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Tower of Power Ground-bound Raptors forward Charles Oakley made his name under the boards with his elbows and his heart. What goes on in his head is a mystery

Jan. 24, 2000
Jan. 24, 2000

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Jan. 24, 2000

Tower of Power Ground-bound Raptors forward Charles Oakley made his name under the boards with his elbows and his heart. What goes on in his head is a mystery

We're like Jekyll and Hyde, like Jack and Jill. You know, they
all went up the hill.

This is an article from the Jan. 24, 2000 issue Original Layout

Charles Oakley says things like this often enough that they have
come to be known as Oakspeak. They are like brainteasers; you
want to rearrange the words to reveal the hidden meaning. But as
simple and straightforward as the elements of Oakspeak are, the
combination is almost impossible to decipher, and once you have
accepted that, you have begun to solve Charles Oakley.

He cannot jump, which tells you right away that he goes against
the grain of convention. Nearly everyone in today's NBA can soar;
it's as if the league had obtained a restraining order against
gravity. But Oakley, the Toronto Raptors' 36-year-old power
forward, has legs with only slightly more spring in them than
your coffee table's, a fact that bothers him not in the least. He
actually seems proud of being relatively earthbound in a league
of leapers, so much so that you begin to wonder if he is truly
incapable of clearing a deck of cards when he takes off, or if he
simply wants to make it look that way.

There are, after all, those who insist that Oakley hasn't always
played as if the soles of his shoes were slathered with glue.
Dave Robbins, his coach at Virginia Union, remembers that Oakley
had a perfectly decent vertical leap when he arrived at the
Richmond campus, and some of Oakley's former teammates at John
Hay High in Cleveland recall him as a spectacular dunker who
would blow kisses to the crowd after his landings. Oakley only
smiles when asked about these recollections, refusing to classify
them as either fact or fiction.

Whether he can't jump or won't jump hardly seems like a mystery
worth solving, because either by necessity or by choice Oakley
has carved out an exemplary career on the ground. He has grabbed
more than 10,000 rebounds in 15 NBA seasons--now that Charles
Barkley has retired, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone are the only
active players with more--and in the process established himself
as the epitome of industriousness. Oakley is not so much a player
as he is a selfless laborer, the kind who takes care of odd jobs
such as flinging his 6'9", 245-pound body into the stands in
pursuit of loose balls and setting picks that rattle opponents'
molars. A typical Oakley moment occurred in early December when
the Raptors were trailing the Washington Wizards 93-92 with one
second left. Toronto guard Dee Brown drilled a wide-open
three-pointer for the win, but almost unnoticed was the reason
that Brown was free for the shot: Oakley had not merely screened
Chris Whitney, Brown's defender, he had all but placed him in
custody.

"He's tough as a pine knot," says Robbins. "I don't know if
you've ever tried to hammer a nail into a piece of pine with a
knot in it, but it will bend the nail. That's how tough Charles
is. He'll bend the nail."

If a superstar scorer is an NBA team's primary need, a player
like Oakley is its second. He ignores an open shot to find a
better one; he's a master of the hidden art of helping on
defense; he becomes a more reliable shooter in the clutch. That's
why Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause wept when he
traded him to the New York Knicks for center Bill Cartwright in
June 1988. It's why 13 months after the June '98 deal that sent
Oakley to Toronto for forward Marcus Camby, Knicks coach Jeff Van
Gundy was in Oak's living room, trying unsuccessfully to persuade
him to rejoin New York as a free agent. It's why the Raptors
believe Oakley can help lead them not only to the first playoff
appearance in their five-year history but also deep into the
postseason. He has done nothing to shake their faith, providing a
steadying influence for the team's 22-year-old rising star,
forward Vince Carter. Though the Raptors were 20-17 at week's
end, Oakley, with characteristic clarity, says there's room for
improvement: "If you've got a bakery and you're selling out the
baked goods every week, you've got to keep baking. We built a
bakery, but now we've got a store with a bakery sign but no bread
or anything."

