Although I had said it many times before over the years, the timing couldn’t have been more prophetic for the surreal and ugly incident which later took place at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Dining with a fellow New York Knicks reporter in the Garden media room before the Knicks hosted the Los Angeles Clippers, I mentioned that what New York could sorely use is the type of defensive leadership, accountability and great example of all-out hustle that former Knick Charles Oakley could effectively impart as an assistant coach.
However, I also recognized that New York devolving into the type of soft, offense-first team that Oakley’s 1990s Knicks would never have accepted as their own identity has caused Oakley to publicly, vocally, frequently and fairly criticize his old franchise, which in turn, has developed a seemingly irreparable rift between he and team owner James Dolan.
The impetus for my comments was pointing out to that same reporter that the Knicks — despite last summer, giving star forward Carmelo Anthony his fifth head coach and 10 additional teammates, bringing that total to 80 in Anthony’s six-plus years in New York — were about to either match the 23-31 record Derek Fisher was fired with last year or be one game worse, at 22-32 (which is what eventually happened) after playing the Clippers.
In other words. A lot of change, yet no progress at all, with a driving force in that lack of change being the refusal to play with the type of sheer toughness, maximum, sustained effort and reckless abandon that Oakley and his ex-Knicks teammates like Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, John Starks and many other beloved Knicks demonstrated every time they took the floor.
Well, leave it to the Knicks to turn one of their all-time greatest defenders into a dedendant.
But that’s exactly what happened in a stunningly bizarre scene during the first quarter of the Knicks’ home loss to the Clippers on Wednesday night.
A mere 45 minutes after my comments about the shame of Oakley being unable — mainly because of Dolan’s pettiness — to channel his still-burning fire and passion for Knicks basketball into a useful role (as an assistant) which might make the team better, the attention of the entire Garden shifted away from a close, high-scoring, bucket-for-bucket first quarter to what was quickly taking place behind the basket closest to the Knicks’ bench.
When I saw where the commotion was taking place, near the spot where Dolan normally sits, and then heard Knicks fans chanting, “OAK-LEY! OAK-LEY!” I thought to myself, ‘He finally did it. Oak finally went and told the man he’s been requesting a face-to-face meeting with for years (only to be denied such a discussion) and finally told Dolan off, unleashing years of frustration on behalf of not only himself, but for millions of Knicks fans across the New York City area.’
While Oakley went a bit over the line, shoving some of the roughly half-dozen Garden security guards it took to subdue him and drag him into the tunnel, he claims he never did actually direct any words Dolan’s way.
“I didn’t say anything to him,” Oakley insisted a few hours later, after being released from a Manhattan police precinct with four misdemeanor charges (three related to assault and one for criminal trespassing).
“I swear on my mother,” Oakley continued. “They came over and wanted to know why I was sitting there. I bought the ticket (four rows behind Dolan). I said, ‘Why do you guys keep staring at me?’ Then they asked me to leave. And I said I’m not leaving.”
Nor should he have, if his version of the story is true, that he was simply a paying customer that didn’t heckle Dolan (or even if he did, like many other paying, dissatisfied Knicks fans have done over the years).
And even if Oakley had shouted a few choice words, Dolan shouldn’t be so thin-skinned as to not take some jeering — whether at Wednesday night’s game or in the past, publicly — from a former Knick who was the heart and soul of the last Knicks team that consistently played each game like it cared as much every team should always care.
Given the Knicks’ more recent history of futility since their successful and highly entertaining run in the 1990s, the slogan they started embroidering on the inside of every franchise jersey four years ago — “Once a Knick, Always a Knick” — comes off as more of a threat than the honor it’s intended to be.
To Dolan, of course, it’s meant as the latter. That is certainly the intention for the many former adored Knicks that have all been graciously welcomed back to the Garden, especially this season, as New York has celebrated its greatest eras during its 70th anniversary season.
Instead, the decade of Oakley’s never-ending intensity, hard work, his willingness to repeatedly sacrifice his body and the production he provided was overshadowed by one incident on a night when at worst, Oakley allowed his emotions to get the best of him because, more than Dolan seems to, both cares about and is more astute on what it takes for the current Knicks to approach the level of success that Oakley’s past Knicks teams used to achieve.
Thus, the team’s public relations team immediately after Oakley was placed in handcuffs put out a statement which at first, was reasonable from the team’s perspective, until the final sentence:
“Charles Oakley came to the game tonight and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner. He has been ejected and is currently being arrested by the New York City Police Department. He was a great Knick and we hope he gets some help soon.”
Get some help?
