By KEVIN KERNAN
NO player hears the heartbeat of the NBA more clearly than Charles Oakley. Over 16 seasons the no-nonsense Toronto forward has seen it all. Now, more than ever, he does not like what he sees on the floor. Many young players have lost respect for the game, Oakley says, and that has manifested itself in disturbing ways. One of the worst, he insisted last night at the Meadowlands, was in the way drugs, specifically, marijuana use, has exploded.
"You got guys out there playing high every night," Oakley told The Post before the Nets nipped the Raptors, 113-111, in a scintillating Stephon Marbury-Vince Carter shootout.
As for the league's drug-testing policy, a policy agreed upon by the NBA and the Players Association, the Toronto forward called it "a joke."
Oakley, now 37, believes in some ways that the NBA is a league gone to pot. He says more than half the players use the illegal drug.
"You got 60 percent of your league on marijuana," Oakley said, a sense of disgust in his voice. "What can you do?"
Asked specifically if he felt that 60 percent was a legitimate number, Oakley didn't back down from his explosive comments. "It's over 50 and once you go over 50 you've got to go to the next number, 60," he said in classic Oak-speak.
Oakley said when he was a young man in the NBA: "There might have been one out of six," players smoking marijuana. "Now it's six out of 12."
Rookies are tested three times their first year while veterans are tested only once a year. "You test a guy, he gets high the next day," Oakley said. "There's no respect for the game no more."
Reacting to Oakley's comments, NBA commissioner David Stern said last night, "If Charles has any facts to back up these very serious allegations, he should turn them over to the league as well as to Billy Hunter and the executive council of the union."
If Oakley had the authority, he said he would put players under closer scrutiny. "I'd test more," he said. "But you know how it is, [they] go with the flow, it's all about the up and down, that's how it is now.
"It's a problem," continued Oakley, who did not name names. "You know, you try to teach through public announcements, 'Don't use drugs.' Things like that, but drugs is a major issue."
Oakley's comments could be considered the frustrations of a veteran player upset with the new NBA guard. But the league would be wise to listen to Oakley's complaints. He has been in NBA locker rooms since 1985, when he broke in with the Bulls. He is the NBA's most honest man. He knows what's happening behind closed doors and he's got the guts to say something about it. For that, he should be commended.
Oakley deeply respects Stern for his amazing business sense. Oakley is a savvy businessman himself, so he knows the league has to put on a dependable, clean product to the public.
Oakley said marijuana use is only one of the NBA's serious problems. The players need to improve their work ethic, he said, and stay in school. And while they're at it, the league should switch back to two referees, Oakley added on a night Carter did not get a critical continuation call.
"In the old days Michael Jordan and Larry Bird worked for everything they got," Oakley said. "They worked hard on their game. You've got young guys now, they don't work on their game like that. Everybody rolls the red carpet out, and here they come running down it in a Bentley or Rolls Royce as if it's their time, but it's not like that."
With the trade deadline today, the Lakers have called about Oakley. He said he would welcome a deal to L.A. and he could straighten out the Shaq O'Neal and Kobe Bryant mess.
"That's the best tandem in the league since Scottie [Pippen] and Michael, there's no way I break that team up," Oakley said. "They'll work out their problems. Phil [Jackson] is a great coach. He knows he needs both of them."
As for his old team, the Knicks, Oakley said, "They've got the best talent in the East. The guys have just got to buy into what Jeff [Van Gundy] is trying to do. Orlando is buying into what Doc Rivers is doing. Doc is probably the best young coach out there along with [Phoenix's] Scott Skiles."
The bottom line for this power forward businessman is that the players of this generation, do not care enough about the game or the fans.
"They're disrespecting the fans who are paying their money," Oakley said. "Fans want to come out and see playoff atmosphere games, not kids just turning the ball over and dribbling though their legs. The fans might as well go to the park to see that."
And with that, this man among boys was on his way to give his all for the 1,270th time in his NBA life. His hard words of experience must be heard.