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March 19, 2001

NBA's bruising butler to the stars

He has been called a thug and a lovable lug. He has spent 16 years doing grunt work in the NBA and resents the young hotdogs who prefer shortcuts over sweat. In the first instalment of a five-part series, we examine what makes the Tree tick. We meet a man not afraid to speak his mind, open his heart or swing his fists

Dave Feschuk
National Post

Charles Oakley once likened his role on a basketball team to that of a butler tending a mansion. And coming from a man who is known for speaking in a mumbled jumble -- who once summed up the flagging fortunes of the Toronto Raptors by noting, "You can't throw a hook on the side of the road and expect to catch a fish in the grass" -- the analogy was uncharacteristically clear.

While he has never been on the NBA's short list of spotlight-hogging stars, Oakley has built a 16-year career by taking on menial tasks to which most household names won't stoop. And like the trustiest of tuxedoed house hands, he has done his job with an old-school diligence -- and eccentricity -- that has endeared him to his employer.

Oakley is your man if you want the floor swept -- not with a broom in search of dust bunnies, but with headlong slides in pursuit of loose balls. He does windows, too: For as long as he's been in the league, there has rarely been a season when he hasn't been among the top handful of rebounders. And this year, at the age of 38, he's holding steady in the top dozen.

Pat Riley, near the end of his tenure as Oakley's coach with the New York Knicks squad that went to the 1994 NBA Finals, listed the power forward as one of just four "impact players" he had coached. The other three were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing -- franchise-defining players all. Oakley, but once an all-star during his career, made the list for his savvy, strength and guts.

"He'll go down as one of the most unique power forwards in history," says Riley. "The way he's been able to maximize his effectiveness without having huge jumping ability or great quickness, it's uncanny."

Says another legendary coach, Larry Brown: "In his prime, I haven't seen any player do more for his team. He makes plays you never read about."

Adds Elton Brand, the Chicago Bulls forward: "I hate playing against Charles Oakley. I think he's a hacker. But he's a good hacker. He stops me all the time. He's somebody I look up to."

It's not as though Brand has ever looked up to see Oakley hanging from a rim. At this late juncture of his career the man they call Tree can barely jump.

He can't run either. Among the athletic antelopes, he propels himself with a laboured stride that's part-limp, part-shuffle.

In the world of pro sports, Oakley passes for a rounded character. He can cook, he can dress and he can balance a chequebook. In today's NBA, where leather and denim rule the locker room, the 6-foot-9 giant ventures to work in nothing less than a fresh custom-made suit from his vast and ever-changing closet.

He keeps a pristine house, and owns a chain of eponymous car washes, where he has been known to spend off-season days lovingly shining sheet metal. Says his college coach and friend Dave Robbins: "You've got to fight the big man if you mess up his car. Charles is particular."

"Charles might not have been an A student in college," says his agent, Billy Diamond, "but he's an A student in business."

Above all, Oakley speaks his own gruff wisdom -- gems like "If it ain't broke, don't break it" -- and is not afraid to lay down the law.

Sure, he can be boorish when greeting guests. Jeff McInnis of the Los Angeles Clippers hadn't been in Toronto's Air Canada Centre for more than an hour this season when Oakley punched him in the head.

He's particular -- as in scrupulously exact -- and peculiar, as in famously unique.

There are maybe 100 players who are better than Oakley, but not many share his pride, his work ethic, his eccentricities and outbursts, all of which have made him one of the most compelling characters in pro sports. What he lacks in talent he makes up for in opinions strongly held. In contrast to the slick young players touted by the NBA hype machine, Oakley is his own man.

If his coaches and teammates and general managers have always seemed to tolerate his indiscretions, and his many suspensions, it is because, like a good butler, his work is mostly indispensible.

The league-wide explanation of his unpredictable behaviour -- of last season's dissertation on the merits of high-end strip clubs or of this year's ejection for slapping Philadelphia's Tyrone Hill in the head -- is a three-word standard reply. "Oak is Oak," everybody says.

Says the man himself: "All I gotta do is be black and be Oak."

---

He could have been a football player.

"In high school, I was better in football ... I was one of the best pass rushers ever to come out of [Cleveland's] John Hay [High School]," he says. "I got my job done. They wanted me to play both [in college], but I wasn't like Bo Jackson."

Jackson, of course, co-mingled baseball and football careers before injuries ended both. And Oakley's football future was extinguished by a knee injury that kept him out of collegiate training camp. But his best friends in college turned out to be football players, in part because he spent so much time in the weight room, where he bulked himself up from 215 pounds to a menacing 250 during his four-year stay in Richmond, Va.

These days he's an armchair expert on the NFL. He counts plenty of players -- including Baltimore Ravens trash-talker Shannon Sharpe -- among his friends. He has been seen counting large wads of his teammates' money after successful Sunday wagers.

"I love football," he says. "You can't be pretty playing football unless you're playing quarterback or you're playing water boy."

For part of his childhood, Oakley was a farm boy. The youngest of six siblings -- four sisters and a brother -- he went to live with his grandparents in Alabama when he was seven years old. His father, whom he has said he didn't know well, had recently died at the age of 35. His mother, Corine Oakley, struggled to support her children, often working two jobs in Cleveland.

