Paul Atkins, a former all-state basketball player at McMahon who was drafted by the Boston Celtics and later played professionally overseas, died Monday at the age of 60.
He is considered the best boys basketball player to ever come out of McMahon High School and one of Norwalk’s all-time great athletes.
“He was the greatest. We had some great athletes in Norwalk over the years and he ranks up there with the five best,” said former McMahon basketball coach Ralph King. “He had a tremendous attitude and was one of the happiest guys you’ll ever meet. Nobody ever had a bad word to say about Paul. He was a great athlete but more importantly he was a great person to everyone he met.”
After a stellar career at McMahon, Atkins was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the sixth round of the 1983 NBA Draft and eventually played professionally in South America, Europe and with the Harlem Rockets traveling team.
After his basketball career ended, Atkins was a longtime employee of the Norwalk school system, working at McMahon in security.
Back at McMahon, Atkins would regularly drop in to the basketball practices in the gymnasium and was always available for students, athletes or not, who needed someone to talk to.
“After his career ended he worked in the school system in security but he would make his way down to the gym every day before practice to say ‘hi,’” King said. “He was very good with the kids in the school when he worked there. He could communicate with all the kids. Not just the best players but he could talk to kids who were having a hard time too. He had a positive impact on a lot of kids.”
Atkins is generally considered the second-best player to come out of Norwalk after Calvin Murphy, who played at Norwalk High and was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft in 1970 and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
At the time, Atkins was the only other player from Norwalk to get drafted into the NBA after Murphy.
Willie Brooks played at McMahon a few years ahead of Atkins and was an assistant coach when Atkins played there.
“Paul was special. He was such a good player,” Brooks said. “If I was to rate him, I would say he’s one of the top four basketball players to ever come out of Norwalk. You could put Paul anywhere. He could play inside, he could shoot from outside and he could take anyone off the dribble. Just a special player.”
Brooks knew Atkins as a kid growing up and playing in Roodner Court in Norwalk and said from an early age, everyone knew Atkins was a little different.
The two friends from the neighborhood stayed in touch through the years.
“We used to talk twice a week. We are both from the same neighborhood,” Brooks said. “Paul was a good man and we lost him too soon. He was always one of my favorite people. He was a big teddy bear.”
At McMahon as a junior in 1976-77, he averaged 16.5 points to lead the Senators to a 25-1 record, the FCIAC championship, and their first state title in school history.
As a senior and only returning starter in 1977-78, the 6-foot-6 Atkins carried the Senators to a 22-3 record, a second consecutive FCIAC title and to the state semifinals.
He led the FCIAC scoring with a 23.7 points per game, finishing with 1,055 career points.
In the FCIAC tournament that year, he scored 35 points in both the semifinals and championship, leading his team to back-to-back titles.
As a senior, he was named to the All-FCIAC and All-State First Teams and was named the MVP of The Norwalk Hour’s All-City Basketball Team.
At the time, King called him “the best pro prospect Norwalk has produced since Calvin Murphy.”
After being recruited by almost 200 colleges, Atkins committed to the University of Texas but instead played two seasons at Henderson County Junior College in Texas, where he was named an all-American in 1980.
After earning his associates degree, Atkins decided to forego Texas and play at New Mexico State his junior year, and then transfer to Dallas Baptist College, where he averaged 27.6 points.
He played well enough at Dallas Baptist for the Boston Celtics to pick him in the 1983 NBA Draft.
Atkins was among the last cuts to the Celtics roster and was assigned to play in Worcester for the Bay State Bombardiers in the CBA.
A few weeks into the CBA season, Atkins was was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his leg at the age of 24.
Following an operation, three and a half weeks in Norwalk Hospital, and nine months of chemotherapy, Atkins was able to return to the court.
He would play professionally in Buenos Aires for two seasons, one season in Venezuela, and three years in Belgium. He also played with the Harlem Rockets traveling basketball team before retiring in 1996 at the age of 36.