Former All-Star Charles Oakley is one of the most candid, consistent and forthright people in the NBA community. A longtime friend and former teammate of Michael Jordan, Oakley became a legend in New York City with the Knicks. Often a seemingly immovable object, Oakley defended, grabbed rebounds and did the dirty work in the Big Apple as the team made deep playoff runs with the likes of Patrick Ewing and John Starks.
As such, Oakley, who recently released a new memoir, enjoyed (er, endured) many battles in the postseason. In 1997 and 1998 that meant going up against the Miami Heat and their formidable roster of players like Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle, PJ Brown and more. Those matchups each went the full amount of games and resulted in major brawls, from Brown flipping Knicks guard Charlie Ward to New York’s coach Jeff Van Gundy holding onto Mourning’s leg mid-boxing match.
We caught up with Oakley to ask him about those playoff wars. We also asked him about his time in New York City, if he’s watching the playoffs now, what he thinks about the upcoming next chapter of the Knicks-Heat matchup, how much of Jimmy Butler he’s seen this year and much more. And for more on these battles, check out Blood in the Garden by author Chris Herring or The Knicks of the Nineties by Paul Knepper.
Are you watching the playoffs much these days?
Charles Oakley: I watch some of the games. Some of them. I mean, I’ve watched a couple. I can’t watch two or three games in a row. I don’t know, it’s different. I didn’t see the Miami and Milwaukee game last night [April 26] but they said it was a good game. But then I see that Milwaukee missed 20-something free throws. So, that’s why they lost. I know they had some turnovers. But you can’t miss 20 free throws and your best player missed 13. That ain’t basketball.
The game is different now versus when you played.
CO: What do you think about that? Do you think it’s different?
Different. Maybe not fundamentally but certainly how it’s played. When you were playing, Charles Smith was a small forward and he was 6-10. Today, he’d be the only big on the court.
CO: A center. Right, yeah.
So, do you enjoy it? Do you like how it’s changed?
CO: Well, I mean, it caters to the young generation. You used to probably have in our era probably a 70/30 [split of older players to younger players]. Now it’s flipped. It’s 70/30 younger generation. So, it’s [also] about the money now. It’s a global market. They got the rules made – it’s more global rules. So, that’s why you see more European players in the NBA now. It’s okay to come and play in the NBA. But I think when you see that, you get guys, couple from overseas making $200, $250 million. But if a guy from America goes overseas, you probably can’t get more than $2 million. That’s what’s crazy to me.
The international impact is huge..
CO: That’s what David Stern did, he was making that transition before he passed away. Before he left the office. He started getting global. And that’s what opened up the markets and that’s why the revenues are so high now. Money they can’t hide, you’ve got to put it on paper. See, in our era, they hid the money. But now they got to pay the money.
There is a lot of money. Do you think having players make $100 a year will impact chemistry at all? If Patrick Ewing was making $75 million a year, would that have hurt the Knicks?
CO: I try not to get caught up in – they say, it’s like playing poker, you’ve got to play the hand they deal you. So, we had to play the style how they had the rules for.
But do you think it would have been strange if people were making $100 million a year in salary and others were making much less?
CO: You’re going to see that in the next 3-5 years. It’s what you build. Like the CEOs, different levels of staff, or corporate [employees]. Money is different from whatever company you’re working for. So, you look at life, some guys will get $100 million [per season] in 3-5 years, but still, the average person out here working, and their salary will probably going to be $18-21 [million].
Are you going to watch Knicks-Heat on Sunday?
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CO: I probably will. I mean, it’s according to what time the game is to be played, according to what I’m doing. I’m not going to cook a big meal and invite people over. It’s just the second round. But as I said on a podcast last week, whoever wins the Cleveland-New York series is going to make a deep run in the east.
And you have ties to both.
CO: Well, you know, I’m from Cleveland. And I know back when I played in New York and we played Cleveland, we always beat them. They’re our little brothers, to New York. And we were the little brothers to the Bulls in the east. Some teams you got their number, some teams they got your number.
It’s funny how it works out that way. When you hear “Knicks-Heat” does anything come to mind? Do you care about thinking about the past that way?
