Plugging Along

Ask most fans about Vincent Askew, and they'll say, "Oh yeah, he's still playing, isn't he?"

by Paul Gerald

It's another night in the NBA, and Indiana Pacer Vincent Askew is waiting for the game to get started. He's leaning against his locker, listening to a Walkman, and reading up on tonight's opponents, the Portland TrailBlazers. All around him, the activity level is rising: Players are getting dressed, trainers are moving equipment, and reporters are looking for his coach.

Askew doesn't join in the pregame chatter, doesn't hassle the trainers, doesn't say much to the reporter sitting next to him. His role here is the same as his role on the court: Stay quiet and get ready to play.

Among the Memphis contingent in the NBA, Askew is almost forgotten. He's not as good as Penny Hardaway, not as controversial as Todd Day, not as recent as David Vaughn, and not as popular as Elliott Perry. He says he hasn't even been to Memphis in three years, but plans to come back this summer to organize a free camp for kids.

A Tuesday night in Portland is just the latest stop in a 10-year journey that began when the Frayser High graduate left Memphis State in 1987 after only three seasons. In that summer's NBA draft, Askew was picked by the Philadelphia 76ers but waived after 14 games. He spent three weeks with the Washington Bullets, then drifted into the Continental Basketball Association, where he became the only player to be named league MVP two straight years. But that's a league that plays its all-star game in Cedar Rapids; in 1991 Askew went to Italy.

Golden State brought him back to the NBA to finish the 1992 season, then he went to Sacramento for part of a season, then Seattle. For three years there he pitched in about six points, four rebounds, and two assists per game. The most he has ever scored in an NBA game is 21 points. This year he was traded to New Jersey, played one game there, then was traded to Indiana.

In high school, college, the CBA, and Italy, Askew was a star. Not so in the NBA. Consider the two guys he was traded for this year: Anybody ever heard of Greg Graham or Reggie Williams? How many of you reading this article even knew Askew was playing for Indiana? But Vincent Askew is still there, still plugging away, the last member of his Final Four Tigers team still playing.

"Changing teams, guys moving around, that's just part of the job," he says. Asked what the key is to lasting seven years as a a pro, he shrugs. "I have no idea. Just stay healthy and know how to play, I guess."

Ask fans, reporters, or team officials about Askew, and the same words keep popping up: "team player," "works hard," "doesn't hurt you," "steady," "good defender."

His coach, Larry Brown, explains why the Pacers traded for Askew: "I don't know of too many guys in the league who are better defenders than him, and not everybody is as unselfish. He doesn't worry about minutes, doesn't worry about shots, he just worries about winning."

He spends most of the game against the Blazers, like every game, sitting on the bench. He's the fourth substitute to go in, coming in late in the first quarter to guard 6-10 Cliff Robinson. In about 16 minutes of guarding Robinson during the game, the 6-6 Askew will surrender only two buckets a three-pointer and a fade-away but will foul his man four times and collect just two rebounds. He keeps Robinson off the boards, sets picks for Miller, dives for a couple of loose balls, takes one 15-foot shot that misses, gets fouled, and sinks two free throws the only points he'll score.

As Portland stages a run in the second half to force overtime, Askew is on the bench, keeping a troublesome knee loose and awaiting his chance. That chance comes with 12.6 seconds left in the overtime and the Pacers up by three. Brown installs Askew to guard Isaiah Rider. Rider gets the ball and works for his shot. Askew forces him just a few feet beyond the three-point line, then rises into the air with the shooter, just to get a hand in his face. The shot clangs off the rim. Pacers win.

After the game, reporters huddle around Brown and Miller, who finished with 32 points and struck fear into the crowd every time he started a shot. Askew struck no fear and attracts just one reporter the one from Memphis. With ice packs on his knee and back, he's not much more talkative after his team's third straight win.

How does he feel about the way he played? "Great," he says. "We won."

A few minutes later Vincent Askew walks through a crowd of kids waiting for Miller's autograph, then gets on the team bus. The next night he'll play just 12 minutes and score two points in a blowout win at Vancouver, but he'll be there when he's needed.

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