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Lack of desire stokes the fire in Oak

By Jon Gelberg

PURCHASE, N.Y. -- Two games into the season, Charles Oakley is approaching his boiling point.

Though the Knicks are 1-1 going into tonight's game against the Boston Celtics, Oakley has serious doubts about his teammates' commitment to winning.

"We've got more talent then we ever had, but we've got to find a way to get it done on the court," he said. "We keep talking about sacrifice, but we've got to be about sacrifice."

When Oakley looks around the Knicks locker room, he can't help but shake his head. While players keep talking about championships, he said, many have no clue of what it takes to get there.

"This team hasn't won anything, but everybody wants something for themselves," he said. "Some guys want every day off. Some guys don't want to practice, but they want to play in the game, they want to take all the shots.

"Guys are pouting. They pout about practice. They don't like to do this or that. They're pouting about things they shouldn't pout about on a veteran team. That may be why we haven't gotten over the hump."

Oakley, known as one of the hardest workers in the NBA, is shocked by the lack of discipline and dedication shown by his teammates. Without naming names, he was clearly sending a message to one particular teammate, guard John Starks.

Starks has made a habit of coming to practice late and playing at half speed during practice. It has driven Oakley crazy that he has been sitting on the bench at the end of the Knicks' first two games while Starks has been on the court.

"I do my job," Oakley said. "I just try to do what it takes. I just wear a hard hat to work every day and hope that a steel beam don't fall on my head. You've got to go after it. Dive for the ball. But some guys don't like hitting the floor.

"When I came into the league, nobody was complaining about no days off. The league's gotten soft. The players have gotten soft. All these players are looking for breaks, and they're not looking to work. You've got guys smiling the whole game, shaking hands with each other. They don't act like they want to win."

Oakley's value to the team was best illustrated in his absence, for the final 9:17, from Sunday night's loss to the Detroit Pistons.

The Knicks were leading, 67-64, when coach Jeff Van Gundy decided to go with a smaller lineup. With three guards, Larry Johnson and Patrick Ewing on the court, the Pistons went on a 30-19 run. Grant Hill, going virtually unchallenged, scored 16 of his 34 points over the final 11 minutes.

"Sure, I wanted to be in there," Oakley said. "But that's the coach's decision, not mine. I've been in this league for 13 years. I'm still strong. I wanted to be on the court."

Van Gundy, after watching films of the game, agreed with Oakley.

"Obviously I didn't have the right guys in at the end," he said. "We gave up 36 points (in the fourth quarter) and it was a pathetic 36 points. It was layup, layup, layup. We need to have playmakers on the floor at the end of the fourth quarter, defensively and offensively.

"I certainly don't believe, if (Oakley) was on the floor, we would have given up 36 points. He would have made a couple of plays himself to keep that from happening.

"There are times he's not going to finish, but I don't think there should be many times. If you're having trouble getting stops, then you've got to have him on the floor."

Van Gundy, though, isn't about to give up on the team's three-guard scheme.

"One of our strengths is our flexibility," he said. "There's a lot we can do with the three guards, Larry and Patrick in there. I know that Charles makes a lot of plays not a lot of guys in the league make, but that doesn't mean other players can't make them. Our whole team should be able to make those plays."

Oakley doesn't necessarily agree. The Knicks spend too much time reacting to other teams' personnel, he said, instead of relying on their own strengths. If you have "big" players like Ewing, Larry Johnson and Oakley on your team, it makes no sense to keep one of them on the bench in critical situations.

"We're more established," Oakley said. "We're talking about trying to win a championship. We shouldn't be changing for them. You can't build a big house, then tear it down the next day. You can't lay a 20,000-square-foot foundation, then build a 4,000-square-foot house on top of it."