March 20, 2001

Driving way past the basket

He's got friends in high places, but Charles Oakley's favourite company is the open road: The veteran Toronto Raptor has always had a thing for his hot wheels and the solitude that goes with cruising for cruising's sake. Once the NBA season ends, Charles Oakley logs some serious mileage, visiting friends, family and his favourite golf courses. Friends marvel at his stamina behind the wheel, and the fact he does it solo, but then Oak is Oak, and he's just gotta be movin'

Dave Feschuk
National Post
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The second of five parts

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When Charles Oakley was the big man on campus, he drove a small car: It was a dark blue Volkswagen Beetle he rescued from the junkyard for US$300 in the early 1980s. And when Oakley's 6-foot-9 frame would emerge from the classic compact, the college basketball star looked something like a grizzly bear exiting a go-cart.

"The seat was as far back as it would go -- you just couldn't believe he got in and out of it," remembers Bo Bailey, one of Oakley's friends at Virginia Union University. "But he probably thought it was worth $10-million."

Says Dave Robbins, Oakley's college coach: "That car was sharp as a tack. He kept it clean as a pin. Charles is particular. You didn't get in Charles' car and leave a can or a bottle or a McDonald's burger wrapper."

These days not much has changed: Although his status as a multi-millionaire member of the Toronto Raptors has expanded his fleet to include more prestigious nameplates -- including a rotating stock of Ferraris, Range Rovers and Porsches -- Oakley still owns the Beetle. And true to his reputation as a man unchanged by riches, he even drives the old beater occasionally.

"It's transportation. If I own it, I drive it," he says. "Gotta be putting miles on it if it's mine."

Oakley's obsession with the open road sees him log miles that would make a trucker weary. His summertime drives -- set to the beats of his rap and hip-hop CDs -- are the stuff of locker-room legend. He says last year he put about 30,000 miles on his black Range Rover, circumnavigating the continent on an impromptu sojourn that accommodated both his hatred of schedules and his love of solitude.

"I relax, think. I just like to be on my own," he says. "When you fly, there's down time. When you drive, you drive. I try not to drive when there's traffic, but sometimes there is traffic. But I like to be under my own control. Go places, visit family, friends ... Do a golf outing now and then. I just go."

His holiday travels are like the behind-the-back passes he unfurls on the court at his whim: Sometimes even he's unsure where they're headed. But his friends marvel at his stamina behind the wheel.

At season's end, for instance, he'll make the four-hour trip from Toronto to his hometown of Cleveland to visit family and check on Oakley's Wash House, the combination car wash-laundromat he owns. From there he'll be off to New York, where his 10 years as a Knick left him plenty of ties. To Alabama, where he has relatives. To Florida, where his son, Charles Jr., lives with his mother. Or to Richmond, Va., site of Virginia Union, where he likes to work out and hit the links. In between, he's wont to bolt for Las Vegas, New Orleans or Atlanta, where he divides much of his leisure time.

"He'll get in a car and drive anywhere," says Robbins. "Half the time when he calls me he's in the car going somewhere. I tell him, 'Charles, you're either going somewhere or you're getting ready to.' It's one of those two things. He is constantly on the go."

It's not that Oakley is afraid to fly. It's just that, after jetting to NBA cities in the close company of his teammates all season, he craves a little low-to-the-ground isolation. He's atypical on the court -- in a league that values highlight reels, his 16-year career has been built on grit more than TV-worthy grace -- and he goes his own way off it, too. While his high-profile teammates eschew the hassles of public life, he's been known to enjoy cocktails alongside the locals at quiet Toronto drinking holes. And while most of the Raptors rent or own condominiums in the city's Harbourfront neighbourhood for its close proximity to the Air Canada Centre, Oakley lives uptown in the tony Yorkville area, where he sometimes satisfies his fashion jones by strolling Bloor Street's row of high-end clothiers and shoe shops.

But once the season ends, he's invariably driving for the U.S. border.

"I think that's his favourite company -- the road," says Alberta Wright, a long-time friend who runs the New York restaurant Oakley co-owns.

"There's nobody like Oak out there," says Anthony Mason, the Miami Heat forward who was Oakley's protege when they were teammates in New York.

"I mean, I like to drive, but Oak'll cover four or five states in a day. He's just got to be movin'."

Now that the 37-year-old NBA veteran is pondering retirement at the end of next season, when his contract with the Raptors runs out, he is also shopping for new wheels. He was recently seen flipping through a magazine filled with pictures of previously owned luxury transportation. But it wasn't the Ferrari going for US$296,000 that caught his eye. Oakley has had his fill of sports cars; now he's in the market for a recreational vehicle.

Though he has looked at the standard retirement-mobile -- a Winnebago -- he has recently been leaning toward a Prevost bus, the plush condominium-on-wheels favoured by rock bands.

But Oakley isn't looking to be pampered like a prima donna pop star. When he makes the purchase, he won't hire a driver. Whether it's a bus or a Beetle, he'll be at the wheel. And you can bet he'll be rolling alone.

"I'm going to head West when I get that bus," Oakley says. "Vegas, L.A., Arizona. I'll have time to do all that and I won't be in no rush. Play golf. I'll do it more toward the winter months. Work two weeks, take two or three weeks off. Make sure the car wash is still blooming, try to get some more up and running here and there.

"I might be retired, but I'll be around like always. I always get around."

OAKSPEAK:

On team chemistry:

"If you choose to get super [gasoline], you can't go back to regular. Your car gonna be hipping and hopping. It's gonna be like a rap artist."

On being slapped with a three-game suspension for punching Jeff McInnis of the L.A. Clippers even though there was no video footage of the offence:

"Just because there's glass on the highway, does that mean there was an accident? I ain't seen nothing on camera, so I don't know really what they're talking about."

On the Raptors' reliance on all-star Vince Carter:

"It ain't about whether we need a co-pilot for our captain. The captain can put the plane on autopilot and go the bathroom by himself. People in the back of the plane can't see what's going on in the cockpit ... We gotta keep flying the plane no matter if Vince [Carter] is in the cockpit or in the bathroom."