Knicks fans celebrating the team was around .500 halfway through the season was bittersweet. Sure, it's great Tom Thibodeau's voice is resonating with the locker room, and the Knicks are back in the playoff race. But that moment was also a reminder of how low the bar is set for the Knickerbockers. There were flashes of greatness here or there, but the last time the Knicks were truly great, Charles Oakley was the Knicks' heart and soul.
Oak averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Knicks - when guys like that become fan favorites, that love is often deeper than the love a superstar gets. It means the player represents the identity of the city, what people from a certain community are proudest of. Is there a player in NBA history that embodies New York better than Charles Oakley? That's why this moment enraged so many Knicks fans.
I don't want to romanticize bad behavior. Oakley is by no means a saint. He obviously has conflict resolution issues and often resorts to physical violence. In his article about Oakley, Rustin Dodd listed some of the moments that shine a light on Oakley's tendency to let his hands do the talking.
There was the time he punched Knicks guard Charlie Ward in the face in practice just to test him. The time he slapped the 6-foot-10 Otis Thorpe (not exactly a man to be trifled with), and the time he walked up and slapped Tyrone Hill in the preseason. In that latter case, Oakley was reportedly calling a debt. “The season hadn’t even started yet,” former Knicks guard Chris Childs said.
In fact, there were so many slaps. When Oakley appeared on Dan Le Batard’s ESPN show in 2011, Le Batard asked him if it was true that he had slapped Barkley and Jeff McGinnis. “Man,” Oakley said, an enforcer’s twinkle in his eye. “You got the resume.”
Rustin Dodd, The Athletic
I don't think that resume is something to be proud of, but I'd probably be in the minority if I lived in New York. After his ejection from MSG, Dolan and Oakley went to court, and we don't have to conduct a poll to guess who the majority of Knicks fans are rooting for. It would be the understatement of the year to say James Dolan is one of the least popular people in NYC, and there is tough competition.
The Knicks owner has a history of petulant, immoral, bullying, and misogynist behavior, often resulting in fans being kicked out of MSG and former employees sharing stories that reveal the horrible culture James Dolan has established in his organization. So when Jeff Van Gundy said he believes Oakley's jersey should be retired, it seems the Knicks owner agreed. But Oakley had other ideas.
“They came to me and said they were going to retire my jersey, do this and do that. And I’m like, ‘Nah, you can’t buy me that easy. If you retire the jersey, that benefit you, that ain’t benefitting me.’ If you want to put it outside with the flag, and people don’t have to pay to come in and see it … let them drive past and see it. Let it be a tourist spot. And I take that to heart. ’d rather for it to be on the outside than the inside because I wasn’t welcome inside.”
Charles Oakley, The Athletic
There's probably nothing more Charles Oakley would love than his jersey retired in Madison Square Garden. When he got traded to Toronto, Oakley's mom said, "He needs to be in New York." Oak may live in his native Cleveland and does a lot for the community there, but Charles Oakley is New York. The fact he passed on the offer and the counter-proposal he made is the ultimate example of why Knicks fans adore Charles Oakley.
He never forgot who the game is played for - the fans.