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Anthony Atkinson has seen some dreams come true in his career as a basketball player — from leading Greenfield School to two state championships to taking Barton College to a miraculous NCAA Division II national championship to being one of the stars of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters for more than a decade — but now the Wilson native is living the dream.
Atkinson made official his retirement as a Globetrotter on Friday morning when he notified them that he wasn’t going to renew his contract that expired earlier this month. He won’t have to look for another line of work, however, as Atkinson is the varsity boys basketball head coach at Wilson Preparatory Academy, where he has been teaching career management and personal finance since classes began in August.
“I’ve been working here for a while now and I just love it,” he said Friday afternoon. “I wake up every morning just with a different type of purpose: To come here and really make a difference in these young kids’ lives. The best thing I can honestly say about is that I left the game that I was playing for so long, but now everything that I learned from the game, I’m about to instill in the younger generation so they can go on and have a career like mine. That’s what makes it so special. I transitioned from player to coach and teacher and I think that’s what it’s all about. I always wanted to come back home and coach and teach somewhere and to be able to come here and teach and coach and have an impact on these young kids, God has really blessed me with this opportunity.”
It meant doing something that was “uncomfortable” by leaving the relative comfort of a well-paying job that he’d had for 12 years. While the 33-year-old Atkinson admitted it was a tough decision to leave the Globetrotters, he knew it was time. Not only did he miss seeing his wife, Laura, and their sons, 8-year-old Trey and Hayden, who just turned 5, but Atkinson realized that he could make more of an impact working with youngsters here in Wilson than by traveling the globe and entertaining fans for more than 120 games a year.
“That’s the honest-to-God truth,” he said. “I wake up every morning to my wife and kids. I go to sleep every night with my wife and kids. I come here and see these kids’ faces, see the staff’s faces and I have such joy. I don’t have to worry about leaving on Christmas day anymore and my kids won’t have to worry about me being gone for months at a time. I have such a purpose and such drive — I had it with the Globetrotters but it was different. To come back and be living out my dream, to be honest, because these kids here need anything and everything that you can give them that I have experienced in this world and others have experienced as well. Honestly, I’m at a loss for words. I haven’t been this happy in years!”
And Wilson Prep is more than happy to have him.
“What’s another word for excited? Whatever those words are, that’s what we are!” said Wilson Prep founder and executive director Daryl Woodard. “We are extremely excited to have Coach Anthony Atkinson to be part of what we’re trying to build here. It’s a wonderful thing when two people can see the same thing at the same time. He sees not only where our basketball program is going but also where our athletic program here at Wilson Prep is going to be. … We are trying to do some things, not just in the short term but in the long term, and do some things here in Wilson that’s really never been done before and we’re really excited about it.”
Atkinson said that Wilson Prep was a natural place for him to be because he shares the vision set forth by Woodard.
“I see what he’s trying to do for these kids and parents and this community,” he said. “I’m just happy. Honest to God, I’m just so happy to be here at this place.”
That’s not to say that Atkinson won’t miss being part of the Globetrotters, with whom he signed shortly after leading Barton to the national title as a senior in 2007. In fact, Atkinson was the No. 1 pick in the first ever “draft” held by the Globetrotters.
“The biggest thing will be the camaraderie with my teammates — the late-night talks, the bus rides, the plane rides, going into the locker room and then going out there and performing, not only for the fans but for each other,” he said. “Things like that you’ll miss. Those are the good times. I always said that I’m a competitor and that was the one thing that was lacking with the Globetrotters.”
While the Globetrotters are primarily entertainment, Atkinson found ways to satisfy his competitive nature. In February, he set the record for most consecutive 4-point shots by swishing 18 straight 30-footers from the designated circle on the floor in a performance in San Diego. He also tied a team record by scoring 93 points in the outing.
Along the way, “Ant,” as he was known as a Globetrotter, became one of their most recognizable and popular players as he visited 90 countries and 49 states (all but Alaska) during his dozen years wearing the iconic uniform.
“Like I said, it was a great ride for 12 years and something that I could only imagine and I thank them to the utmost for taking a little boy from Wilson and putting him on some of the biggest stages in the world,” he said. “They made me a household name, so to speak.”
However, it took an adjustment period. Atkinson said that he was so quiet during his first training camp with the Globetrotters that several of his teammates wondered if he even wanted to be there. But instead Atkinson was just soaking up everything he could, particularly from some of the older, more established members of the team.
“I watched how they carried themselves on the floor, how they did in practice and I saw how they really perfected their craft and as they got older, I saw an opportunity for me to say it’s my turn now,” he said.
And he became a college graduate during his tenure with the Globetrotters, finishing his bachelor’s degree at Barton during last season.
