Linsanity a Memory, Nets Offering Second Act for Jeremy Lin and Kenny Atkinson

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterOctober 27, 2016

BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 6:  Jeremy Lin #7 of the Brooklyn Nets brings the ball up court against the Detroit Pistons on October 6, 2016 at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

At the peak of Linsanity—that joyful burst of basketball magic that transfixed the world in 2012Jeremy Lin handed Kenny Atkinson a ragged slip of paper.

Atkinson was a young assistant with the New York Knicks.

Lin was his protege.

The slip of paper was their bond.

On it, Lin had sketched out four half courts, and on those half courts, four plays.

"Hey, can you keep this?" Lin said. "I think it will work against this team."

It was minutes before tipoff. Atkinson was taken aback, a little bemused and a little amused.

The fourth-string point guard is calling his own plays?

"I was blown away," Atkinson says today.

They had known each other for two months, become confidants, become friends. Two striving prospects trying to gain a foothold in the NBA.

Knicks fans celebrate Jeremy Lin in 2012.
Knicks fans celebrate Jeremy Lin in 2012.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Lin was an overnight star, balancing exhilaration and anxiety and the hopes of several million new fans. He was nervous. So he grabbed a pencil and began scribbling plays on a swatch of torn paper—a wallet-sized security blanket.

Angle Power. 21 Hammer. 31 Short.

Then Lin handed it to the person he trusted the most: the guy who broke down film with him every morning, long before anyone else arrived; the guy who drenched himself in sweat through endless pick-and-roll tutorials; the guy who enthusiastically invested all those hours in an undrafted, twice-waived player the world barely knew.

Atkinson pocketed the playlist, and Linsanity pick-and-rolled on, one Angle Power at a time.

On his best nights, as the press conferences filled to capacity and the klieg lights shined, Lin would dutifully credit his teammates and coach Mike D'Antoni and give thanks to two others: God and Kenny Atkinson, who until then was as anonymous as Lin.

This week, Atkinson made his debut as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, with Lin as his starting point guarda bit of happy symmetry for two basketball vagabonds who got here the hard way and almost certainly wouldn't be here without each other.

Brought together by basketball, reunited by friendship, Lin and Atkinson now face their greatest challenge: making the Nets respectable.

The franchise is starting over under new general manager Sean Marks, who was plucked from the San Antonio Spurs front office. After years of star-chasing and wild spending, Brooklyn is going organic, rebuilding around raw prospects and a few sturdy vets. It will almost certainly finish with one of the worst records in the NBA this season.

Brook Lopez, the last remnant of the Nets' ill-fated All-Star era, is still here, lumbering through the paint. Randy Foye and Luis Scola came aboard during the offseason to lend their wisdom. And with no first-round picks of their own until 2019, the future rests in the growth of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and Caris LeVert.

The present rests with Lin and Atkinsona bond that has endured across four years, multiple team changes and multiple time zones.

New Nets coach Kenny Atkinson made acquiring Lin one of his priorities soon after being hired by Brooklyn.
New Nets coach Kenny Atkinson made acquiring Lin one of his priorities soon after being hired by Brooklyn.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In their time apart since being with the Knicks, Atkinson grew into one of the NBA's best coaching prospects, and Lin, despite some bumps, proved his worth beyond the hype.

Their Brooklyn reunion was far from guaranteed. But when Atkinson finally landed his first head coaching job, he knew he wanted Lin with him. And when Lin got the call, he knew it would be hard to say no.

So here they are, together again, on the other side of the East River, trying to recapture a little of the old magic.

"He knows I came here to take on this challenge with him," Lin told B/R. "And deep down inside, I know that when he got this job, the first thing he wanted to do was come and get me. We're in this together. And we're deeply embedded in this challenge."

Friendship can't win an NBA game. But trust and loyalty can go a long way. So the Nets will start there.

They will start with the one pillar they know is unbreakable.

As the junior member of D'Antoni's staff, Atkinson was charged with working out the fringe players and young hopefuls, the end of the bench. His regular crew included Steve Novak, Renaldo Balkman, Landry Fields and Jerome Jordan.