It's not surprising that Oakley has found a way to succeed
without jumping, given that he has never been much impressed by
fancy but unnecessary tools. He refuses to use any machinery in
the chain of eight car washes he owns in Cleveland and suburban
New York City because he hasn't seen the piece of equipment that
can clean or wax more thoroughly than the human hand. John Hay
High didn't have a weight room when he was a student there, so
Oakley had a teammate stand on his back when he did push-ups and
sit on his shoulders as he did squats. He even finds planes
excessive, traveling exclusively--and extensively--by car in the
off-season. After a decade and a half in the NBA, Oakley knows
what's important and what's not, and he has determined that the
ability to hang in the air long enough to rebraid his graying
cornrows is not. "A rebound is still a rebound, whether you get
it a foot above the rim or a foot below the rim," he says.
"There's nothing wrong with the old-fashioned way."

So is it that this Oak remains rooted out of his affection for
time-honored methods? Is it his way of proving that there is
still a place among these high-flying whippersnappers for a man
who excels on the ground? His game seems to be an homage to
players such as Wes Unseld and Paul Silas, tough, granitelike big
men of the '60s and '70s who waged their battles on land, not in
the air. He also knows that keeping an opponent off-balance,
nudging him, elbowing him, leaning on him one moment and backing
away the next, is vital down low. "You can't come at people the
same way every time, because then they figure you out," he says.

Oakley has the same philosophy off the court. He is a utilitarian
player who wastes little motion, yet he dresses in colors Crayola
hasn't thought of and thinks nothing of discarding a $2,000 suit
after wearing it once. He will throw basic, fundamentally correct
passes all evening long, then for some reason uncork a
behind-the-back flip or a length-of-the-court outlet that sails
out-of-bounds untouched. He believes hard work is its own reward,
but he's just as interested in other rewards--financial ones--as
any of his younger teammates. He proved that by shunning the more
championship-ready Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers last summer and
re-signing with the Raptors, who could offer him more money ($18
million over three years).

Somewhere along the line, Oakley will explode every assumption
you make about him. "Oak will fool you," says Orlando Magic coach
Doc Rivers, Oakley's teammate with the Knicks in 1992-93 and
'93-94. "It's like he thinks you're getting too close to figuring
him out, so he throws you a little curve. It's like he's saying,
You think you know me? Well what do you make of this?"

Robbins points out that, to survive the punishment under the
boards, Oakley gained about 35 pounds during his years at
Virginia Union and that the extra weight might have robbed him of
some jumping ability. That makes sense. Yes, that must be it.
After all, he couldn't have been fooling us all this time, could
he?

Oakspeak: If it ain't broke, don't break it.

Oakley is grumpy, even more proof that he's not of this era. You
don't see grumpy much anymore, certainly not among athletes.
Today's player is arrogant or charming or savvy or angry or any
number of other things, but rarely is he a good old-fashioned
grouch. Oakley isn't scary grumpy; he's grumpy like your grandpa,
just enough to make you brace yourself a bit before you approach
him. It is one reason he has never been married, although he does
have a three-year-old son, also named Charles, who lives with his
mother in Tallahassee, Fla. Oakley supports his child financially
and spends considerable time with him in the off-season, bringing
young Charles to visit him and his extended family. It is a
measure of how closely he guards the details of his private life
that many people who consider themselves friends of Oakley don't
know he is a father. "Personal life is nobody's business," he
says testily. "I'm not one of those stars people want to know
everything about, anyway."

It doesn't seem likely that Oakley will become a husband anytime
soon. "I think he's got such traditional values that it would
take a '50s-style woman who wanted to stay home and devote
herself to the family to really make him happy," says Billy
Diamond, Oakley's friend and business manager. But he certainly
doesn't need someone to cook and clean for him. Oakley keeps an
immaculate house and is comfortable enough in the kitchen that
Toronto forward Kevin Willis nicknamed him Chef. "I've been on my
own so long that I had to learn," Oakley says. "And I like being
able to make my food the way I want it."

Almost anything can bring out the curmudgeon in Oakley. "You
don't have to listen, but he has to talk," says Rivers. "He has
to tell you how his sneakers are tight, his uniform is stiff, his
locker is dirty, the chicken has too much salt, the bus is
leaving too early, the plane is leaving too late. You just put up
with him because he's Oak and somehow he's still lovable."