Atkinson was already a legend in Wilson before he became a star with the Globetrotters. He was the centerpiece of Greenfield’s first two North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association 1-A championship teams and will be part of the school’s inaugural athletic hall-of-fame class that will be inducted next Saturday, Sept. 28.
After playing one season and part of another at Campbell University of the NCAA Division I ranks, Atkinson returned home to Wilson to play his final two years at Barton, where he became an instant star.
However, nobody, not even Atkinson, could have foreseen how his Bulldogs career would end.
After taking them to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in 2006, Atkinson led Barton back to Springfield, Massachusetts, to the Elite Eight again in 2007. His buzzer-beater 3-pointer carried the Bulldogs to victory in the quarterfinals before his late free throws sealed a semifinals victory, setting up championship showdown against Winona State, the team that had knocked off Barton in overtime in the quarterfinals the previous year.
The Bulldogs trailed by seven points with 45 seconds left before Atkinson put on one of the greatest closing performances in college basketball history by scoring 10 points, including the championship-winning layup as the buzzer sounded.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Everything Atkinson has accomplished as a player has been a prelude to the coaching career he’s always wanted. That trait comes directly from his father, Anthony Atkinson Sr., who will be an assistant coach on his son’s staff at Wilson Prep.
“I’ve never seen anybody coach or teach defense like he does and I’d be a fool not to put my dad on my staff,” Atkinson said. “And just the character that he represents and having him as my right-hand man and my go-to, it means a lot. He sees how happy I am to be home and he knows what I’m trying to do with this program and we’re trying to take it to another level and I feel like we can do that. We’ve had a couple of workouts here and there and the kids are really buying into everything.”
So, what kind of coach will Anthony Atkinson Jr. be?
“We preach discipline and a lot of kids lack discipline nowadays in basketball and life — period,” he said. “So we’re teaching discipline and defense. We’re looking to score 20 to 30 to 40 points (a game) off our defense. We understand there’ll be nights when we’ll be off shooting but our defense will make up for that. And I also understand that defense wins championships. I get the credit for scoring the points to help Barton win the national championship but if you don’t have the steals from (Barton teammates) Errol Frails and Bobby Buffaloe (in the championship game), you’re not talking about Ant right now!”
Atkinson professed to be a disciple of University of Texas head coach Shaka Smart, starting when Smart was at Virginia Commonwealth, which he led to the Final Four in 2011.
“I study everything he does, especially when he was back at VCU, and he had this thing that they called, ‘Havoc.’ They wreak havoc for 40 minutes,” Atkinson said. “We have what we call, ‘Chaos.’ We’ll have 32 minutes of ‘Chaos.’ All I can tell our opponents is you’d better keep your hands on the ball because we’re coming at you 94 feet the entire game.”
Atkinson is already familiar with many of his WPA players who were on his AAU team, the Anthony Atkinson All-Stars. However, the Tigers lost several key players from the past two seasons in which they won 30 games while playing in the Carolina Athletic Association for Schools of Choice. Wilson Prep joined the NCHSAA over the summer and is playing in the 1-A Tar Roanoke Conference now but Atkinson said the goal is the same: Win the state championship.
“Who says we can’t do it in our first year?” he asked. “First conference, then conference tournament, then state championship. This is where we want to be in March.”
Atkinson vowed that he won’t allow his players to become complacent or forgetful about the championship goal. During one of the first offseason workouts after the dead period ended, he sensed that his players were just going through the motions and he told them they were preparing like they wanted their season to end in February.
“They were looking at me like, ‘Huh?’” he said. “I said, ‘When do y’all’s season normally end?’ and they said, ‘February.’
“I said, ‘To go to Chapel Hill to the Dean Dome or N.C. State in Reynolds (Coliseum, where the NCHSAA championship games are played), we play until March.’”
“Winners win and losers lose,” he continued. “Some things are just unacceptable. The one thing I tell them is effort and hustle and defense will get you on the floor.”
Just as he did with the ball in his hands on the basketball floor, Atkinson seems every bit the natural now that he has moved to the sidelines. It’s a job for which he’s been preparing for a long time.
“A lot of people might look at my decision and think, ‘Oh, man, he’s stupid leaving all that money on the table and all the fame and all the fortune,’” he said. “But I’ll tell anybody, I had a great run for 12 years. I’ve played in front of millions of fans, impacted millions of lives, played the game of basketball traveling for the world for free. All these things and great places that you can only dream of going. Played in all these famous arenas. Met the pope. Met the president — Obama. Met all these celebrities. And yet, to come back here and to have what we call a simple life, to teach and coach — I’m overjoyed.”