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Oakley really knows how to throw a party
Raptor provides Christmas smiles for 80 youngsters

Doug Smith

Toronto Star

A menacing scowl? Sure.

Gritty determination? To be certain.

A perplexed grimace at the vagaries of some basketball youth? Without question.

Those are the predominant looks and attitudes of Charles Oakley, veteran NBA warrior and outspoken commentator on matters of the world large and small.

Add sheepish grin to the list.

Oak? Sheepish?

Absolutely, at least when the conversation turns to his private party for almost 80 Toronto kids yesterday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.

``Kids? Party? What do you mean?'' he asked when the subject was broached.

Yes, kids, a party. Balloons, face-painters, jugglers, food a-plenty and, of course, Santa Claus and presents. All on Oak. Although prying any information from the usually loquacious power forward is difficult.

``Ahh, it's nothing,'' he said. ``Just a gesture, an expression. Just wanted to do something for some kids.''

The only thing he didn't get to do was make the food.

``There just wasn't enough time,'' the accomplished chef and restaurateur said. ``One day, before I leave, I'll cook though. It'll be good, too.''

So that's how the recently turned 37-year-old NBAer was spending the day before the night before Christmas, handing over gifts sure to brighten the holiday season.

Given that Oakley is the anti-hype king of the current crop of NBA players, the fact he wanted no publicity is in keeping with his desire for a somewhat low profile.

The message he wanted to deliver was simple and from the heart. And with Oakley's unique way of expressing himself verbally, it would have been interesting to hear. That, of course, would have meant turning the afternoon affair into a media event and Oakley was having none of that.

``I tell them (the children, that is) it all starts at home, with your family, and it goes from there,'' he said while trying his hardest to alter the conversation. ``Always listen, take the best advice and follow it. Be open-minded and listen.''

The advice will have nothing to do with drawing an offensive foul, gently nudging aside an opponent to grab a rebound or sneakily knocking another guy into the front row. He also wasn't about to give away his secret formula for floor-length passes or behind-the-back entry passes that sometimes go so horribly awry.

``It's not about basketball; I don't worry about basketball with them,'' he said. ``A lot of people need help that's got nothing to do with basketball and it's fun to help. Basketball doesn't matter to these people, life does.''

Actually, it should come as no surprise that Oakley decided to do something special for kids at this time of year. On his private days, he is heavily involved in a series of charitable foundations and he has conducted basketball camps for underprivileged children in his hometown of Cleveland, plus Alabama and Virginia each summer. It all stems from his first job as a kid in Cleveland, as a counsellor at a summer youth camp.

And then there are the shoes.

The shelf and top of Oakley's locker are always jammed with used sneakers and that is not because he is trying to find a correct fit or a new footwear endorsement contract. He has collected them to pass on to his alma mater, tiny Virginia Union.

``There's just a lot of people who need help,'' he said.

Raptors officials also like to tell the story of Oakley's appearance, along with all of his teammates, at the Hospital for Sick Children a year or so ago. It was part of a promotional effort in which Shopper's Drug Mart offered $1,000 per point in a game, up to $125,000.

When Oakley heard about the deal, he quietly approached team officials, asked them what would happen if the Raptors fell short of 125 points in the particular game and then told them he would make up the difference. He didn't have to, of course, because that's the domain of the corporate partner, but he was willing to.

``Totally genuine, he wanted to make sure they got all the money and (he) was going to write a cheque if he had to,'' a team official said. ``He's always doing things like that and we can't tell anyone.''