By Mike Vaccaro
ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is the flip side, the one only Charles Oakley's teammates ever really see. In public, on the streets of his native Cleveland or in the after-hours club of the moment in New York City, his adopted home, Oakley always has been a vision in his $10,000 fluorescent suits, has never failed to please the style police with his sartorial impulses.
But it is in here, in the Disney Institute's sweaty gymnasium, where the Raptors have chosen to prepare for the playoffs, cooled only by overhead fans that mostly let the hot, sticky Florida air run laps, that Oakley wins the hearts and minds of his co-workers. It always has been that way. When the time comes to punch in a time card, Oakley never has tired of the gritty side of his vocation.
"He's the first in the weight room, he's the first on the court to stretch, he's always staying late to take extra shots," says Oakley's coach with the Toronto Raptors, Butch Carter. "Look at him. He killed himself today, in a hot gym, because he doesn't want any of the kids around here to think you can slack off just because we won 45 games this year. Look at him."
Look at him. Oakley has ice packs strapped to both ankles, to both thighs, to his lower back. When teammate Antonio Davis walks by, proffers a joke, Oakley roars, his head shaking, his dreadlocks flying one way, small rivulets of sweat going the other way, aches and pains filling every spasm of laughter.
"I'm old," Oakley says. "An old man, no two ways about it."
It long has been Oakley's fate to be a career straight man, a second banana to Michael Jordan in Chicago, Patrick Ewing in New York, now Vince Carter in Toronto. There was a time when that bothered him a lot more than it does now.
Now, he knows he's Father Time around these Raptors.
"Oak, he played back before the shot clock, right?" guard Doug Christie cackles.
But there is a reverence hidden amid the laughter. Oakley's numbers never were startling, even when he was the most important Knick, watching Ewing's back, spilling Baldwin brother drinks and diving into celebrity row for loose balls. Now they are even less so, a nice, symmetrical 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in just over 30 minutes a game.
Oakley isn't even the Raptors' prime source of muscle. Davis is.
"You better not mess with Oak, though," Davis says with a grin. "He likes to remind folks that he's still stronger than they are."
So Oakley will lead the charge into Madison Square Garden tomorrow afternoon, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The most popular Knick since Earl Monroe will be wearing the Raptors' unsightly unis, he'll take a good look around during layup lines, maybe steal a peek upward, toward the Garden's pinwheel roof, where a No. 34 will take up permanent residence about five minutes after he retires.
And that's the last sentiment he will show for as long as the series lasts.
"I know what to expect there," he says. "It's the headquarters of basketball, all of the city is, but especially that building. But you can't get wrapped up in it. You can't just say, 'Oh well, this is New York, this is the Knicks, we're in trouble now.' You can't take nothing for granted."
Carter smiles when he's asked if Oakley's playoff experience -- not to mention the 55 playoff games he has played inside the Garden -- will give his club an added advantage.
"Sure," he says. "If Vince and Tracy (McGrady) have great games, if Antonio has a great game, if everybody plays together and works together and plays playoff-level defense, then Oak's experience is going to very valuable. If none of that happens, it probably won't mean much that Oak's been through so many wars."
And Oakley himself admits as much.
"I'm not the focus here," he says. "If we win, it's gonna be because some of the other guys had big series. I'm just here to help out."
He's right, of course. If there's an ex-Knick intent on and capable of paying back his former employer, it's going to be Christie, who has gotten better and better as the season has progressed, who is certainly a threat to torch the Knicks' backcourt on any given night, and who wants very badly to leave his imprint -- and his footprint -- at the Garden in the next couple of days.
"It's nothing personal," Christie says. "It's just about going to war."
At 36, Oakley is still one of the half-dozen players in the NBA whose teammates would blindly follow him into battle, and he takes the role seriously. Especially now. If he felt like he was being exiled two summers ago, when the Knicks traded him in for a younger, sleeker model named Marcus Camby, it didn't take him long to understand he'd landed on the ground floor of an intriguing experiment north of the border; remember, he could have come back last summer if he'd really wanted to.
He stayed put instead. Now he returns, other locker room, other side of the floor, best of five. Keep the nostalgic poems for another day.
"I had a great run in New York," Oakley says. "But I play with Toronto now."