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Replanting Oak in the Swamp?

By Steve Politi STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK -- The question caught Charles Oakley's attention: Would Oakley, who spent 10 seasons with the Knicks, consider signing with the Nets when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season?

"New Jersey? Jersey's nice," the exiled forward said. "They're building. They've got some young guys. They might need some more veterans on their team. I just have to wait and see what happens."

New Jersey is nice. Nicer than New York, which never will be home again "as long as Ernie (Grunfeld) is there." And nicer than Toronto, where Oakley and the Raptors are 1-4 after a 95-85 loss to the Knicks last night. Already Oakley looks tired of losing. And while the Raptors have demonstrated they have some young, talented players, they also look like a contender for another high lottery pick.

"I'm leaving all my options open," said Oakley, an ice pack taped to his shoulder as he sat in unfamiliar surroundings -- the visiting locker room at the Garden. "I'd like to get a ring someday. I'm tired of buying them."

Oakley had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists and made four of 10 shots in 31 minutes against the Knicks. It was hardly the emotional return that many people expected.

Madison Square Garden honored Oakley at halftime with a highlight video of his 10-year Knicks career, but the video lasted less than two minutes. And Oakley, already in the locker room for halftime, didn't see it. He had expected to see it before the game.

Was he dissed by his former team?

"They said it was something about time and air play," said Oakley, who was greeted with a standing ovation when he was introduced before the game. "It's not an NBC game or a TNT game, so I don't know. I can't question it. They showed it. I'll see it on a rerun or I'll have a coach put it on a special tape for me."

About one-third of the fans at the Garden, accustomed to racing to the concession stands before the end of the half, didn't see it, either.

"They had a ceremony?" asked Marcus Camby, who was sent to the Knicks in exchange for Oakley. "I would have liked to have seen it. Definitely, he's deserving of it."

Perhaps the welcome -- or lack of one -- is fitting. Oakley's trade to the Raptors seven months ago remains an open wound for Oakley. Before the game, he took a few shots at Grunfeld and questioned his former team's ability to win a championship.

Oakley, 35, wanted to finished his career in New York, where he has four car washes, a house in White Plains, a restaurant in Manhattan and a legion of fans. He was a key contributor on a perennial playoff team. But if he can't be in New York, maybe New Jersey is the next best thing. And tormenting his former team by playing in the same division might be sweet, too.

Some say Toronto is like a smaller, cleaner, friendlier New York, but as Oakley has discovered, it's not New York. In Toronto, Oakley lives in a hotel suite that doesn't even have cable TV. He plays on a young team -- he is one of just three Toronto players born in the '60s -- that is a contender for not much more than a high draft pick.

"I miss the fans, knowing my way around, knowing where to get good food -- just New York, New York," Oakley said.

And what about Canada?

"I get a lot of hockey," he said. "The paper comes two days late. What happens in New York doesn't matter. I've got to worry about Toronto right now."

He might not have to worry about the Raptors for long. His salary is listed at $10 million this season but that is prorated because of the lockout and further diminished by Canada's hefty income tax for high earners.

"He can sign with Toronto for the maximum for three years, which is how long he wants to play, or he can look for a team that has a chance to win a title and obviously take less money," said Billy Diamond, his Springfield-based business manager. "My suggestion to him was to wait until the season ends, until everything's done."

Oakley still keeps in touch with several of his former Knicks teammates, including Larry Johnson and Herb Williams. He made an appearance in the Knicks locker room after the game.

"It was weird (seeing him in a Toronto uniform), but that's the nature of this business," Knicks center Patrick Ewing said. "Here today and gone tomorrow. We chit-chatted for a minute and then he tried to take my head off."

Oakley said the Knicks probably would win 35 games without him this season.

"They want to win a championship, but you can't buy yourself a championship in New York, you've got to go on the court and perform," he said. "It's all about the players. New York can make you or break you. Some guys can't take New York pressure."