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If Oakley goes, so goes the heart of the Knicks

(c) 1995 Copyright
(c) 1995 Scripps-McClatchy Western

NEW YORK (Dec 13, 1995 - 08:00 EST) -- So often he looks like Jimmy Brown in short pants and sneakers, lugging his battered body up and down 94 feet of a basketball night, pulling himself up from the floor with his ankles howling and his knees whistling, wincing as he goes, limping. And then, somehow, always, getting his hands on another loose ball, another rebound, the same way Brown would rise from the dead to plow his way forward for five yards, or 10, knocking people down as he went.

That is Charles Oakley, and he has been doing this for a very long time at Madison Square Garden, and there is plenty of talk now that the Knicks are perfectly willing to part with his floor burns, with his heart, with the passion he manages to bring to the table game after game, even now, even in December, with a long, empty NBA winter still staring him in the face.

Only Oakley can make December feel like June at the Garden, can make it vibrate like a subway platform for what should be another workaday stop on the endless, faceless, 82-game NBA superhighway.

"I just play, man," he said Sunday night, stone-faced, his right ankle swallowed by ice packs following the Knicks' classic 118-112, double-overtime win over the Spurs. "I just want to play. Long as the coach puts me out there, that's what I'm gonna do. Play. Play hard."

His machine-gun syntax is a refreshing burst of honesty in a Knicks clubhouse still frosted by a Rileyesque doctrine of keeping quotes as bland and predictable as possible. But that is hardly his most endearing trait. Sunday, he was 19 points and 19 rebounds against the Spurs, 24 hours after he was 16 rebounds against the Hawks. Both games were Knick wins. Most games are when Oakley is sticking numbers such as this into the scorepad.

"He was so outstanding tonight," Knicks coach Don Nelson said, "that as much as we missed Patrick (Ewing) when he fouled out (early in the first overtime), I really thought we were in for trouble when Oak got his sixth foul."

They weren't because these Knicks have quickly adapted to Nelson's quirky approach to life and lineups, have learned to play just fine even when Ewing, their $18 million mealticket, misses 18 out of 27 shots and meekly concedes his personal battle to David Robinson. By the end of the second overtime, there were four guards and Herb Williams trying to hold off the Spurs, and yet the Knicks somehow managed to play their best basketball of the night then, making foul shots and reckless driving layups and spooking the Spurs on defense. All of this with Ewing, Oakley and Anthony Mason serving as pricey accessories to their bench.

"This," Knicks guard Derek Harper crowed, "was maybe the best game I've ever been involved with."

Thank Oakley for that. In the final few moments of regulation, he plucked three errant Ewing rebounds out of the sky, all of them over Robinson, converting those three offensive boards into eight points. The last three came at the very end, when he gathered in Ewing's final miss of the night, then shoveled it out to Harper, who nailed the 3-pointer that should have won the game for the Knicks 103-100.

That it didn't is not the point and, ironically, you can credit Oakley for that, too. After Nelson ordered the Knicks to foul Sean Elliott, rather than let Elliott get off a potentially game-tying 3-pointer, the Knicks opted to pair Oakley with Robinson and Ewing with Will Perdue for the free throws. This discouraged Elliott from trying to miss the shot in Robinson's direction and he didn't; somehow, the ball bounced over Ewing's hands, over Perdue's, and into Elliott's, who naturally banked in a 16-footer to keep the night going.

"What can you say?" Oakley said. "The guy made a hell of a shot. But I did my job."

He is blunt he is brusque, he yearns for the kind of respect he believes has been denied him across eight years in New York City. And now, every few days, you hear about Oakley as trade bait, either for Alonzo Mourning or Shawn Bradley or Kenny Anderson. Now you hear whispers of a package involving Oakley and Bryant Stith of the Denver Nuggets. Tomorrow it will be somebody else.

Oakley shrugs at all of these news flashes and goes about his business, unwilling -- or unable -- to let it affect his work. There is little question the Knicks need to get younger legs here, need fresher lungs to endure this basketball marathon that just passed the quarter pole. The problem with this theory is that the Knicks have exactly two marketable players, and one -- Ewing -- carries both the millstone of an $18 million pricetag and the lease to the Knicks' franchise around his neck.

That leaves Oakley and Mason, and the Knicks aren't about to deal Mason, not after throwing most of Citibank at him. So it really only leaves Oakley, and you wonder if that really leaves any options at all, because all Oakley brings to the Knicks is his heart, and an open vein every night, one that bleeds the kind of character around which this team was built in the first place.

Maybe that means the Knicks will be doomed to an eternity of empty playoff summers if they keep him. If so, fine. Without Oakley, they may be sentenced to something worse: old-time Knick basketball -- soulless, gutless, passionless and painfully soft. You make the call.

Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record