By Howard Beck
At the peak of Linsanity—that joyful burst of basketball magic that transfixed the world in 2012—Jeremy 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.
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 guard—a 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 Atkinson—a bond that has endured across four years, multiple team changes and multiple time zones.
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.'"
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."