Do the Knicks even understand the irony in that statement, considering all the help they need to become what Oakley’s Knicks were? Or do they realize that while the beginning of that official statement might have been called for per their own version of the incident, going so far as to suggest that Oakley might have a deeper issue was not only unfairly smearing towards Oakley, but a position that most Knicks fans would find appalling?
Perhaps the Knicks also didn’t notice that there were no boos directed towards Oakley, or hear the many Knicks fans chanting Oakley’s name as the now gray-haired, 53-year-old showed more fight in sticking up for what he still considers his franchise (despite that organization continually under-appreciating him) than today’s Knicks pathetically show on the basketball floor in many games.
In fairness, Dolan has spent a lot of money on the Knicks when many owners of other sports franchises, who could have spent on their teams, have instead chosen to pocket a lot of money.
But maybe if Dolan had also bothered to put winning ahead of the 263 consecutive sellouts the Knicks have reached, today’s Knicks might show the same pride in wearing “NEW YORK” across their chest that Oakley and his 1990s teammates wore on their figurative sleeves for every game.
And maybe then, Oakley (the Knicks’ all-time leader in offensive rebounds, with 2,580) wouldn’t have had to speak out so much and criticize — not simply to be critical, but with the hopes that the team will change for the better — in the way many other Knicks fans routinely do.
Even if Dolan and others in the organization felt the need to make an example of Oakley, they should also appreciate not only what all gave to the Knicks as a player, but his unbridled loyalty to the franchise 19 years later.
If they did, they’d understand that Oakley’s condemnations come from a good place. That much is evident in Oakley’s description of the incident.
“Me and four friends went to the game tonight to watch the Knicks and the Clippers,” he said. “We get there and sat down, [and] tried to have a good time. The next thing I know is I was asked to leave the building. I asked. ‘Why?’ I was told, ‘You have to leave because someone ordered you to leave.’
“I’m like, ‘I’ve been here 4½ minutes (of game time), I’m a Knicks fan, I played here for 10 years, I love the Knicks, I love New York, with my heart. I wish them all the luck, and success on the basketball court.’ I don’t know why I’m not welcome into the Garden. The next thing I know, so many guys, more and more kept coming at me.”
Oakley’s timing on causing the stir in general was impeccable.
The player who was known for his toughness, physicality, bruising defense and non-stop, hard-nosed play — and who only knew how to play that way all the time — was escorted from the arena on a night when the allergic-to-defense Knicks trailed by one point at halftime despite tying their season-high of 67 first-half points, and during a game in which New York would lose despite scoring 115 points, while losing for the eighth time this season (in 19 games) when scoring 110 points or more.
It was also the Knicks 300th regular season game since their last playoff appearance (in 2013). New York has won only 36 percent of those, going 108-192.
Further, the game marked the one-year anniversary of the firing of Derek Fisher, who was let go by team president Phil Jackson (who tried to calm Oakley down after he was taken through the tunnel) at 23-31 last year. The loss to the Clippers puts the Knicks (22-32) a game worse after the same amount of games.
Jeff Hornacek is now star forward Carmelo Anthony’s fifth head coach, to go along with four general managers (counting Jackson’s role as team president) and an alarming 80 different teammates in Anthony’s six-plus years in New York.
Anthony has made the playoffs in three of those years, which account for nearly half of the seven years the Knicks reached the postseason over the 18 seasons since Oakley left the team as a player, following a decade-long run in which New York made playoffs every year, in part because Oakley demanded of himself and of his teammates that they always would go all out, each game.
Instead of letting that work to their advantage during far more difficult times today, the Knicks somehow, in a way that seemingly only they can do, have completely messed up what should be one of the easiest things for a sports franchise to do — welcoming back a very popular player from an earlier era.
Who knows if Oakley will ever be allowed back to the Garden again, even with his own ticket. But if Dolan were smart about where New York is and where the team is and where it appears to be headed, he’d put aside his grudges and hire Oakley for Hornacek’s bench instead of sending him before a judge’s bench.
Oakley may have been a little misguided in how he demonstrated it on Wednesday night, but it’s questionable whether Kurt Rambis (in charge of a continually failing Knicks defense) and other Knicks coaches share the same level of devotion to the franchise and match the same desire in seeing New York succeed as Oakley still has nearly two decades after wearing a Knicks uniform more proudly than many Knicks players have done after him.
Thanks to Dolan, Oakley was astonishingly arrested. But the biggest crimes in this scenario have been committed by the Knicks, by allowing one of the most passionate fan bases in sports — including Oakley himself — to be repeatedly disappointed ever since the days long ago when Oakley was actually welcome by all at the Garden.