By Dave D'Alessandro
NEW YORK -- It didn't take long to issue the challenge: The Knicks, Charles Oakley predicted without much solicitation or hesitation, won't win a title this year or anytime soon. No news bulletin there. He also took some shots at management, condemned the team's Ewing-centric offense, denounced the league-wide movement toward youth. Nothing new there, either, because Charles Oakley had said it all -- more colorfully than most of us could -- in his decade in New York.
But what emerged as a mild surprise yesterday in his official farewell to the city that revered him was Oakley's suggestion that none of the current Knicks, perhaps not even Larry Johnson, can replace him at power forward. And unless his former employers have another move in mind once the lockout lifts, that would render Oakley's move to Toronto for Marcus Camby immaterial.
"I don't think Larry can play there every night -- it's a tough grind for a whole season, and he hasn't had to do that in a while," Oakley said before addressing a small media gathering at Cafe 31 in Manhattan. Later, he expounded, "It's not going to be easy for him. I think playing the (power forward) on this team is a test, you have to be ready every night. You can't take an off night. And Larry, being a strong individual, will do his best."
Not a rousing endorsement. But Oakley did make it clear that he liked Johnson a great deal as a teammate, and designated him as the team's leader-in-waiting.
"Larry works hard," he said. "But he's going to have to pick that up, make the other guys respond. They named him co-captain halfway through (last) season, he took the challenge to lead the team in the right direction. I think he's going to have to be the guy."
Most came yesterday to see Oakley sling some arrows and throw some mud, but there was little of that. Though he had been critical of Patrick Ewing's leadership in the past, he gave Ewing his due as a superstar and calmly warned that the time has come to share the ball. The only consistent target was the man who traded him, team president Ernie Grunfeld, whom Oakley believed should have told him of an impending deal. For example, Oakley said he'd be honored to have uniform No. 34 retired by the Knicks some day, with one proviso: "When they call me," he said, "I hope it ain't Ernie."
Nor did the young man he exchanged teams with escape criticism.
"I wish him luck in this system," he said of Camby, a decade his junior. "It's not going to be easy, unless you're just a workaholic. It's got to be about work, knowing you might get two or three shots some nights. Some guys can't take that. He's a young superstar, I don't know if he can take it. But he's going to have to get used to it, because there won't be any shots -- I'll tell you that right now. Unless he has a hoop in his backyard."
As advised by his attorney, Oakley would not address the charge he faces for assault in Atlanta -- which allegedly took place the day after his draft night departure -- but he addressed all issues pertaining to basketball. His own basketball future, however, remains unclear. Raptors GM Glen Grunwald told him that while he has received numerous inquiries from the Lakers, Sonics and Heat for Oakley's services, he can expect to stay in Toronto for the entire season.
"They said they wanted me, that they had Marcus for two years, and didn't feel he was getting better for that organization," said Oakley, who now expects to play three more years after the expiration of his current deal next summer. "I'm just going to play 82 games there, hope we can make the playoffs, and go from there. We can't win a title the next three or four years, so you prepare one step at time. You crawl before you can walk. This year we'll crawl, next year walk, and maybe the next year we'll go deep in the playoffs. Hey, anything can happen. The league's not that tough, if you look at it.
"I don't know how long I'll be in Toronto, but the Knicks -- I don't see them wearing rings anytime soon. So it's a dog race. We'll see who gets the ring first."