Lin arrived on Dec. 27, 2011, via the waiver wire and was penciled into the depth chart behind Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert and Mike Bibby. With no hope of a rotation spot, he was assigned to Atkinson.

"We were both nobodies," Atkinson says now with a chuckle.

Atkinson knew nothing of Lin. But two things struck him immediately: Lin's athleticism (better than expected) and his drive (off the charts).

"Super competitive," Atkinson said.

Lin noticed something in Atkinson immediately, too.

"Passion," he said. "You can't fake passion. … When we see someone who's extremely passionate about what they do, we as players who love the game are drawn towards that."

They met every morning at the Knicks' suburban training center, Atkinson driving in from Pleasantville, New York, Lin from his brother's couch on the Lower East Side.

Most mornings, Lin would be the first player to arrive, around 9 a.m. Most mornings, Atkinson would have already been there for three hours.

"I was like, 'What did you do all morning?'" Lin recalled, laughing. "He was like, 'Oh, I watched the game twice, I watched this other game, and I did some film, and I wrote down your workout for today.'"

Lin focused on the subtleties of playing point guard when he joined the Knicks late in December 2011.
Lin focused on the subtleties of playing point guard when he joined the Knicks late in December 2011.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

They started with film. Some Knicks clips to teach Lin the offense. Some old Steve Nash highlights to see the full potential of D'Antoni's system. Some clips from the Euroleague to give Lin a feel for different styles.

Once, they spent an entire session watching Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro, "because he has so many unorthodox finishes—off-foot finishes, floaters, one foot, two foot," Lin recalled. "He has so much in his in-between game, his floater game."

On the practice court, Atkinson used pads to bump Lin and sticks to simulate the rim protection of a 7-footer.

Lin arrived with the athleticism and agility to make it as an NBA point guard. His jump shot was a little mechanical, but workable. What he lacked, Atkinson noted, were the subtleties: patience, how to change speeds, freeze the big man, draw in defenders, probe for openings.

"He was kind of wild going to the rim," Atkinson said. "There wasn't a plan."

Atkinson cited the evolution of Nash, who said he learned to become a great player when he started finding solutions in the paint.

In the dreary days of late December and January, when Lin was the Knicks' 15th man, these were the lessons they discussed.

What Atkinson found in Lin was a pupil both eager and headstrong, open-minded and inquisitive.

"There are guys that accept development," Atkinson said, "and there are guys that own their development. And he, like, owned it. So it wouldn't be just, 'Lets do the drill.' There might be a question behind it: 'What if he does this?' Or, 'If he does this, do I do this?'"

Where another player might just follow directions blindly, Lin would question everything, then add his own take.

"He'd say it politely, but he would see things almost two levels deep," Atkinson said. "In film, it was the same way. He would accept the coaching, but then he was curious about other things that happened in that particular play. And then he would see things that I wouldn't see."

And sometimes Atkinson would see things that Lin refused to see—a moment when he should have attacked but took the easy jumper.

"Stubborn as hell," Atkinson said of Lin, who laughs heartily when the quote is relayed to him.

"That's awesome," Lin, still laughing, said without dismissing the assertion. "There's times where he's just like, 'Aw, you're not going to listen to me.' And I'll just start dying laughing."

Before joining D'Antoni's staff in 2008, Atkinson coached in Houston, Paris and the Republic of Georgia. His playing career took him to Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.

Atkinson tried to teach Lin to absorb the style of play Steve Nash used when Mike D'Antoni coached Nash with the Suns.
Atkinson tried to teach Lin to absorb the style of play Steve Nash used when Mike D'Antoni coached Nash with the Suns.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

So it made sense that the globetrotting former point guard connected so easily with the wayward young kid from Harvard, who had already bounced between Golden State, Reno and Houston before landing in New York.

The lessons clearly took hold. Pressed into service on Feb. 4, Lin broke out for 25 points and seven assists against the then-New Jersey Nets. Then came a 28-point, eight-assist explosion against Utah, followed by a 23-point, 10-assist night against Washington. A game-winning buzzer-beater in Toronto. The 38-point explosion to defeat Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. The 28-point, 14-assist masterpiece against the Mavericks

Linsanity was born, and Atkinson was getting nightly shout-outs on national TV.

