Playing against Globetrotters is a dream come true for Atkinson Dan Hinxman (DHINXMAN@RGJ.COM) RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL
January 17, 2006
Galena High grad proud to be a National
It was autograph day at the local mall for a handful of Harlem Globetrotters and their anti-nemeses, the New York Nationals, and newly minted National Mike Atkinson was taking it all in.
The former all-league basketball player at Galena High did more watching and smiling than signing as wide-eyed children hounded Globetrotters for an ounce of attention. One girl, about 9 or 10, Atkinson guessed, asked Globetrotter Levi Jones for an autograph, and as Jones was signing, the girl’s mother asked Atkinson if he, too, was a member of the world- famous basketball team.Atkinson is now a member of the New York Nationals. “No,” the 23-year-old Atkinson told the mother. “I’m a National.” Galena High graduate , The little girl looked up at him on that hot day. “You can keep yours.” Such is the life of the Globetrotters’ regular whipping boys — unmatched losers on the court, and, in most situations, nameless and faceless black hats off it. But Atkinson, whose Nationals face the Globetrotters at Lawlor Events Center at 7 p.m. tonight, doesn’t mind.
Galena High graduate Mike Atkinson defends an in-bounds pass during
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” Atkinson said via cell phone last week as the Nationals’ bus ambled down the highway to the team hotel in Texarkana, Ark., following another loss to the Globetrotters. “It’s fun to be a part of it. It’s a show game,” he added. “We do get a lot of applause, and we sign autographs as well — just not as much.” And if anyone knows the joy of receiving an autograph from a Globetrotter, it’s Atkinson. Destiny’s child
It’s not that Atkinson didn’t have a choice, but athletics was as sure to be a part of his life as acting was to a young Drew Barrymore.
His mother, Donna, was a health and physical education teacher, and she introduced him to sports at an early age.
“He loved sports,” Donna Hamilton said. “His first word was ‘ball,’ not ‘mama’ or anything like that. It was ‘ball.'”
When Atkinson, an only child who now has step-siblings, was 5, his mother took him to a Globetrotters game at Lawlor.
“It’s really a phenomenal story,” Hamilton said. “I bought him a Harlem Globetrotters ball, and as we were walking out of the gym, he says, ‘Mommy, some day I’m going to be a Harlem Globetrotter.’ “I didn’t want to discourage him, this blue-eyed, blond boy, so I just said, ‘That’s wonderful.’
“Now I’m a motivational speaker, and I’ve used that story many times in my classes to illustrate how kids can be color-blind, how they don’t see the differences in people. There’s a wonderful message in the story. “Here it is, 18 years later, he actually is working in the Harlem Globetrotters organization. It’s a magical story.” Eighteen years later, it’s still a magical memory. “My first memory of basketball is when I was 5, watching the Harlem Globetrotters at Lawlor,” Atkinson said. “I remember dribbling my Harlem Globetrotter ball and telling my mom I wanted to be a Globetrotter. It’s probably my favorite memory of when I was a kid.”
Whether it was that dream of becoming a Globetrotter or just an innate love for the game and a drive to succeed, Atkinson stuck with basketball, foregoing the other sports that his mother introduced to him. Before Atkinson had reached high school, Hamilton knew his drive was unique.
Atkinson had played poorly in an eighth-grade tournament, an important tournament, his mom said, because all the local high school coaches were going to be there to see the incoming talent.”He was really tense and he didn’t play well,” Hamilton said. “When we left, it was really cold. He had played so poorly it was hard to make anything positive out of it. “We got home about 9:30 at night and all went in the house. I thought Michael was in the house, too, but then I heard the sound of a ball against a backboard. He stayed out there in the freezing cold ’til about midnight practicing.
“He could’ve collapsed and been discouraged, but he has so much love and an incredible work ethic, especially when it comes to basketball.”
At Galena, he played center as a junior and was an all-league player as a forward his senior year.
“He was a great blue-collar kid,” said Tom Maurer, now in his 14th year as head coach of the Grizzlies. “Everything he does he does hard.
“Mike had to play center for me. He was one of the best high-post players because of the way he could knock down the jump shot from the high post, and he could flat out pass from the post. And he could defend. He did such a good job defending 6-8, 6-9 guys.
“And his senior year he moved back to forward. I thought we did such a great job getting to the zone championship game that year, and Mike was a major contributor.”
