The Toronto Raptors are in town today, which means that the Knicks' season takes on an entirely new theme: pain.
"He's going to be hitting some folks," Charlie Ward said. "But that's Oak." "I'm glad I don't have to guard him," Chris Childs said. "Or even block him out, hopefully."
Added Kurt Thomas, "I haven't played against him in a long time, but I remember one thing: When the game's over, your body tells you that you've played against Oak."
You get the impression that Charles Oakley's first return to Madison Square Garden since his exile to Toronto will leave more of an impression on the teammates he left behind than on Oakley himself, if only because he has a habit of leaving deep impressions on the bodies of his opponents.
He has been embittered by the trade since it was consummated on draft night, taking his innumerable shots at Knicks management -- particularly team president Ernie Grunfeld -- and questioning whether his former team has the right mix to achieve its goal of an NBA title.
As the Raptors arrived in New York last night, however, Oakley seemed more interested in what today might bring. It is expected to be a whirlwind of activity: He had plans to stop by his apartment in White Plains, just to see whether anything in the refrigerator had turned into a science project; to visit his car washes in Yonkers and Riverdale, and, if time permitted, Long Island; stop by his restaurant on 86th and Columbus; have a meeting with the relatives who run Oaktree Entertainment; and finally, plans to have bouquets thrown at him when he takes the Garden floor at 7:30 p.m.
"He'll get a huge standing ovation, no doubt about it," said John Wallace, a teammate with the Knicks and now with the Raptors. "The city of New York and Knicks fans understand basketball and they know what Oak meant."
For 10 years he was the embodiment of Knicks basketball, pure and undiluted, personally responsible for shaping the rough and ready image they carried like a badge of honor throughout his stay in New York.
But the stay ended awkwardly. When Grunfeld shipped him to the basketball equivalent of Siberia for Marcus Camby, Oakley was outraged. He held an August news conference to bash Knicks management, question whether Larry Johnson can take over his position, express doubts that Camby would ever fit in, and promote the notion that no one is left to guard Patrick Ewing's back.
"Ernie Grunfeld and Dave Checketts made the trade. I'll let them lose their sleep at night -- I get my sleep," Oakley said yesterday, adding that he has nothing but good feelings for coach Jeff Van Gundy.
"I don't think Jeff made the trade. I worked hard for him over the years, and he knows what it takes. When you're an elite team, you need some guys who can do the dirty work, who don't need the ball a lot. But the Knicks thought I couldn't play anymore. Now, with me gone, they want Patrick to rebound more often, but I don't think he can rebound more. His body can't take it. If you can't do it at 25, you can't do it at 35. They're going to break him down by asking him to do more."
Then, adding the obligatory analogy that only he seems to understand: "There's only one way to bake a cake -- and if you don't bake it right, it ain't gonna rise," he said.
And though he is aware of the contributions Camby has made over the last three games, Oakley remains skeptical.
"He might have talent," he said of the young forward, "but he might be better off in the West. You've got to be able to hit the jumper. You've got to be able to bang. That might hurt them this year. They don't have anyone who can bang."
Tonight, he expects to remind the Knicks of that fact. He has been the Raptors' leader since his arrival, averaging 9.8 points and eight rebounds and giving them an image they've never had before. But now he gets to show his younger teammates exactly what New York felt about him.
"They know when I went out on the court, I gave it my best," he said of the Garden fans. "I need a bust-out game, and hopefully (tonight) will be it."