Soon, reporters and insta-book authors were making requests for Atkinson, but he declined them all, preferring to leave the spotlight to Lin.

They kept up their morning routine. Except now, the film session focused on Lin's play. "No good stuff," Lin would tell Atkinson. "I want to see all my turnovers and all my missed shots."

Fans gushed over Lin's scoring prowessthe clever drives in traffic, the tough shots in the lane, the pull-up three-pointer over Dirk Nowitzki. Atkinson was more pleased with the playmaking. Over his first 13 games as an everyday player, Lin averaged nine assists to go with his 22 points per game.

"The passing was underappreciated," Atkinson said.

The magic, of course, eventually dissipated amid a power struggle, a coaching change and a knee injury.

D'Antoni lost a battle of wills with Carmelo Anthony and was replaced by Mike Woodson, who promptly handed the reins to Anthony. Lin had lost his most important backer. Then he tore the meniscus in his left knee, forcing him to undergo surgery.

By the late spring, the futures of both Lin and Atkinson had become hazy. Yet there was Atkinson, camped out at an extended-stay hotel in Palo Alto, California, his wife and kids in tow, so he could work out Lin in the offseason.

Looking back, Lin is still moved by every gesture.

"I was literally the 15th guy," Lin said. "Everyone knew I was going to get cut. I knew I was going to get cut. And [Atkinson] was still pouring everything into me like I was his star player. And so to me, that's when I saw, hey, this guy's a man of character. And I'll never have to question that about him. Because I saw how he treated me before everything happened."

The breakup was swift and unceremonious.

The Knicks, despite pledging to keep Lin at any cost, let him leave after the season for Houston and a three-year, $25 million contract. Atkinson landed with the Atlanta Hawks after Woodson declined to retain him.

After his stint with the Knicks, Lin signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Rockets, a team that had cut him earlier in his career.
After his stint with the Knicks, Lin signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Rockets, a team that had cut him earlier in his career.Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Lin-Atkinson partnership, which fueled one of the most riveting chapters in modern NBA history, was over. The friendship was not. They traded texts, met for dinner when their teams played, exchanged pregame hugs. But things were different.

Lin's next three years, in Houston and then Los Angeles, were filled with frustration—and coaches who either diminished him (Kevin McHale) or ignored him (Byron Scott). His progress stalled out, too, and he found himself pinging Atkinson for feedback.

But there are unwritten rules that guide these professional relationships, and Atkinson felt it would be a breach to coach another team's player. As much as it pained Atkinson, he told Lin he couldn't help.

"It really kind of broke," Atkinson said. "I felt weird about that, but I do feel like that was the right thing. Really tough."

It was awkward, and Lin sensed it. "Tough position. But I understood it."

Still, sometimes Lin would wake up the morning after a good game and find texts from Atkinson praising his pace or his passing.

"I was just like, 'Dude, we're three years removed from New York. Why are you still, like, watching my games, you know?'" Lin said, chuckling. "I knew he always still cared about me. I just knew, like, we weren't going to be able to have the same dialogue we used to."

But the texts continuedAtkinson congratulating Lin on his moves to L.A. and Charlotte, and Lin checking in when the Hawks made a big playoff run.

What Lin really wanted was a reunion with D'Antoni, but the timing never worked out. The Lakers acquired Lin two months after D'Antoni resigned as head coach.

Lin arrived in L.A. mere months after the dismissal of D'Antoni, with whom Lin had hoped to reunite.
Lin arrived in L.A. mere months after the dismissal of D'Antoni, with whom Lin had hoped to reunite.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Atkinson kept rising in Atlanta, drawing notice for his work developing young playersa list that would eventually include Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore.

The Philadelphia 76ers considered Atkinson for their head coach vacancy in 2013and called Lin for a recommendation.

"I talked to Philadelphia for, like, 45 minutes," Lin said. "And I told the 76ers all these reasons why they needed to hire Kenny."

The Sixers chose Brett Brown. The Hawks also changed coaches that summer, hiring Mike Budenholzerbut GM Danny Ferry made sure to retain Atkinson.

"One of the greatest gifts that was ever given to me," Budenholzer told B/R. "Kenny is so freakin' good."

