NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks were on the road at some point during the 2011-12 season and, as Kenny Atkinson remembers it, a fringe NBA player named Jeremy Lin was getting torched during a 3-on-3 practice game ... by another assistant coach.
“And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Is this kid any good?’” Atkinson said he wondered then.
This, of course, was before “Linsanity,” before the undrafted point guard out of Harvard captivated the world with a stretch of stunningly dominant play later that same season.
The Knicks had claimed Lin off waivers in late December 2011; Atkinson was New York’s player-development assistant at the time, assigned to work with the team’s end-of-the-bench guys.
“He was kind of an afterthought,” Atkinson said of Lin. “He was part of the group that didn’t play, and I was working with that group on a daily basis.”
Because they weren’t getting any in-game minutes, Atkinson pushed Lin and his other teammates who were out of the rotation hard during practices, putting them through rigorous drills, 1-on-1s and 3-on-3s that often included Atkinson himself.
Atkinson and Lin bonded in the gym, arriving early and leaving late.
“I mean, this guy wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning,” Lin said of Atkinson, according to the New York Post. “I’ll text after a game at midnight, 1 o’clock when I go home, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, can I look at those turnovers? Can I look at the upcoming team? How they run pick-and-rolls?’ And he’ll have the film ready when I walk into the facility the next morning.”
Said Atkinson: “I think it was just the trust that I was going to be that guy that was going to be with him every day -- even if he was probably going to get cut and go back to the D-League and might be out of the league.
“But one thing about him was he just kept at it.”
Atkinson gives Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni credit for always believing in Lin and having an affinity for him as a player, “but I think people would be lying to you if they said this was a guy that was about to explode.”
No one saw this explosion coming, not even the Knicks themselves. They were on the verge of releasing Lin before he busted out in a big way, taking over New York City and becoming the toast of the town in the process.
“When he hit the [winning 3-point] shot in Toronto, it gave me chills,” Atkinson said. “It was like when you see a great Broadway show or a great symphony. Those are moments where you get emotional. It wasn’t just, ‘Wow, we won!’ To see that kid and what he went through and see that this was actually possible, it wasn’t just a happy moment. It was an emotional moment.”
After the season, however, Atkinson and Lin both left New York. Atkinson became an assistant in Atlanta, while Lin signed with Houston before moving on to the Los Angeles Lakers and, later, the Charlotte Hornets.
They kept in touch, but obviously weren’t as close as they had been. And being competitors changed their old player-coach relationship. For example, Lin asked Atkinson on multiple occasions to break down his game and see how he could improve, but Atkinson had to apologetically decline.
“It was hard because I saw things in his game -- his turnovers, being a more efficient player, and stuff I saw defensively,” Atkinson said. “One game I saw him overtraining before pregame. In my mind I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ But we played them that night, and I thought it could help us.
“And that was tough because I love the guy, but he became the competition, and I felt like for the team I was with, that’s how I had to approach it.”
Atkinson and Lin are far past Linsanity now, reunited with the Brooklyn Nets, this time as first-year head coach and unequivocal No. 1 point guard/team leader. Atkinson was at the forefront of Brooklyn’s recruiting pitch to land its top free-agent target, and Lin ultimately signed a three-year, $36 million contract to join the Nets.
“I think he’s an improved player,” Atkinson said of Lin. “I think all the experiences he had to go through with Houston and L.A. -- all the struggles -- were important for his development. And then to be with Cliff [Hornets head coach Steve Clifford], where he did a really good job and stepped up his game defensively and turned the ball over less -- I thought Charlotte was great for him and helped convince me even more that he was ready to assume a larger role. His performance in the playoffs was pretty good, and you could tell when it counted Cliff was counting on him, and that was important to me. In a vacuum, Linsanity wasn’t enough to say we wanted to bring him here.”
Atkinson envisions Lin playing alongside Greivis Vasquez and Randy Foye and being able to potentially replicate the success he had playing alongside Hornets guard Kemba Walker. Atkinson also envisions Lin, who thrives in pick-and-roll situations, playing off the ball more than he did in D’Antoni’s offense.
“Mike D’s offense is more point-guard-centric,” Atkinson said. “It’s the Steve Nash model. But this will be a little bit more Atlanta-San Antonio style, a little bit more touches from other guys.”
The Nets are in rebuilding mode, but they’re hoping Lin, who has had an up-and-down career, can regain the dominance he showed during Linsanity, with his former assistant coach in New York -- the one he still loves making fun of and joking around with -- by his side.
“I’ve been saying it was just a matter of time for him because I know how good he is, I know how much he was there for me in New York,” Lin told the New York Times upon Atkinson’s hiring in Brooklyn. “When you’re around him, you kind of understand there’s something different about him -- his energy, his passion, the juice he approaches his work with. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”