Charles remembers days spent alongside his grandfather, Julius "Hope" Moss, who would tirelessly pick cotton and tend livestock in the unforgiving humidity of the Alabama summer. Charles was too small to be of much help, but he wasn't too young to learn the virtue of hard labour.

"It was hard work, but he worked, no questions asked," Oakley says. "Whatever it took, a 14-hour day, he'd do the work."

Oakley's rare affinity for grunt work explains his success. It also explains why a group of veteran players -- including a budding second-year star named Michael Jordan -- embraced him when he arrived as a rookie in Chicago.

"I think they had respect because of the way I carried myself, not my skills ... but being humble, being willing to work, not because I came from a big school and thought I was going to come into the league and have 20, 30 points a night," says Oakley, who was the ninth-overall selection in the 1985 draft after earning the NCAA Division 2 player of the year award.

"That's the reason those guys looked after me. I didn't take no s--- from anybody. When you see guys coming in with that attitude, not starting any trouble, being polite, trying to do their job every night. That's what I try to teach guys ... just try to work hard and say, hey, I'm not trying to take a shortcut."

Oakley shakes his head at the corner-cutting habits of the NBA's young players. For the past five years or so he's been railing in the press against "the hype" -- the league's attempt to create stars out of unproven glamour players.

"The league's a joke," is his standard refrain.

Last month he said 60% of players were on marijuana, and two weeks later a pair of high-profile names, Isaiah "J.R." Rider and Lamar Odom, received five-game suspensions for failing to comply with the league's anti-drug policy.

"Was I wrong?" wondered Oakley, whose statement was met with skepticism by the league office.

Still, Oakley has done his share to tarnish the league's image. In late 2000 he enhanced his reputation as a ruffian by tangling with McInnis in a dispute over a mutual female acquaintance. Oakley claims McInnis threatened his life: "I told him, 'I'm not the type of guy you threaten.' '' He also tussled with Hill in a dispute over an outstanding debt.

After Toronto beat the 76ers in January -- two months after he had been ejected from an exhibition game for slapping Hill -- Oakley threatened further violence against Hill in a locker-room brag session to which numerous members of the media were privy.

"If I see [Hill] in the summertime, I'm going to make him bleed," said Oakley. "I swear on my mother. The league's got his back now, but they can't have his back all the time."

Says Miami's Anthony Mason: "Oak is one of the friendliest people in the world, but he's not a person to be crossed. He's like, 'Be the same way with me day in and day out. If you're going to be my friend, be my friend ... Either you're going to be cool or stay away.' "

But while some call Oakley a thug, others insist he's a lovable lug.

Robbins, who coached him for four years at Virginia Union but still keeps in touch, says Oakley is renowned for his charity.

He pays for a full scholarship at his alma mater every year; he ships large boxes of his expensive clothing -- often after wearing a suit once -- to the school's big-bodied athletes.

And while other pro jocks beckon the press to cover their holiday-season handouts to underprivileged children, Oakley has been holding private Christmas parties for years on the condition he receive no publicity.

Says Diamond, his agent: "That may be the most common compliment I hear about him: 'Oh my God, he's a pussycat in person!' People have this image of him as a rough and tough guy who's unapproachable, but he's got a big heart."

Says Robbins: "He calls my wife to wish her a happy Mother's Day. And that's after he calls his own mother."

Oakley's family, most of whom still call Cleveland home, have shared in the benefits of his success. He bankrolled both the hair salon and the combination car wash-laundromat over which his mother and sister Cheryl now preside. And down at Oakley's Wash House, where the highway grime is removed by hand -- "none of that brush and pressure stuff," he says -- there are cousins and uncles behind the sponges.

"Charles," says Corine Oakley, "has been good to his family."

The game has been good to him. Sure, friends say he was hurt by the trade that sent him from Chicago to New York in 1988 -- he and Jordan, who remain close friends, were at the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight championship fight in Atlantic City when they heard that news.

And yes, he was stunned by the 1998 draft-day deal that brought him to Toronto after 10 years in the Big Apple earned him a cult following and a veritable key to the city.

But after complaining during his years in Chicago and New York about being underappreciated and underpaid, he'll make US$6-million this season, highest among the Raptors, which isn't bad cash for a butler.

"My teammates don't have to cater to me, I cater to them," he says.

"There's a job for everybody in this world. My job is to bang, [dive for] loose balls, take charges, hit the jumper every now and then ...

"I just try to do what it takes, wear my hard hat to work every day and hope that a steel beam don't fall on my head."

OAKSPEAK:

On pre-game jitters

"I don't get nervous. To me, being nervous is being halfway scared, and if you're scared, you might as well be playing for the other team."

On backing up your boasts

"You just can't talk about it, you gotta be about it. Talk don't get you nothing but more conversation."

On the NBA's future

"I think in about three or four more years they'll be wearing dresses -- that's how soft the league is. You know, all your veterans will be gone, it'll be all these young girls around."

On his favourite high-school football coach

"This guy came up to him one time, 'Oh, my finger broke, Coach!' Coach spit on it and said, 'You better keep playing or go home.' You know, it wasn't in a mean way. The guy's finger probably wasn't broke, he probably just got hit hard. That's why I love football."