? Then the Clippers came calling, and that turned out to be great. Learn from Ty and then and then Golden State. You know, Steve came calling, and it’s like, man, I’ve had two kind of great opportunities and where it goes from now, who knows? But back then I had to figure out what was next. You have a choice; you could sit out. Some people sit out and they wait. It’s like you don’t have a lot of choice though. There are only 30 coaching jobs. You just have to be in the mix.”

Atkinson continued:

I’m always afraid of like being one step out of the league, and that was part of the reason of going back in it real fast. I don’t want to list the coaches, but there’s plenty of coaches where all of a sudden you’re in it and then you’re not. There’s just so few jobs, so I look at it like appropriate fear. I’m always like nervous. There’s been head coaches in the league where you sit out and before you know, you’re out. You just kind of lose momentum and you lose your connection. So that’s the fear. So I’m just thrilled to be in the mix. You know, just be in the mix.

I’m not one to sit around, so I was like, let’s go somewhere and learn. The Clippers and Ty were great for that, and now with the Warriors, too. The only problem, especially here, I feel like I’m stealing. I keep telling everybody, like, this thing is rolling. I’m just kind of here and it’s great. Sure I’m doing my job all that, but that’s the real opportunity — the opportunity to work for a great program, a great coach, great staff. I mean, I’m just pinching myself. I’ve been lucky with the choices and lucky that great opportunities have presented themselves. I could have definitely made a wrong one, but this has turned out pretty cool.

And more opportunities await — perhaps one of them very soon.


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