Like an undervalued stock ripe for the picking in the financial market Keith Askins was overlooked by many in the basketball world who disregarded the beneficial intangibles of an individual dedicated to hard work. Who could have imagined that a lightly recruited over-achiever would go on to be a four year Alabama basketball letterman and contribute as a member of three SEC tournament championship teams (1987, 1989 and 1990) and one regular season championship team (1987) before continuing on to a solid nine year NBA career?
Presently in his seventh year as a full time assistant coach of the Miami Heat, we met up with Askins courtside at Madison Square Garden in New York City before the contest against the New York Knicks. We continued our conversation via telephone a few days later after the team was honored as the 2006 NBA Champions with a visit to the White House. Among the topics discussed were the individuals who were instrumental in guiding Askins throughout his life along with his basketball career as a player and coach.
Hard work was a lesson learned early by Keith from one of the many influential people he encountered during his life. He said, "My late granddad, Frank James Bell, who drove a tractor, was probably my biggest influence because he taught me how to work. He was a hard working man with not much of an education. He was very well educated in work. He taught me what it was to be a man and take care of business, first and foremost."
Gerald Todd, who coached Askins at Athens High School, said that in middle school Askins did not play. But, he said, "Keith was a hard worker and very coachable." Todd also was impressed with Askins's ability to learn the game and be a leader for the team. "If I wasn't able to be at a practice, Keith would have run it just as if I was there. He was dependable and fun to be around. He was a fundamentally sound player that made everyone around him better."
Askins said, "Of course Coach Todd started me in my basketball life. He saw me when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I was the last man on the bench but always for the team. I was happy to be a part of it. He told me, ‘Keep that attitude and continue to work and play hard. You will be playing for me one day.' Without him saying that to me, who knows? The best thing about Coach Todd, he stressed grades first and that was the building block of my career."
Former Alabama Head Basketball Coach Wimp Sanderson commenting about the recruitment and the reasons he offered Askins a scholarship said, "He had really good high school coaching and that was important. I had a lot of respect for his high school coach and he told me he was a worker. I thought he could run and he was athletic. I like runners. He looked like he had all his playing ahead of him. He played really hard. We liked to get Alabama kids for the program. I got a call about him and I did not get up there to see him until the last game of the season. They won the game and they were coming to the state tournament in Tuscaloosa. At that time he wasn't ready to step right in and be a big star but I liked everything about him. So I asked him to come down to The University a couple of days prior to the state tournament. I offered him a scholarship and he accepted."
Askins held firm with his commitment despite some late courting by other schools according to Sanderson. "When he got to the state tournament, there were a lot of schools standing in line to talk to him. He never wavered in his commitment to me that he made a few days earlier. I really liked that about him. He told me he was coming. I think I was the first one to offer him a scholarship. Maybe North Alabama had offered him one."
Askins said, "I really wasn't a highly-recruited player because I was a late bloomer. Wimp was one of the first Division 1 coaches to recruit me. I've been an Alabama fan all of my life. I remember it plain as day up in his office. He said, ‘I'll give you an opportunity to get an education and I'll give you an opportunity to play. I'm not going to promise you that you'll play but I promise I'll give you an opportunity.' That's what he did. The rest is history."
Upon his arrival at The University, Askins was lacking the strength required to compete at the college level. He credits the present Alabama head strength and conditioning coach, Rocky Colburn, as another person who was influential in his life. "I think back a lot to my strength coach at Alabama, Rocky Colburn. He was very influential because he really taught me how to work hard. Coach Colburn helped me build up my body to handle the college game and beyond."
Some athletes today are not receptive to a coach's honest assessment of their ability or effort but Askins appreciated the direct approach employed by another person who remains a pillar in his coaching foundation, Coach Sanderson. "One thing about him was his honesty," Askins said. "He was definitely an honest guy. If he told you something, you could write it down; it was etched in stone. He didn't pull any punches. If he liked it, he would tell you and if he didn't like it, he would tell you."