Everything else in this reunion story can be chalked up to fate and the San Antonio Spurs. Ferry and Budenholzer both sprung from the Spurs' family tree, as did new Nets GM Sean Marks. Marks hired Atkinson in mid-April, just as Lin was preparing for a playoff run in Charlotte.

A reunion was the furthest thing from his mind.

In the Hollywood version of this tale, Atkinson marches into the front office and demands the GM sign Jeremy Lin. "I gotta have this kid," he'd say.

But the Nets had so many needs and so many possible directions to take. They had to at least ask about Mike Conley and Rajon Rondo, the top point guards on the market.

Lin's steady play off the bench generated interest from a handful of teams over the summer before he signed with Brooklyn.
Lin's steady play off the bench generated interest from a handful of teams over the summer before he signed with Brooklyn.Kent Smith/Getty Images

Lin was thriving in Charlotte and was being pursued by more than a dozen teams, including the New Orleans Pelicans, whose staff was filled with D'Antoni disciples. The Pelicans also had a rising star, Anthony Davis.

The Nets had Lopez, a bunch of kids and a whole lot of uncertainty. Besides, Atkinson was just feeling out his new role and was hesitant to start making demands.

"It wasn't automatic," Atkinson said. "That's the truth."

But it didn't take long, either. Conley was never leaving Memphis. Rondo had baggage. By the time free agency opened July 1, Atkinson had made his pitch to Marks.

"There was a certain point in that process," Atkinson said, now slapping the table in his Brooklyn office for effect, "like, 'Sean, we gotta get Jeremy.' We gotta go get him.'"

Others were unsure. Could Lin, a scoring sixth man in Charlotte, be a full-time starting point guard?

"Yes," Atkinson kept telling them. "Yes, I believe in it. Yes, yes, yes, yes."

"In the back of my mind, the whole time I knew," Atkinson said. "I knew he was the right guy."

Were the Nets, coming off a 61-loss season, the right team? Lin wasn't sure. Other teams offered nice roles, a decent contract, the chance to make the playoffs. But only the Nets could offer a partnership. Only the Nets had Atkinson.

"That was the only reason why I considered Brooklyn," Lin said.

If Atkinson had one concern, it was that Lin might expect the same pick-and-roll-heavy system that helped launch Linsanity. Atkinson is using a motion offense patterned after Atlanta's.

But Lin proved a willing student once again. The ball might be in his hands less. The stats might not reach the heights of Linsanity. But he is settling in nicely.

"He understands there's a lot of different ways to play," Atkinson said. "I think that's pretty cool, the maturity of understanding that."

They have been together for just four months, but Lin said he and Atkinson have spoken more in that time than Lin did in his entire two years with McHale or his one season with Scott.

"There's definitely a special bond," Atkinson said. "It's beyond coach-player. It's respect, but friendship really."

Atkinson is trying to explain everything that fueled Linsanity—the work ethic, the studiousness, the confidence—and now he's remembering that little slip of paper. The one with the plays scrawled on it.

In trying to decide what plays best fit him with the Knicks, Lin sketched out four sets he was comfortable running and handed them to Atkinson, a Knicks assistant coach at the time Linsanity struck.
In trying to decide what plays best fit him with the Knicks, Lin sketched out four sets he was comfortable running and handed them to Atkinson, a Knicks assistant coach at the time Linsanity struck.Photo by Howard Beck

Atkinson goes to his desk, starts rifling through drawers, and there it is. One torn shard, ripped from an envelope, with four half-court drawings and Lin's handwriting.

21 Hammer. 31 Short. Double Drag Corner Clear. PNR Back Lifted.

Minutes later, Atkinson is back on the court with Lin, asking permission to share this rare artifact. A warm smile spreads across Lin's face.

"I didn't know he still had it," he tells B/R.

Everything Atkinson ever needed to know about Lin was on that slip, tucked away with the rest of Atkinson's coaching notes and keepsakes.

There are no quick fixes in Brooklyn, not anymore. The Nets need a lot more talent and a lot more time. But they will start with this bond, between the rookie head coach and the headstrong point guard, each with so much yet to provetwo nobodies striving to leave a legacy.

"I can't wait to see how this turns out," Atkinson said. "Because I'm a believer."


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.