CHICAGO – Diogenes would never have believed there is a Charles Oakley.
Diogenes is the famed Greek philosopher and perpetual cynic — believed to be the first New York City journalist —whose search for the honest man was fruitless because, well, he didn’t exist.
Oakley is having that notion questioned these days after the extraordinary events at Madison Square Garden last week when Oakley, one of the franchise’s great figures in its competitive 1990s, was literally wrestled to the ground by a half dozen security agents, handcuffed, arrested and charged with assault as he was being evicted from Madison Square Garden minutes into a Knicks-Clippers game.
During, so appropriately, another Knicks celebration of the franchise’s 70th season when basically all former Knicks other than Oakley are being invited back for celebrations.
As an aside, while Knicks president Phil Jackson wasn’t thrilled with the embarrassing episode, he perhaps was relieved as it distracted the media cynics from their daily thrashing and trashing of Jackson in his relations with star Carmelo Anthony.
Jackson resorted to Twitter, generally off limits to seniors, to imply/suggest/direct as Jackson uses angles like a good point guard that Anthony might be better served giving up his no-trade clause so he can be traded and Jackson can get on with finishing the Knicks around Kristaps Porzingis. Which is another entire Knicks drama, the usual lack of proportion of media interest in a New York team that remains for most of the last 40 years irrelevant.
Anyway, back to Oakley.
He’s a truth teller, at least the way he sees it.
Those unvarnished truths generally need a bit more paint than Oakley provides.
This time Knicks owner James Dolan swears Oakley was abusive, drunk and out of control and had to be ejected. He went on the radio for a rare interview to say the Knicks had dozens of witnesses to say so, though as most are Knicks employees nobody is putting their name to it.
Oakley said he went to sit down on the ticket he purchased since he’s the only former Knick the team won’t supply with tickets and he was thrown out within a few minutes since Dolan requires security to notify him if Oakley is in the building.
The security chief who was a former Secret Service agent for two American presidents was fired and Oakley was banned for life from Knicks games, or until Dolan changes his mind.
The problem has been Oakley speaks like he played, straight forward with no subtly and little concern for the ramifications of his actions. He didn’t play dirty; just tough and protective.
So in post basketball, he lives similarly, straight forward with simple concerns for underdogs.
It doesn’t always work well when you are trying to impress the corporate world.
Oakley was Michael Jordan’s favorite teammate. He loved Oak so much that in Oakley’s rookie season, Jordan took him as his guest to the All-Star Weekend. Oakley was the guy when Bill Laimbeer or Rick Mahorn of the dirty Bad Boys Pistons would cheap shot Jordan, they better look behind them because Oakley was coming. They mostly stopped. Or ran away.
Which was why Jordan was so furious with Bulls management for trading Oakley, though the acquisition of Bill Cartwright, the center the Bulls didn’t have to counter Patrick Ewing, James Edwards, Brad Daugherty and Robert Parish, was the crucial final piece to the Bulls’ first championship run.
Oakley went on to help the Knicks to the 1994 NBA Finals and was a part of memorable duels with Jordan’s Bulls. Oakley returned to the Bulls in their post-Jordan disaster and said so. When he explained how badly served the Bulls were with their coach, Tim Floyd, the Bulls fined him $50,000. He, of course, was exactly correct and even the Bulls knew it. But you just don’t say those things.
So eventually Oakley went to work on the staff of his buddy Jordan with the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets. So came the lockout of 2011 and moratorium preventing any team officials from questioning league activities in refusing to bargain with players. Of course, Oakley did and Jordan had to pull one of those Mission Impossible things and deny Oakley’s Charlotte existence or be fined millions of dollars. Mike likes all his dollars.
Oakley once went to a Toronto Raptors practice and waited for Tyrone Hill, who owed him $54,000 from gambling for about a year. Oakley then punched him. Hill eventually paid.
During the 1999 lockout, Oakley was still a player and at risk was his largest multiyear NBA contract which was about to begin, and probably his last good deal. Charles Barkley was leading a movement to try to kill the entire season. He was calling people like Oakley traitors and sellouts. Oakley said he was costing everyone money at a time Barkley was ending his career. So Oakley beat him up, also.
Oakley for years, like many New York fans, has condemned Dolan with reporters. He’s become too risky for any team to take on because he doesn’t say what’s good for business or public relations or what’s in his own best interests financially. He says what everyone sees and many cannot say for fear of censure.
So Oakley rides alone, literally.
He loves to drive and spends most of his time driving around the United States. He’ll stop in on Jayson Williams, the former Net who was jailed for involuntary manslaughter, to help him with his substance addiction in Florida. He stops at friends’ homes to cook. He loves to cook.
Every so often I’ll get a call from Oakley, who is driving somewhere. He’ll vent about something or other, say he has something to tell me and then I won’t hear from him for a year.
There really aren’t many truly honest men because that gets in the way of success, or, at least, not hurting your neighbor’s feelings. There’s much cynicism about it.
Like Napoleon said, “The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man.”
Those in history have been on to something. We all wink and nod.
Not Charles Oakley.
He just says it, so these days it also means he can’t go to Knicks games anymore. He doesn’t seem to have any regrets. But I’m not sure how many intend to try it.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”