Oakley seldom complains about the things he ought to complain
about. The flavor of a birthday cake or the color of the locker
room rug can be nitpicked, but work or pain are to be endured in
silence. He returned to Virginia Union for the school's annual
celebrity golf tournament last summer, about six weeks after the
season. "When he walked into the gym, he had a lump on his elbow
as big as an orange," says Robbins. "Not a lemon, an orange. He
said he must have banged it up during the season sometime. He
didn't think anything of it. I made him go see our team doctor,
who drained it and said he'd never drained more fluid at one time
than he did out of that elbow. Oak's toughness ain't no act."

Oakley's feelings have been bruised almost as much as his body,
but he plays through that pain as well. He has no romantic
notions about hard work making him deserving of some special
reward. If the reward is being traded from the Bulls just when
they're on the cusp of a dynasty; if it's losing almost 40% of
his $10 million balloon payment in 1998-99 because of the
lockout; if it's being traded from the Knicks before last season
and watching them reach the Finals, so be it. That's the way life
is. The trade from New York, where he was a Madison Square Garden
favorite, hurt him, and he had harsh words for Ernie Grunfeld,
the Knicks' president and general manager at the time. But for
the most part Oakley has kept up the tough facade. "It wasn't
hard to accept," he says. "I'm an employee, and I got
transferred. Happens every day. You just move your pencils and
your tools to another building and get yourself a new desk."

Still, there are places where he is the boss, such as Oakley's
Wash House, the combination car wash and Laundromat Oakley
founded in east Cleveland. His sister Carolyn and mother, Corine,
oversee the operation, and it seems as if an Oakley is at every
station, making sure the stainless steel washers and driers gleam
like freshly polished silverware on one side of the business and
running a soapy sponge over a Mercedes on the other. A block down
the street are Hair Solutions and Nails EtCetera, salons started
with seed money from Oakley and run by his sisters. "Charles
takes care of family," says his sister Saralene. "He got this
started, but we do the work."

The Wash House helps the image--a practical, no-nonsense business
for a practical, no-nonsense player--and Oakley does more than
just lend the place his name. While in town he can often be found
with a sponge or cloth in his hand, working on customers' cars.
"You can go down there some days and see Oak in an expensive
Italian suit, scrubbing like he was in overalls," says Herb
Williams, Oakley's friend and former Knicks teammate.

Oakley has never fancied himself anything but a working man. He
once described his role with the Knicks as that of "a butler in a
mansion. I'm just happy to clean up and make sure everything is
all right." That's one of the reasons he has been so loved in the
cities in which he has played. He generously tips anyone in the
service industry: locker room attendants, hotel maids, even
waiters in restaurants where he has sent the food back two or
three times (a not uncommon occurrence). "I like to let them know
that I respect the job they're doing," he says. "I see them the
same way I see myself."

In ways Oakley is not so much the last of his breed, as he is
often called, but a breed unto himself. If you understand this
about him, it's not so disorienting to learn that when he's not
in uniform, he trades in his blue-collar persona for a silk-suit
sensibility. Not that there's anything wrong with that--the league
is full of clotheshorses--it's just that you don't expect Oakley
to be one of them. He is just as comfortable discussing how to
coordinate an outfit as how to set a pick. The closets in his
spacious house in Toronto are the size of studio apartments,
which is about right for a wardrobe that includes more than 200
suits, by his estimation, though the number is in a constant
state of flux. "I usually won't wear a suit twice," he says. "If
I do, it won't be in the same city. If I wear something in
Toronto, the only way I'll put it on again is if I'm on the other
side of the country or somewhere I can be sure that not many
people have seen me in it."

Once he is done with a suit, Oakley usually finds it a good home.
In the past, he sent dozens to players at Virginia Union, and
last year he shipped a few to Bulls rookie Elton Brand because he
judged him to be roughly the same size. Oakley has hundreds of
neckties--he's a Zegna, Hugo Boss man--all tied in neat Windsor
knots and hanging from racks. The floors of his closets are lined
with shoes of every kind, with the notable exception of sneakers.
Almost all those are at the Air Canada Centre, because he rarely
puts on his work shoes anywhere other than on the job site. "I
wear tennis shoes all year long when I'm playing ball," he says.
"I don't want to wear them off the court."

Oakley has his own sense of style, which until recently tended to
favor hues not found at Brooks Brothers. He has worn lime-green
pinstripes with color-coordinated shoes and fedora,
eggplant-colored jackets, bright orange three-piece suits. When
Oakley was sidelined with a foot injury for 32 games in 1994-95,
while with the Knicks, the Madison Square Garden crowd was
treated to some of the most flamboyant pieces from the House of
Oakley. Every night was Name That Color. "I didn't dress that way
to stand out," Oakley says. "I did it because those colors looked
good with my complexion and because that was the style at the
time."

