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August 8, 1999

Oakley Has to Choose -- Get Rich or Get a Ring

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The New York Times on the Web Sports

By MIKE WISE

After he was traded to Toronto a year ago, Charles Oakley showed up at a golf tournament with some of his former New York Knicks teammates. Still unhappy about becoming a Raptor, he began boasting of how he would eventually end up in Los Angeles.

"I'm bringing Shaq back with me to New York, knock out everyone," Oakley said, grumbling under his breath. "Get me some rings with the Lakers."

The idea of the Lakers' acquiring Oakley seemed far-fetched at the time -- the Raptors had no intention of trading him, and Shaquille O'Neal's team seemed stacked for the millennium. But a year later, Lakers president Jerry West is seriously interested in paying what his team is allowed to spend for the toughness and intangibles of a 35-year-old power forward who has never won a championship.

After Oakley had lunch with Kobe Bryant and O'Neal last week in Los Angeles, Magic Johnson got up at a golf outing and spoke of how important Oakley was to the Lakers' championship hopes.

Now Oakley may have to decide which side of himself to listen to: the smart businessman, or the sentimental soul who always cared more about winning than getting paid. He has a tough decision to make in the next couple of weeks. He can re-sign with Toronto for the final years of his career for nearly $20 million, securing his last big payday and helping the Raptors try to crack the Eastern Conference playoffs. Or he can sign with the Lakers for no more than $8 million and find solace in once again playing for a title contender.

Toronto may increase its offer and make the decision even more difficult. Or another team like Indiana, Philadelphia or Atlanta might enter the Oakley sweepstakes, if that's what you can call them at this point. Like many decent but not All-Star-caliber free agents, Oakley is finding that his leverage may decrease the longer he waits, while teams fill out their rosters and empty their coffers.

The best scenario for Oakley would be a sign-and-trade deal, in which the Lakers or another contender would send Toronto other players and agree to pay Oakley much more than their $2 million-a-year salary exception.

Oakley barely missed out on playing with a dynasty in Chicago, came close to a title in New York and then started at the bottom again in Toronto. Los Angeles would be a fitting place to end to his career, in Jack Nicholson's lap after hunting down a loose ball.

But it's not a no-brainer. The lockout caused him to miss a good portion of his largest payday ever last season, nearly half of $10 million. Even though he has numerous investments, and makes a nice profit from his car-wash chain, passing up more than $10 million this time around would have to be hard.

Oakley returns from the Bahamas this week after a short vacation with a genuinely tough call. Here's hoping the sentimental soul wins out over the smart businessman. After all, money can't buy you a ring.