Recalling Askins's days at Alabama and beyond, Coach Sanderson said, "When I got him, we had a good work ethic program and he worked hard and he got better and better and better. We evaluated him correctly. He led by hard work and by example. He was a terrific guy for us. He practiced and played so hard and that was big with me. He worked so hard with weights in the off season to make himself better. I can recall the championship game of the 1989 SEC tournament and we were playing Norm Sloan's Florida team and he hit four straight threes to break it open. I didn't give up anything when I played him as a substitute for one of the starters. He just turned out to be terrific for us. Here's a kid nobody offered a scholarship and went off to play in the pros nine years. I knew that whoever gave him a chance to play (NBA) and if he got with the right team that wasn't loaded with to many good players, he was going to play. I'm proud of what he's done. He's a self-made player. A guy's got to be willing to work and have that type of attitude. He was willing to work. A coach can't be around all the time."
The key to one significant relationship was Askins's ownership of an automobile. He explained, "I appreciate the friendships that I've gained through my four years at Alabama. Derrick McKey was a junior my freshmen year. I was kind of like his rookie so to speak. I was a freshman who actually had transportation. So wherever he needed to go, if I was around, I would take him. I was like his driver. He's a dear friend today. He's almost like a big brother. When he was in the NBA, he would come back to Alabama and work out with the guys. We've shared apartments from time to time. Still to this day, we vacation together. We spend a lot of time together. We speak two to three times a week. Melvin Cheatum is still a very good friend of mine as well as Gary Waites and Robert Horry. So I've gained some friendships through being connected to the university."
As a player at The Capstone, Askins spoke of some memorable images. "There are so many. My freshmen year where I had an opportunity to play with some very good guys and on a very good team (1987 SEC Champs). I remember going to the sweet sixteen where we ran into that buzz saw Providence (Final Four team). It was great to have a chance to watch and play with such talented players like Derrick (McKey) and Terry Coner every night along with Michael Ansley. They had a style about their game. I can recall Craig Dudley tearing his ACL and doing fall workouts and getting timed in the forty and he ran a 4.5 with a knee brace. That just shows the camaraderie we had. We all worked to together and played together. I remember Alvin (Lee) getting hot. Things like that. It was big."
In the spring of his senior year, Askins once again was placed in a position of having to prove his worth when he was not drafted by any NBA team. Askins signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat, which gave him a different perspective than most players about employment security in the NBA.
"Every day you have to try and get better," he said. "One thing I learned because I had to go through so many years with a non-guaranteed contact is that you have to prove yourself every day. Every day someone is out to get your job. What can you do to help the team win? If you don't come out and perform every day and do something positive for the team, you're not doing your job."
Askins mentioned two other individuals who have influenced his coaching style. "Coach Ron Rothstein, who I coach with now, is a defensive-minded coach. He really helped me coming from Alabama, where I came from a coach who emphasized the athlete and stressed defense on the court. Coach (Pat) Riley's influence is his emphasis on discipline."
Coach Pat Riley speaks very highly of Askins coaching abilities, He said, "Keith is a lifer. He's a coach's coach. He's an intense, highly motivated individual who is a great teacher of the fundamentals, both mentally and physically of the game. He is priceless for us and one day, if he chooses to, could become a head coach in the NBA."
Assistant Coach Ron Rothstein also expressed his admiration for Askins as a player and coach. "He's a great worker and a stand up guy. As a player he was a pleasure to coach because he gave you everything he had. You knew what you were going to get every day. He was great in the locker room. As a coach, he works hard at his craft. He's a real student of the game. He's super prepared and very passionate about what he does. He's a great guy to be around and a great guy to work with."
After a productive nine year career with the Miami Heat, Askins recounted how he became an assistant coach. "I was fortunate enough to get the respect of Coach Riley. He made a statement to me if I ever wanted to get into coaching, I'd always have a job with him. I'm considered to be family with the Miami Heat. He gave me an opportunity. I started out scouting. It's just a process that all assistants go through. You have to start out on the road learning how to diagram plays and scout other teams. It's been a steady progression. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to take on this challenge to try and help younger players become better."