Yet he wants to be unique. The Knicks were playing in Miami one
afternoon, and Oakley came down to the hotel lobby before the
game wearing a suit the color of orange sherbet. Amazingly, he
found teammate Chris Childs sporting the same ensemble. Oakley,
mortified, went up to his room and returned dressed completely in
black, which wouldn't have been unusual--if it hadn't been Easter
Sunday.

When his work is done for the season, Oakley hits the road.
Again, he sees no reason to take to the air, choosing instead to
take long, often solitary drives that crisscross the country. "I
drive probably 20,000 miles in the summertime," he says. "Some
trips will be 4,000, 5,000 miles."

He will drive from Toronto to his hometown of Cleveland, then
south to Alabama, where he has a sister, aunts, uncles and
cousins, then anywhere. Chicago to see old friends. Florida to
see his son. New Orleans just because. Most of the time, his only
company is a collection of rap CDs. "Don't need anybody sitting
next to me telling me to take this exit or that exit," he says.
"Don't need anybody saying they need to stop to go to the
bathroom."

This is Oakley the Grouch, showing that his disdain sometimes
extends to human interaction. But then you learn that he throws
lavish parties at Little Jezebel, the Manhattan restaurant in
which he has a stake; that whenever he has a game in his hometown
of Cleveland, he invites the entire team to come to his mother's
house for a home-cooked meal; and that when he was a Knick and
the All-Star Game was held in Cleveland, he sent a limousine to
pick up the New York beat writers and take them out for a night
on the town. You think you know me? What do you make of this?

Oakspeak: You know what they say about spilled milk--clean it
up, go into the kitchen and get some more.

Julius Moss was 6'3" and barrel-chested, which was fortunate,
because a man had to be strong to work a cotton farm in Alabama
with not much more to help him than a couple of mules. It was the
1970s, and Moss obviously had more sophisticated machinery
available to him, but he didn't see the need to change the
farming methods he'd been using all his life. He had his grandson
by his side, but there was only so much help little Charles
Oakley could offer--he was still in grade school.

Charles had been sent to live with his maternal grandparents,
Julius and his wife, Florence, after his father's death in 1971.
Oakley's father, Charles Oakley II, had a history of bad health
until a heart attack took his life at age 35. Although he was
seven when his dad died, Oakley has little memory of him. "He
wasn't really with the family," he says. "I really didn't know
him. I saw him sometimes, but I didn't really know him."

Being in Alabama provided Oakley with the first extended male
influence he'd ever had. The change from the asphalt of east
Cleveland to the dirt roads of York, about 100 miles southwest of
Birmingham, was an adjustment, but before long he was tagging
along with his grandfather. Moss would rise at 5:30 a.m. to head
out to the fields. He would let Charles sleep, but before he had
broken a sweat, his grandson was usually out to provide whatever
help he could. "Mainly I just watched him," Oakley says. "I
watched how hard he worked. If it took 18 hours, he put in 18
hours. I wanted to be just like him. I guess he rubbed off on me
to a certain extent."

Even after his time with his grandfather, Charles, the youngest
of the six Oakley children, had some toughening up to do.
"Charles was pretty much pampered, being the baby of the family,"
says Saralene. "He never had household chores or anything like
that. That's why it makes me smile when people talk about how
tough he is. I remember when he was nine or 10, the kids who
played ball wouldn't let him get in games because he was too
little. Believe it or not, he was short as a child until he shot
up in junior high school."

By the time he reached high school, Oakley had grown to 6'3" and
was already taking charges and setting picks; he just hadn't
developed a nasty streak. His coach, Loren Olson, talked him into
going out for the football team, and he made all-league at
defensive end, but it was his one-on-one games against Olson, who
is 6'10" and 280 pounds, that did the most to harden him. "I'd
beat the crap out of him," Olson says. "I'd tell him all the time
that he was mine. I'd tell him that this is my lane, and if you
want to come in here, you're going to pay. Then he got bigger and
stronger. And I decided it was time for me to bow out."