The assist Atkinson went on to play at Moorpark College in Southern California, then transferred to Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. He led the conference in rebounding in both his junior and senior seasons, and was in the top five in both assists and steals. Still, he garnered only honorable mention all- league status both seasons. “I always look at that stuff as political. As a player, I was a hard player, and I wasn’t afraid to get into the mix,” he said with a knowing chuckle. “Some teams maybe didn’t like me as much. But I’m not worried about individual achievements.”
But somebody noticed. One of the conference’s officials told a scout about Atkinson, and the scout knew Nationals general manager John Ferrari.
Atkinson sent in some game film, and the Nationals talked to his former coaches, but there was no tryout. In July, soon after Atkinson finished college, getting a degree in business management, he signed with the Nationals. “I don’t even know who the referee was,” Atkinson said, referring to anonymous tipster.
“I really wish we could find out,” Hamilton added. “I’d really like to thank this person for the wonderful opportunity.”
Atkins — who said his salary is similar to that of a CBA player (“I don’t need a second job.”) — was asked why he thought the official would go out of his way to suggest him to a scout when he didn’t really know Atkinson. “I’m guessing, maybe, my overall passing skills, team basketball and I hustle,” he said.
The team leader in floor burns, then?
“I’ve got a couple of fresh ones today,” he added.
The West Coast version of the Globetrotters and Nationals are in the early stages of a 120-game schedule in 114 days. There is also an East Coast pairing of the teams. Each team has eight players.
The Nationals became the Globetrotters’ regular opponent in 1995, taking over for the Washington Generals. In their 12th year, the Nationals are still searching for their first win. The losses are literally incalculable.
“O and thousands,” Atkinson joked.
One of the members of the Globetrotters is former Wolf Pack player Eathan O’Bryant. Atkinson and O’Bryant haven’t met on the court, but they do have a history which began at Wolf Pack basketball camp.
“Eathan and I go back to the sixth grade,” said Atkinson, who said he normally plays a little more than half a game, as do most Nationals. “He would pick me up at my house and take me to play against the Pack. Well, I wouldn’t say I played with them, but I tried.”
O’Bryant, who has played for the Globetrotters for 10 years but won’t be in town for tonight’s contest, remembers Atkinson well.
“I coached him in a three-on-three tournament and they won it,” said O’Bryant, who still makes Reno home and is co-founder of the Nevada Basketball Academy in Sparks. “Mike ate, slept and dreamed basketball.”
As for Atkinson’s reputation of being a hard-nosed player, O’Bryant saw that all those years ago.
“He’s always been that way and to tell you the truth that’s the way I like it,” he said.
O’Bryant wouldn’t take credit for getting Atkinson a job with the Nationals but he admits he made a few phone calls on his behalf.
“(Ferrari) asked me about Mike and I said he was a great kid and will handle himself like at true professional,” said O’Bryant, who played for Nevada from 1993-95. “I said that he wouldn’t embarrass himself or his family.” And O’Bryant has seen nothing to change that opinion. “Mike is at the top of the list of kids I’m absolutely proud of,” he said. “But as proud as I am of him as a player, I’m more proud of how he’s turned out as a person.” Atkinson’s introduction to Globetrotter basketball came this summer when he was chosen to join the Nationals for the teams’ military tour. The team played 15 games overseas and on the seas as well. “We landed on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. We did a needle drop with a cable and a hook and landed on the flight deck,” he said. “We played on the hanger.” They also played at a Marine base in Djibouti, Africa and at the Naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Atkinson said. “It’s one of my favorite experiences because we met with the troops.
“They were all thanking us. We got to thank them for the sacrifices they were making. The trip actually made me more patriotic. On the plane, I was sitting next to guys on their way to Iraq. That really hits home.” Atkinson eventually plans to get a Master’s degree in sports management before attempting to become an agent or general manager. “I’ll play as long as I enjoy it,” he said. “As soon as it’s not fun anymore, I’ll move on.” It’s highly unlikely, but maybe all the losing will get to him. “He has great character,” Maurer, the Galena coach, said. “Any guy who can go O-and-160 and take losing the way he does, I’ve got a lot of respect for a guy like that.” Atkinson, though, is in the one sport where there is a lot of gray area in a loss.
“The odds are against us, but we handle it fine,” he said. “It’s great entertainment for kids and families, and that’s the way we think about it at the end of the night.”