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Canadian Oak  

Charles Oakley has finally stopped pining for New York

By Jackie MacMullan

It's the little things that keep Toronto veteran Charles Oakley going now, like that overtime basket on March 21 that sealed a victory against the Knicks, his former team, the team that ripped his heart out, stomped on it, then shipped it to Canada, second-day air. All right, so maybe that win wasn't such a little thing after all. "I'm still enjoying that one," Oakley admits.

When Raptors vice president and general manager Glen Grunwald swung the deal for Oakley in June, many said it was folly. Oakley would be a free agent in the summer of 1999, skeptics noted; why on earth would he stay? "It takes some courage to come up here," says Grunwald. "Oak could have been like some other guys, but he's been real positive."

Oakley arrived with his elbows sharpened and his mind open. He and fellow veteran Kevin Willis tutored young players like rookie Vince Carter and former high school phenom Tracy McGrady, who had floundered in his first season. The mix of young and old has worked. Through Sunday, Toronto was 14-14 and flirting with a playoff berth.

The shock of being traded for forward Marcus Camby has worn off, and Oakley has made a place for himself north of the border. He brought his defense, rebounding, toughness and locker-room presence to the young Raptors. Carter, who has vaulted over Sacramento point guard Jason Williams and Boston forward Paul Pierce as the Rookie of the Year favorite, is the rising young star who can invigorate the franchise, but if you look a little closer, you'll see Oak in the background, telling the kid what's around the next corner. "Vince is getting a lot of double teams now, so I tell him how they're going to come at him," Oakley says. "But he doesn't need any lessons on [how to deal with] intimidation. When we played Atlanta, he went inside and Mutombo blocked him. Next play, Vince goes in again, only this time he goes in a little higher."

Carter is Oakley's kind of guy: He's not afraid, and he's willing to do whatever's needed to win. He's also willing to tackle even bigger challenges, like bringing respectability to a franchise that was reeling last year. Executive vice president Isiah Thomas resigned in an ugly dispute with ownership, franchise player Damon Stoudamire forced a trade, and veteran Kenny Anderson, dealt to the Raptors by Portland in exchange for Stoudamire, refused to report. Toronto had become an NBA death sentence -- it was too cold, the taxes were too high (a canard), the team played in a cavernous baseball stadium (SkyDome), and the Raptors, a poor stepchild to the Maple Leafs, couldn't even boast of being the big fish in a small pond.

Toronto attempted to sign Oakley to an extension before he'd even unpacked his bags, but he was still chafing from the trade and still hopeful that the Lakers would swing a deal to acquire him. Oakley won't say how much the Raptors put on the table, but, referring to a $10 million balloon payment due this year, he cracked, "I lost more money during the lockout than they offered me."

Oakley, who will be 36 in December, says he will take less money to sign with a contender next season, but don't be surprised if he stays with Toronto, which can pay him more than anyone else can and may be willing to reward him with a three-year deal. The team has a nucleus of young talent, a new arena (the Air Canada Centre, which opened on Feb. 20), new ownership and a chance for another bountiful draft, because it has Denver's first pick this summer. Former players' association executive director Charlie Grantham, who represents Oakley, says the Raptors "might be the best fit for Oak."

Oakley may have moved on, figuratively and literally, but he's not about to feign indifference about the Knicks, his team for 10 seasons. He talks regularly to his former teammates, and he senses the tension on that team. "The stuff is swirling around there, ain't it?" says Oakley. "Let me tell you -- something's going to blow."

Oakley realizes that the Knicks needed to start looking toward the future, which is why the 25-year-old Camby was attractive to them. But he also knows those fickle New York fans still love him. "If you are going to make a move, at least get some guys who have been there before," he says. "Spre is a great player, but he's not an East Coast player. He belongs out West. And Camby ... I know he's got talent, but in a seven-game playoff series, I like my chances a whole helluva lot better."

The Raptors agree, and they're hoping Oakley will stick around long enough to show them how that postseason stuff works.