I sat in a Toronto hotel room once with a heartbroken Charles Oakley.
It was 18 years ago, and eight months had passed since the Knicks had traded Oakley to the Toronto Raptors. He was still struggling to come to terms with it. After a decade of feeding off the excitement and energy that comes from playing at Madison Square Garden, Oakley was at a loss in Toronto. He rarely ventured out into his new city, refusing to entertain the notion of even getting an apartment. Instead, he ate with his teammates at Air Canada Center, watched CNN for his stocks and surfed endlessly for a sportscast that didn’t lead off with hockey.
“I know everything happens for a reason,” Oakley said of the trade. “But I still don’t know why they did it.”
This story bears telling today because it shows how much Oakley’s heart, soul and identity is intertwined with the Knicks and their fans. And, if we have learned anything over this past week since Oakley got into an altercation with security guards and was banned from the Garden, it’s that the love affair was a two-way street.
This is why NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took the unusual and dramatic step Monday of bringing Oakley and Knicks owner James Dolan together to broker peace, why Oakley’s longtime friend and former teammate Michael Jordan conferenced in. Though Oakley has said he is still upset about the incident, I would bet that he will eventually be back as a guest at The Garden.
This is good news for all Knicks fans. Because more than any other player, including Patrick Ewing, Oakley personified the Knicks’ gritty, bruising, physical style of play in the 1990s. Many of today’s Knicks fans grew up watching those teams. They fell in love with the Knicks because of Oakley, and to see him banned from the Garden was emotionally wrenching.
I don’t know what happened Wednesday night when Oakley was removed from the Clippers game, but I do know that Oakley had my back in the locker room in the 1990s when not everyone was thrilled that a woman was in there. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
The Knicks’ locker room in the 1990s was small, set up in a way so that the media was forced to walk by the opening to the sink and shower room in order to get where the players’ cubicles were. Locker rooms were open for 45 minutes before each game, and reporters were supposed to use that time to hang out and chat with players, many of whom were in various stages of undress. I was exceedingly uncomfortable doing this part of the job, and Oakley noticed.
“Barbara!” I remember him bellowing across the room gesturing at my feet. “Lemme see those boots.”
And with that, a professional friendship was born. Oakley was a clothes horse extraordinaire, and part of my pregame ritual came to include stopping by his locker to see what he was wearing postgame. I remember he once told me he had 18 pairs of exotic leather shoes in his closet, two in green alligator. One Sunday on the road when he and Chris Childs both showed up in the same pastel-colored suit, a miffed Oakley went back and changed his to black so that he would stand out.
If Oakley didn’t like something, he would tell you — whether it be your shoes, a story you wrote or some recent development on the Knicks. This trait likely is what caused his falling out with the organization in recent years as his opinion of his former team didn’t always jive with what you might be putting on a news release. The thing is Oakley’s honestly was really a great part of his charm. How much diplomacy can you really expect from a guy who made a living through hustle and muscle, through non-stop nastiness underneath the basket?
This is something I’ve thought a lot about over the past few days as I traded Oakley stories over the phone with various reporters I worked with in the 1990s.
Nearly everyone who covered Oakley has fond memories. There are myriad of embellished tales of how tough Oak was, how many times he should have come equipped with an airbag as he hurtled into fans seated by the court going for a loose ball, occasionally winding up with beer or mustard or even portions of a Garden Dog on his jersey.
But here’s my favorite Oakley story. During the 1997 All-Star weekend, in his hometown of Cleveland, he took four of us reporters home to his mother, fed us sweet potato pie and even showed us a prom picture, circa 1981, from John Hay High School. Some might say he did it to curry favor. I think he simply wanted the people who wrote about him to know who he was and see what had given a Gheri-curled kid from Cleveland enough resolve, medium-range jumpers and death stares to become a fan favorite in New York.
I think of how proud Oakley was to be a Knick. And then, I think back to Oakley I knew 18 years ago in Toronto, alone in a hotel room as he tried to get used to the fact he was now with the Raptors.
All he has ever wanted to be is part of the New York Knicks’ family again. Here’s hoping this happens soon.