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The mantra of players, coaches and fans during Barton College’s amazing run to the NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship in 2007 was “We believe.” Twelve years later, the man behind the Bulldogs’ miracle comeback in the final minute of the championship game hasn’t stopped believing.
Anthony Atkinson, now more famous as “Ant,” one of the major figures on the world renowned Harlem Globetrotters, still believes in the potential of Wilson. And during the Globetrotters’ offseason, he returns to his hometown to try to make it a little better.
Starting Monday, Atkinson is holding his annual Not Good, But Great Basketball Camp for youngsters this week at Wilson Preparatory Academy. He continues to coach youth travel basketball, an endeavor he started with his father, Anthony Atkinson Sr., in addition to speaking engagements and in general serving as a positive role model, Atkinson stays busy during the offseason.
“The ball’s always bouncing!” he said with his trademark, infectious grin. “I always want to be involved in it and, that’s the thing. I really want to come back here and have an impact on my city because I realize some of the kids have potential to be great and do some of the same things — or even better — than what I did. Whether it’s mentoring or training or even if it’s coaching — that’ll be huge. For me to come back and be able to coach some of these kids in the summertime, it’s really given me a passion.”
BUILDING A DREAM
One project in particular that Atkinson has taken to heart is the construction of a training and mentoring facility in Wilson.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “Coming back and having some type of impact because Wilson’s going to be my home forever and I’ll never forget it and I’ll never forget the love that’s been shown here. The love that I have for kids now — and especially now that I have two and I want them to succeed — it makes you want to go harder and do something special for these kids here. I think it will eventually happen.”
Atkinson envisions not only a gym and training facility but also a place where youngsters can be tutored and, even more importantly, have someone to mentor them, which he believes is critical for the future of Wilson.
“Kids have seen so many fall to the wayside, whether it be family members or close friends,” he said. “I think the thing that’s really going to have to change is the mentality of Wilson. I think it’s starting to, somewhat, but we have a long ways to go and we have a long ways to catch up. I think it starts in the homes with the parents and them being there. And then in the schools with the teachers and the principals and the coaches and realizing that it’s not just about a check. You’re there to make an impact on lives. I remember a kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Craft and Mrs. Hall, they used to tell me little things all the time that still stick with me to this day: Do what you’re supposed to do when you’re not being watched.”
Atkinson noted that there are already such places in Wilson as The SPOT, the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, Wilson Recreation Department as well as at community churches, but he thinks there’s room for more.
“I just look at it like, we’re small but we have a lot of kids that’s interested, so why can’t we be like a Charlotte or Raleigh that has five or six or seven different places where kids can go?” he said. “That way you can give them a different outlook or attitude and more people and more kids are being touched.”
Atkinson posted the idea on his Facebook page and within two hours there were more than 100 shares and more than 200 comments.
“I was like, ‘Wow! This is neat. People are really feeling this,’” he said.
To help get it started, Atkinson started a GoFundMe campaign on April 11 that, as of Monday, had raised more than $2,200 from 82 donors towards its $5 million goal.
Atkinson knows that a such facility is going to need to be sustainable and will require more than just community donations, but he’s happy to see such widespread support.
“Just take something positive out of it,” he said. “It’s just a start. That’s a seed that we can plant in the ground and maybe it’ll blossom into something. I prayed about it and my faith is big and strong. My life changed in 45 seconds so who am I to say that God can’t provide this in His own timing?”
But it’s important enough to be done right so Atkinson says that patience is necessary.
“I wasn’t given that vision overnight,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it but, you know, we’re traveling and that kind of hinders some things you want to do. But, like I said before, I’m going to stay positive and I’m going to stay on it. It’s just now, it’s all about the game plan and being smart about it.”
LOVE FOR COACHING
It’s the coaching to which Atkinson, the former floor general for the Bulldogs, is most attracted. He and his father put together an AAU team several years ago that included Brandon Ingram, now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and a Kinston High product.
“I got it from my dad. I inherited from him just a love for the game,” Atkinson said.