When he arrived at Virginia Union, the essential Oakley was
almost fully formed--smart, self-sacrificing, tough but not dirty.
It was clear that he drew no distinctions, that he would exact
his pound of flesh from any opponent with the temerity to
approach his hoop, whether in practice or a game, whether in
crunch time or garbage time. Robbins was reminded that his power
forward had been all business all the time when Oakley sent 5'3"
Muggsy Bogues hurtling to the floor in an NBA game. "I asked him
if he thought he might have hit Muggsy a little harder than
necessary, considering his size," Robbins says. "Oak just looked
at me and said, 'He came in my lane, didn't he?'"

Along the way Oakley developed subtlety to complement his brute
force. "He's the first player I've seen go out-of-bounds and then
come back in to rebound on the weak side," says Miami Heat center
Alonzo Mourning. Most of Oakley's tactics are designed to keep
opponents as ground-bound as he is. He clutches their shorts,
digs his knee into their legs and is a master of the arm
lockdown, in which he hooks their biceps in the crook of his arm.
"He may get on some guys' nerves, but everybody respects him,"
says Dallas Mavericks forward Gary Trent. "He's just Oak."

On defense Oakley is an ounce of prevention. He has a kind of
defensive ESP that allows him to beat potential scorers to "the
launching pad," the term players and coaches use to describe the
point at which the offensive player is clear to go up for his
shot. "He protects the basket as well as anyone who ever played,"
says Van Gundy. "I'm not talking about shot blocking; I'm talking
about keeping the shot from ever being taken. Others react on
defense, but Charles anticipates. He knows when a teammate is
about to get beaten, so that by the time it happens, he's there
to help. If there were a stat on how many points a player saves
his team, Charles would lead the league."

Oakspeak: You can't throw a hook on the side of the road and
expect to catch a fish in the grass.

He is not underrated anymore, not really. In fact, rarely has a
player been so appreciated for being unappreciated. It is common
knowledge by now that Oakley helps his team in ways that are
almost invisible to the untrained eye, that his true value is
apparent only on game tapes, with the help of the pause and the
rewind buttons. But he remains underestimated in other ways.
Straight-ahead men like Oakley aren't supposed to have any
mystery to them, no layers beyond the one most obvious to
spectators. He leaves so much of himself on the floor that it
seems unlikely that there is anything more to him that we cannot
see.

Consider, however, the Raptors' pregame introductions at the Air
Canada Centre. Oakley, always the last starter to be introduced,
rises slowly from his seat with the annoyance of a man forced to
get up from his couch to reach the remote. The Toronto reserves
follow him as he makes his way onto the court with a gait that is
half jog, half hobble. Everything in his demeanor suggests that
he considers himself too old for this commotion, that he would
rather soak his feet in a bucket of Epsom salts than take on
another opponent. But it is only one more piece of misdirection.
He gives himself away when the rest of the Raptors huddle around
him and begin a brief but frenzied slam-dance, bouncing off one
another like kernels of popcorn over a flame. Oakley is in the
center of the scrum, shoulders hunched, bashing into the bodies
that are coming at him from every angle. It's obvious that he is
not an arthritic old man but an energy source, and that the other
Raptors need a jolt.

What do you make of all this? You think you know him after all
these years, but you wouldn't be surprised if, when he is all
alone, Charles Oakley still dunks and blows kisses to the
crowd.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE TRANSFORMER The intimidating presence of the 36-year-old Oakley has given the young Raptors some extra juice.COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN LOWDOWN Crafty positioning over 15 NBA seasons has enabled Oakley to snatch 10 boards a game from more athletic players.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE CLEAN LIVING Corine keeps an eye on her son's Laundromat in east Cleveland, where there seems to be an Oakley at every station.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE KALINSKY HANDS-ON Oakley doesn't hesitate to help out at the Wash House when he's in town, sometimes manning a hose in an Italian suit.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS
Oakley's game seems an homage to the tough big men of the '60s
and '70s who waged their battles on land, not in the air.
With the Knicks, Oakley says he was "a butler in a mansion. I'm
just happy to clean up and make sure everything is all right."
"I asked him if he had hit Muggsy harder than necessary,
considering his size," Robbins says. "Oak said, 'He came in my
lane, didn't he?'"
"I watched how hard my grandfather worked," Oakley says. "If it
took 18 hours, he put in 18 hours. I wanted to be just like him."