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CO: Oh, man. It was a lot. It was like Ali and Joe Frazier. Thrilla in Manila. When we play Miami, it’s going to be a lot of contact. There’ve been fights, there’ve been all-out-warfare. Had Pat Riley, then he went against us. Jeff Van Gundy – I mean, so, there’s a lot of conversation with them two teams. And people up to now when I’m in Miami, they come up to me and say, “We used to love when y’all played the Heat when you were in New York.” So, they’re going to love this series, because what Butler did against Milwaukee, and New York hasn’t been in the playoffs in years. Now this is the first time both of them are on the same page and they get to play one another.
You mention Jeff Van Gundy and Pat Riley. Was there a big difference between the two, in your mind?
CO: Well, Pat Riley was more – he brought Jeff Van Gundy up. So, Jeff had a lot of him, watching him. It’s like football, the style of [Bill] Parcells to [Bill] Belichick and the other coaches up under [one guy]. When they leave [the mentor], they try to bring the system with them. Some coaches might want players to adjust to a system but it’s their first time running the system. So, it’s best – if you’ve got a blueprint, try to use the blueprint and then if it doesn’t work the way you try it, you’ve got to adjust as you go.
Any more thoughts on the next Heat-Knicks series?
CO: I think the Knicks will play hard. The Heat play hard, too. More people are surprised at Miami beating Milwaukee than New York beating Cleveland. Before the series started, you know – Mitchell Robinson was just a problem for Cleveland. Their two bigs [Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley], seem like they need to get into the weight room. They play small. When you look at the regular season record and Cleveland had a good year, winning 50-something games, that’s the same thing that happened to the Knicks three years ago against Atlanta. They were a fourth seed and Atlanta beat them in five. You look at it now, they reversed it this year.
So, my thing is, I thought [Tom] Thibodeau was the better coach in the series. And when Atlanta played New York, Thibodeau was there, and the Knicks got hot that season, but sometimes that can be fool’s gold. Towards the end of the season, guys start playing fewer minutes, trying to rest for the playoffs. But [Knicks-Heat is] going to be a good series. Thibodeau has been around. Erik Spoelstra has been around. I think the Knicks might have more talent, but Miami might have the better player. Butler. You’re going to see some old 80s scores – 85-87 – because both of these teams, they can get hot and they can get cold. So, it will be a battle. You won’t see no 115-120. If you do, the next game might be 70-72.
Jimmy Butler seems like the type of person New York City would love but they’re going to have to root against him. Do you think he’ll get swallowed up by the Garden or dominate?
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CO: He’s not Michael Jordan but he’s their best scorer. And he’s a patient scorer. The Knicks play as a team. You’ve got Mitchell Robinson back there. So, [Jimmy] is not going to be getting to the rim too much on the Knicks. He’s going to have to make jump shots. Same way with the Knicks, they’re going to have to – it’s every possession. This is not going to be a high-turnover series. Keep the ball in the best player’s hands and your playmakers, your point guards, whoever. Give yourself the best chance. Whoever’s got the highest turnovers is going to lose this. I think turnovers are going to be a big factor and you’re going to have to make your free throws.
Does talking about this bring up any memories of 1997 or 1998?
CO: I mean, it’s just there, you know what I mean? It’s like when we played the Bulls. Something gon’ to happen. It’s just how the game goes. Two physical teams, somebody’s going to get into it, somebody’s going to get thrown out. You just got to keep your cool. Eyes will be on this game. You don’t have the sexiest players in the league in this series. But it’s going to attract a lot of traction.
Did you watch in 1999 when the Knicks were in the 1-8 series against the Heat and later made their Finals run?
CO: I was in Toronto then so I probably didn’t see all of it. I think we didn’t make the playoffs. That was half a season, right? I might have gone to a game [in 1999]. But back then, you had Patrick and ‘Zo and Tim Hardaway and it was just – it was like going to see Michael Jackson, Beyoncé at a concert. They wanted to see it.
What else are you up to now?
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CO: Cooking. My foundation. Pumping the book now. I’m also working with a company called WagerScore.com, trying to teach the younger generation to be responsible for gambling. And the book is going well. We’re going to do a big documentary. I can’t say the name yet but we already signed the deal. They’re going to release a press release next couple of weeks. And I’m going to try to keep building my foundation. Just keep trying to help kids in the inner city stay positive. Keep the family strong and make sure they’re okay.
What do you love most about being Charles Oakley?
CO: I’m just a humble guy. Understandable. Knowing that a lot of stuff can take you high and can take you play, just try to stay on the straight line. And be thankful.