By K.C. Johnson Tribune staff reporter
November 9, 2001 9:31 PM CST
On a day general manager Jerry Krause called the worst in his 16-year association with the Bulls, the team fined an unrepentant Charles Oakley $50,000 for comments criticizing coach Tim Floyd following a franchise-worst loss in Minnesota the previous night.
At a hastily arranged Friday news conference, Krause said the Bulls considered suspending the 17-year veteran but ultimately decided that the fine—one of the largest in franchise history—sent a strong enough message.
Oakley's reaction and refusal to apologize for, among other things, criticizing Floyd's lineup changes and substitution pattern suggested otherwise.
And if Floyd's task of balancing the desire to win with the development of young players wasn't difficult enough, the fourth-year coach now must deal with a locker-room environment that has reached a crisis stage after only five games.
Here's how bad matters are: Several team sources said an emotional team meeting ended with Oakley and Floyd shouting at each other and Floyd refusing to conduct practice, telling Oakley to "go coach the team." Floyd left his office only briefly to visit the practice court over the course of a three-hour workout.
Another team source said several players are considering helping Oakley pay the fine, which might be appealed by the players association. Calls to that organization were not returned.
If such behind-the-scenes support for Oakley's comments exists, management's problems are much larger than imagined and could jeopardize a season in which impressionable teenagers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry are learning the NBA ropes.
No matter what, Oakley's Bulls future seems murky at best. He's in the final year of a contract that pays him $7.3 million.
"Maybe I need to go to the bench, move on, whatever," Oakley said. "I didn't bring myself here. I didn't go, 'Oh, I'm going to Chicago to play my 17th year.' I got traded here. I've got no control.
"I've been in situations, nothing like this, but I can survive. People who have to survive are people who've got 25 years to life and can't get out (of prison). I've only got seven more months. It might be some hard time. But I've got to do it."
Oakley not only declined to apologize, he again addressed this team's most difficult dynamic: keeping veterans on board by winning games while also trying to develop young talent for the future.
"We have young guys here, we're throwing them in the fire, and they don't understand what's going on," Oakley said. "We want to win. For us to win, the young guys have to know what's going on. We have to be more professional on the court. We shouldn't have lost by 53 points (Thursday) night.
"I respect what was said, but you've got to respect what I said. It's a two-way street. I'm not going to be like (ex-Bull) Scottie Pippen and any time I'm called wrong, come back and apologize. It's their opinion against my opinion. I don't try to single out coaches."
Floyd reacted as if Oakley had done exactly that. Visibly angry, he made a statement and left the news conference without taking questions.
"Last time I checked my contract has head coach beside my name," Floyd said. "I'm going to continue to make substitutions, and I'm not seeking our players' approval."
Friday was a gut-wrenching day for Krause, who acquired Oakley with one of his first moves as general manager, has a picture of him in his office and has long declared the no-nonsense forward one of his favorite players. But Krause supported his coach.
"If Charles had a problem, he should've gone to Tim and expressed it in private," Krause said. "I will never say to a player, 'Don't express your opinion.' Everybody is welcome to express them. But try to do so in private."
Oakley has played in the postseason in 15 of his 16 NBA seasons, so management knew his role as mentor for a rebuilding effort might include some testy moments.
Still, Floyd took great exception to Oakley questioning why Thursday's morning shootaround in Minneapolis was canceled.
He said the team didn't arrive in Minnesota until 2:30 a.m. because Oakley was late for the charter flight from Chicago.
Floyd also bristled at Oakley's stated disappointment over not playing in the fourth quarter of the Bulls' previous three games.
"I've got a mission to try to win games. I've also got a mission to try to develop young players," Floyd said. "When you're down 17 or 18 points in the fourth quarter, it seems like an awful good time to get some young guys in there and get them some minutes."
Floyd wasn't surprised that Oakley questioned some of his coaching moves, saying Oakley's former employers in New York and Toronto had warned him to expect such questions.
"But am I disappointed? Severely," Floyd said. "I was proud of the fact that in the three years we've been here, they've been the three most trying years that anybody has ever been though in this league and we've been controversy-free."
Oakley, averaging 4.8 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds in 29 minutes, didn't say he would ask for a trade. And given his work ethic, he'll no doubt be in the lineup on Saturday, banging bodies with Charlotte.
But he also expressed a certain weary disgust with the current situation.
"It's just a different breed now—a different breed of coaches, a different breed of players," Oakley said. "I guess I'm getting too old for the game."
Oakley failed to get a rebound in 23 minutes against Minnesota. Floyd noticed.
"My last disappointment is this: Guys who speak out are typically guys putting up big numbers. And I haven't seen those numbers from our guy," Floyd said. "If he's disappointed in my comments, so be it. If anybody else is disappointed in my comments, so be it. That's all I have to say."
That's all that need be said. But with 77 games to go in a season already in danger of spiraling into turmoil, plenty more words are likely to follow.