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March 23, 2001

Master of his domain

Charles Oakley knows what it takes to earn his money off the court as well as on. His business acumen, however, was not fine-tuned at school, but in a liquor store

Dave Feschuk
National Post

The last of five parts

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When Charles Oakley wanted to open a car wash in his hometown of Cleveland in 1990, his New York agent scoffed at the prospect.

Billy Diamond had heard this spiel before: He knew plenty of professional athletes who fancied themselves entrepreneurs. And he knew that for every jock who opened a successful restaurant or bar, there was a long line of others who ate big losses.

"I thought the car wash was a terrible idea," Diamond says. "I laughed at Charles."

But, 11 years later, Diamond has to admit Oakley's Wash House -- a combination car wash-laundromat in East Cleveland -- is a cash-making success. So are the six outlets of Oakley's Car Wash in the New York City area. And so is Oakley's Cleveland limousine service, not to mention the rest of the diverse business concerns over which the Toronto Raptors forward presides.

"Charles has got something that's better than a business education -- he's got street smarts," says Michael Kane, Oakley's accountant. "If he decided to be a farmer, he'd be a good farmer. If he decided to be an astronaut, he'd be a good astronaut. Whatever he put his mind to, he'd do well. He doesn't do things on a half-assed basis. He goes all out."

Oakley has earned a hallowed reputation for his relentless NBA efforts. In the midst of his 16th season, he isn't among the all-time leaders in scoring or corporate endorsements. But, at 37, he has definitely earned his place among the game's best-ever trench diggers; he's still diving into courtside laps with an admirable recklessness.

And with retirement on the horizon -- he says he'll play until his current contract expires in 2002, then consider his options -- he is well positioned for continuing forays into the world of corporate suits.

"When you get five or six car washes, you're building a franchise," Oakley says. "You don't just open 'em just to open 'em. We're trying to make it work. The more you have, the more credit you can get, the more people want to deal with you.

"More you got in life, it seems like it gives you the opportunity to do other things. You've got some collateral. People take you seriously."

When you're a multi-millionaire with a well-known name, there are people who try to flat-out take you.

"Nine times out of 10, the guys who bring Charles business proposals think he's a big, dumb jock and they can get over on him," Diamond says. "You've got to be extremely careful."

Indeed, Diamond remembers one particular proposition during Oakley's 10-year stint with the New York Knicks: The owners of a restaurant near Madison Square Garden were offering a substantial fee to use Oakley's name for their establishment. But both Diamond and Oakley sensed something shady.

"Two months later," Diamond says, "the place was taken over by the police."

The strength of Oakley's mini-empire is in its personnel. In the case of the Cleveland Wash House, he trusts his mother, Corine, and sister Cheryl to watch over the business when he's not around. He has also bankrolled Hair Solutions and Nails Etc., East Cleveland salons operated by his four sisters, and an eponymous limousine service run by another close associate.

But Oakley is never far removed from the inner workings of his businesses.

"The way he analyzes a financial statement is enlightening," Kane says. "He can look at the numbers and say, 'Is this business running right?' And he knows the answer."

Oakley did not graduate from Virginia Union University; his acumen wasn't born from hitting the books. His godfather, Warren Williams Sr., is an entrepreneur who once ran a liquor store in Washington, D.C. It was in that store that Oakley learned much of what he knows about balancing the books.

"He didn't say much, but he was always observing," Williams says. "Charles has a way of taking everything in."

These days, he doesn't mind speaking out. He says running an NBA team isn't beyond him: "The league ain't that hard to figure out. I know more than most owners."

And as for the car-wash racket, he's happy with the returns: "It's a cash-flow business, but it makes money if you know how to put money back into it and take care of your workers and make them happy, because it's a hard job."

Oakley isn't afraid to get his own hands soapy: He is well-known for helping out on the wash line, even if he's wearing one of his countless custom suits. And perhaps he has avoided being duped by scam artists because he isn't afraid to get his hands bloody, either. It's been widely reported that Oakley slapped Tyrone Hill of the Philadelphia 76ers before an exhibition game this season over an unpaid debt. And he has threatened further violence against his former associate.

"It's not over. O.J.'s not over," Oakley has said of his dispute with Hill, alluding to the Simpson case. "It's not over."

Oakley has never been afraid to reveal his underbelly. He explains himself by reciting an old-school principle: "If something happens and I gotta do something, I'm gonna take things into my own hands."

His hands have made him millions: They've swatted balls, tugged jerseys, broken falls. But his handshake isn't to be betrayed.

Says Dave Robbins, Oakley's college coach: "If you respect Oak, he's your friend for life. But if you disrespect him, he'll go to war with you ... That's something I like about him. That's what makes him Oak."

OAKSPEAK:

On team chemistry

"Two guys are going to get a lot of shots, one other guy is going to get maybe half the shots the two guys get. And the other guys got to be a part of the band. Play an instrument. You can't have three or four lead singers. It ain't gonna sound good."

On retirement

"A career's not over till it's over. The fat lady's just dancin' right now. She's lost a little weight, but she's still dancin'. "

On the fact that NBA commissioner David Stern has patronized Oakley's New York City-area car washes

"I charge him double."