Primarily known for his defensive prowess and long range shooting as a player, Askins describes his coaching responsibilities by stating, "I analyze the overall defense of the team. If I have any technique points that I want to make, I make them to everyone. It's not a specialization with us (Miami Heat). We all do different parts that end up becoming whole. I'm just one slice of the pie. I critique and analyze and try to help with technique on the perimeter as well as post play."
When asked about his strengths as a coach, he said, "I think I have a pretty good eye to help a player to improve. I can definitely pick up a player's tendencies fairly quick not only by watching film but by helping an individual adjust during a game. I'm basically a jack of all trades. I don't try and say I have a gift at anything. I'm just trying to get better everyday at the overall scheme of coaching."
Motivating players at any level must be part of a coach's repertoire if he expects to survive the highly competitive environment of team sports. Askins related his thoughts about coaching in the NBA and his collegiate playing experience.
He said, "Players at this level have to be self motivated. The thrill of winning and competition should be enough to motivate anyone. The only thing you can do is try and give them something where they see a big gain at the end. With us (Miami Heat), there is the ultimate goal to win the last game of the season which symbolizes the championship. That's what you play for at this level. In college it's the same thing. You want to be the best in your conference. Then you want to take it one game at a time once you get to the NCAA tournament. Conquer one team at a time. You can't look to far ahead in any sport. You want to make sure you are ready to do battle and conquer whomever that night."
Crowned the 2006 NBA champions last June, the Miami Heat had the opportunity to visit the White House recently. "It's always an honor being at the number one house in the nation," Askins said. "It was a great honor. I was really impressed with the art work. I got more of a thrill viewing the art work more than anything else. The art work was unbelievable."
Talking about the championship he said, "Everyone will tell you it's probably one of the hardest things you'll ever do. I can still remember sitting on the bench and counting down the last few minutes. It's a euphoric feeling symbolizing that you've arrived and that lasts a while. I still wear my ring but you have to move on. We have business at hand right now where we are trying to get ourselves in a position to defend our championship."
If you happen to be watching the Miami Heat game on television, Askins with his trademark bow tie, is seated in the first row behind the team due to an NBA rule that allows only three assistant coaches on the bench. As for his attire, Askins said, "I used to not wear a tie and I was told I needed to wear a tie. One, I wanted to be different. Two, I think it makes a statement. I am an individual and I am a proud man. I think I'm a classy guy and I think a bow tie symbolizes all that. I have been wearing a bow tie for about three years."
The pride and joy of Askins's life are the two strong women who raised and nurtured him, his mother, Margie Davis and his grandmother, Margie Bell. They still reside in Athens and he speaks to them often. His only sibling, younger brother Orlando Askins, lives with his family in Pulaski, Tennessee.
Askins still cherishes those days wearing the crimson and white and continues to be proud of his roots. "I'm still an Alabama man and I represent them everywhere I go. I'm proud to be part of the family. It means everything. I always have something around me that lets people recognize that I went to Alabama." The bond of former Crimson Tide players is always present as Askins travels around the country coaching in the NBA. "Anytime I see anyone from The University such as T. R. Dunn, we still stay hello because of the respect factor being part of the Alabama family."
Off the field, Askins said, "If I have any off time now, I tend to have cigar in my mouth and I'm hitting a golf ball."
Askins follows the motto of living life one day at a time in his quest to survive the challenges of the NBA. The years have been good for the tall, slender, under valued player who withstood the test of time and competition as he ascended the stock chart of life to reap big dividends of joy for his family, friends, coaches and university. So far, hard work equals well done for Keith Askins.
Editor's Note: Comments by Coach Pat Riley were provided by Miami Heat representative, Tim Donovan, Vice President of Sports Media.