Charles Oakley believes league has taken a turn for worse
By Gary Washburn | GLOBE STAFF APRIL 06, 2014
Longtime Knick Charles Oakley has some pointed opinions about the direction of the NBA, the lack of true centers, and the disappearance of enforcers.
He is one of the all-time great enforcers, so imposing that half of the current crop of NBA players probably wouldn’t dare take on a 50-year-old Charles Oakley.
Oakley is brutally honest, having played during a time when a flagrant foul was one that drew blood and knocked out teeth. The NBA of the 1990s was a defensive league when scoring 90 points would warrant free tacos for the home fans. Oakley stood tall in the paint as a bruising power forward, laying out those pesky guards who chose to challenge his authority by driving to the basket.
Oakley was in Boston on Saturday, appearing at the sixth annual Jaden’s Ladder gala at the Ritz-Carlton. (Jaden’s Ladder is a nonprofit organization that assists survivors of domestic violence. Oakley appeared with Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and actor Mekhi Phifer.)
And the longtime Knick has some pointed opinions about the direction of the league, the lack of true centers, and the disappearance of enforcers. Oakley never won an NBA title, having been dealt from Chicago to the Knicks before the Bulls began their dominance. As a Knick, he was on the team that lost in the 1994 Finals to the Houston Rockets. Still, he enjoyed a storied career filled with vicious screens, brutal elbows, and flattened opponents.
“I just tried to go out there and play with attitude, doing what I was supposed to do and knowing my role on the team,” said Oakley, who played from 1985 until 2004. “Doing what my team expected me to do every night, not just once a week. It was all about work and I was just a tough guy who would knock somebody down.”
Oakley’s style is nearly comatose in the NBA. Instant replay has allowed officials to break down every potentially rough foul, causing players to refrain from such activity. In Oakley’s days, officials weren’t so generous with technicals and ejections. The league was brutally tough.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, they looked like they were more finesse and they are finesse now,” said Oakley. “It’s going back [to finesse], a lot of outside shooting, a lot of ballhandlers, that’s how I see it. There weren’t a lot of post players back then [in the ’60s] and not a lot of post players now.”
Why is the league so chummy? Why is the NBA lacking the real rivalries from the ’80s and ’90s? Why has the overall level of play dipped?
“I’m blaming the management, I’m not blaming the kids,” Oakley said. “I’m blaming management for drafting guys on potential. Back in our day and era, you had to have your potential and be ready to play right away. Everybody was talented. In three years, you’d be out of the league [if you didn’t perform]. Draft what you need, not what someone else said is good.
“We had guys come out of high school, Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, but all these guys could play. It wasn’t about you’ve got to wait three or four years. That’s why Philadelphia is so bad, Sacramento, they got players but they are all young.”
Oakley continued his criticism of the league and its individualism.
“The coaches in this league, in this day and era, are soft; the players are soft, how can you build something?” he said. “They put all these stat guys, these analytic guys, and put them on the bench and make them GM because of numbers. My thing with basketball, you’ve got to have efficiency within your structure, like San Antonio. You’ve got to have your players to buy in. That’s what wrong with the league, you’ve got guys worried about social media, my brand. You brand once you get drafted, when you win as a team, you get your brand. When your team wins, then all of those commercials will come. Everything is all about hype.”
Oakley has an interesting theory. He believes in order to globalize the league, ex-commissioner David Stern had to change the rules to make the NBA more inviting for European players. While the rule changes to increase scoring were effective, they made the league less physical.
“When we played in the ’80s, it wasn’t OK [for European players to play in the NBA],” Oakley said. “They weren’t coming over here. They were scared. The game was tough and they weren’t tough. Back then it was 1 percent and now it’s 40 percent and it’s going to keep going up. The dollar is international now. I don’t like 7-footers shooting threes, it’s a disrespect to the game for me. Dirk [Nowitzki] is good, point blank. [Larry] Bird got away with it. A few guys can get away with it because they can flat-out shoot.”
Ten of Oakley’s 19 years in the league were spent with the Knicks, when the team thrived in the mid-1990s under coach Pat Riley. Currently, the Knicks are an organization in upheaval, having just hired Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson as team president to correct the dysfunction. Oakley said all the losing has taken the passion out of the Knicks’ faithful. He said it’s difficult to watch the decline of his former team.
“I talked to some fans from New York,” he said. “It’s like going to a concert — going to the Garden — people just want to get drunk and have fun and take pictures. They don’t really care about the game. That’s not there anymore. You’ve got some of the best fans in the world in New York. There’s no way they should be losing. You’ve got the same team that won 54 games last year. You can’t just play the last 25 games of the season tough and forget about the other 57. It don’t work like that.”
God I miss Oak.