He proudly points out that the Anthony Atkinson All-Stars reached the 10th Grade Gold Bracket championship game of the 2019 Boo Williams Memorial Day Classic in Hampton, Virginia.
“All the teams I’ve taken down there have never placed that far, have never played in the gold bracket, so I was very proud of that,” he said.
Coaching is something the 35-year-old Atkinson hopes to continue after his playing days are over.
“I have a knack for it,” he said. “I go home and I watch film. I was watching film all morning! My wife (Laura) was trying to tell me to hush, so I had to put my headphones in!”
With sons Trey, 8, and Hayden, 4, already taking to the sport with which the family name will always be associated, Atkinson foresees a long coaching career for himself.
“It’s something that will always be with me and now my kids are coming up and they’re playing,” he said.
ALWAYS A GLOBETROTTER
While he’s not trying to wrap up his Globetrotters career anytime soon, there’s no getting around that he’s probably closer to the end of his performing career than the beginning.
“I’m starting to realize that now! Every morning I wake up and I’ve some bones cracking somewhere!” he cackled.
Atkinson says he hasn’t regretted a second of being a Globetrotter, even though he likely could have played professionally either in the United States or abroad.
“I think I live my life in that I don’t look back and regret anything but there’s always that ‘what if,’” he said. “What if I had went (pro), would my career had been as successful? Could I say I’ve done the things I’ve done today? I think God has a plan for everybody’s life and I really do truly believe that was His plan for me and I believe that, even that I didn’t go play in the NBA or the G-League or overseas, I played in those same places with the Globetrotters. The same crowds. I was in the Staples Center! Life comes full circle and my whole life has been that way. The only thing, I think, you do miss the competitive nature of it. We have the entertainment value of the Globetrotters. I miss that competitive nature.”
But Globetrotters practices, Atkinson assures, are certainly competitive. He also gets the old juices flowing during his time at home.
“When I come back home and scrimmage against guys at Greenfield and here at Wilson Prep, scrimmaging against my AAU guys, that competitive nature comes back out and you can feel it and you miss that,” he said. “And I think that’s why I’m striving so hard to be a coach, because I miss that and it gives me that competitive edge.”
While Atkinson was the picture of intensity and rarely smiled before, during or even after games in his time at Barton, in which he earned All-America acclaim, his role with the Globetrotters is quite the opposite. His smile is ubiquitous and part of being a Globetrotter, in which he and his teammates are as much performers as they are players. But that, too, can be a grind.
“You might be sick, missing your family, sad. There could be a death in the family and the thing is, the fans don’t even know it,” Atkinson said. “They just think you guys are supposed to perform. That’s the crazy thing. We are human and sometimes we show it. We’re not always happy but that’s the special thing about being a Globetrotter. As one of our old legends Tex Harrison said, ‘Everybody can’t be a Globetrotter.’ You go through so much stuff and not everybody can go out there and perform and switch it on and off.”
One thing Atkinson does seem to be able to switch on is his uncanny shooting ability. Already a deadeye perimeter shooter from his high school and college days, he’s taken it to a completely different level with the Globetrotters. In a game in San Diego this past February, he made 18 consecutive 4-pointers (that’s a Globetrotter invention for a 30-foot shot) in a game, tying his team record with 93 points.
“The crazy thing, and people don’t realize this, is I’ve been shooting that since I was in 10th grade,” he said. “If you really go back to Greenfield, that’s when I started trying it. Because I couldn’t go in the lane because I couldn’t dunk. I wasn’t that athletic. I was pretty good but I couldn’t finish over the big guys so I was like, let me use my speed, let me use my shot. So I would shoot it deep and then when the guys would come out there to come play me, I would blow by ‘em. I would start off every big game shooting a shot from half court. That’s how you set the tone.”
Atkinson is grateful for the opportunities the Globetrotters have given him to touch people’s lives and he wants to continue that long after he stops wearing the trademark red, white and blue uniform.
“I’m a Globetrotter,” he said. “Not many people can say that. Not many! And that’s something that will always stick with me and I’m grateful for and that God put me there and that’s something that I’m not going to take for granted.”