In the razzle-dazzle NBA, Charles Oakley has always been known as a blue-collar athlete -- a workhorse among show jumpers. But it's not as though he wears coveralls to the job site. He's the roughneck with an inexhaustible collection of chi-chi neckties. And he's the dirty worker who appreciates the clean line of custom-cut clothing -- so much so he buys as many as 50 made-to-measure suits a year, rarely wearing any of them more than once.
"I try not to wear the same thing twice in the same city," says the Toronto Raptors forward and 16-year veteran of the NBA. "I don't like people seeing me in the same outfit ... It's like wearing the same pair of pants five times in a row -- it's embarrassing."
For Oakley, it means buying clothing by the batch. He lives in Toronto's trend-setting Yorkville neighbourhood -- where the streets are lined with big-name boutiques -- but he purchases almost all of his suits from Mr. Ned, the same New York City tailor he's been patronizing for a half-dozen years.
The place befits Oakley's exacting old-school image. It's run by Ned and Bert Mateosian, 70-something brothers of Armenian descent who inherited the business from their father. Ned's son, Vahram, handles most of Oakley's orders.
"He's very particular when it comes to his clothes," Vahram says. "The exact style of pockets, how high he wants the buttons on his body, the bagginess of the pants, the width at the bottom. It all has to be just right or he won't be satisfied."
Oakley makes the pilgrimage to New York, where he played for 10 seasons before being traded to Toronto in 1998, perhaps four times a year. But during periods when he's away from the Big Apple, the clothiers send him swatch books of the season's fabrics, and Oakley simply orders his ensembles over the phone.
"He just called for 12 suits the other day," Bert said recently. "He's one of our best customers."
Oakley spent the past winter wearing four-button single-breasted suits in navys and browns and greens, most of them cut from the exotic wool and cashmere of Italy's Loro Piana and England's Scabal and Wain Sheill. If you're unfamiliar with those names, suffice it to say the custom designs can cost anywhere from US$3,000 to US$10,000.
"His clothes say success," Bert Mateosian says. "He gets lots of compliments, and he appreciates looking his best."
Oakley doesn't appreciate the current state of locker-room fashion. Back in his rookie season, he remembers, nearly every NBA player wore a suit to the arena. But in an era when young stars like Allen Iverson have successfully defied their coaches' jacket-and-tie dress codes, the pre-game scene looks something like a hip-hop video: It's dark, baggy denim and copious diamonds; it's tattoos and cornrows and lots of black leather.
And when he compares that to the transgressions of his youth -- when he dabbled in blinding shades of aubergine and tangerine but always wore a jacket and dress pants -- he shakes his head.
"It's OK to be hangin' out in jeans and sweatshirts, but when you go out in public, it's different," he says. "If you got $10-million, you should look like you got $10-million. And if you don't look like you got $10-million, you ain't gonna play like you're earnin' it."
Even before he earned US$6-million per season, Oakley turned heads for his against-the-trend fashion sense.
"Nobody else was wearing what he was wearing in college -- you might see him with some plaids on, or matching a fedora with his outfit," says Bo Bailey, a friend from Oakley's days at Virginia Union University. "He's always been fashionable but never going with the trend, so to speak. He was always going his own way."
Oakley's style remains unique. His jewellery, usually only a watch, is atypically understated. He still wears the occasional fedora. And his salt-and-pepper hair is ever-changing and always impeccably coiffed. He is said to fly his New York stylist to Toronto as often as every two weeks, although he grunts his disapproval when the subject is broached.
But as often as he'll criticize a reporter's questions, he'll critique a teammate's wardrobe.
When a colleague wore a thin silk suit in the chill of December, Oakley laughed: "Hope he's got long johns under that." And when a young Raptor showed up wearing a pair of casual shoes with thick treads, Oakley sounded off: "What? You going mountain climbing? What are these? Turf shoes?"
Oakley, who clads his size 16s in nothing less than the finest Italian leather, even takes notice of the fashion foibles of the notoriously scruffy press corps, doling out compliments to rare achievements in media-row elegance.
"Nice combination," he said last year, hailing a local columnist's bold ensemble. But on closer examination, he shook his head: "I don't know about the pants, though."
Brutal honesty is a trademark, but Oakley is also noted for his generosity. He ships his once-worn suits to lucky high-school and college athletes who happen to share his 6-foot-9 dimensions. One such recipient has been Chicago Bulls forward Elton Brand, who had never met Oakley when a large box arrived on his doorstep in Peekskill, N.Y., a few years back.
"I was in 10th or 11th grade and I didn't have any nice clothes like that, but somehow he heard that I was about his size and he sent me a whole box of suits," Brand says. "I mean, a box of suits. Some of those suits were purple and flashy. But a lot of 'em, I could use. I mean, he's just a nice guy."
He's nice, but he's a nitpicker. Oakley says there's a connection between personal style and professional success -- "You've got to look up to par if you're going to be up to par" -- and he's always trying to bestow that philosophy on his up-and-coming teammates.
Recently, for example, he scoffed at a rookie's finery from across the locker room.
"What colour is that?" hollered Oakley, eyeing Morris Peterson's cream-coloured threads. "In March?"
While Peterson rolled his eyes, Oakley continued: "Get your collar right." And as Peterson sought refuge in the shower room, Oakley shook his head.
"You've got some work to do," said The Chic One, looking impeccable in pinstripes and a pocket square. "I'll make sure the young guy is right. If you're going to wear a suit, it's gotta be right."
On the NBA's discipline:
"Now you can't sneeze, they'll fine you. It's a private league. An NBA team, it's like a middle school with a lot of security guards."
On the league's flagging attendance:
"Somebody paying money, bringing three or four people, paying $200 a night, they want to see a good show. They don't want to see a guy with 100 tattoos laughing and joking the whole game. They might as well stand on the corner and talk with their friends. Or go to their neighbourhood and have popcorn and a movie or something."
On young players:
"Young guys can jump and dunk and wear baggy pants, [and have] three or four pagers. But the love of basketball is not there anymore."