It’s hard not to associate Charles Oakley with the 1990s basketball powerhouse - the New York Knicks. The power forward personified everything that the team, but also the city of New York, stood for - hard work, a battle for every possession, an aggressive and intimidating approach, and taking care of his teammates.
But, it was with the Chicago Bulls that this Virginia Union product learned the little secrets of working in the NBA world. And, at the time, it was just the perfect place to be and witness the birth of Air Jordan’s ‘air forces.’ Oakley made his way into the Bulls starting line-up slowly but steadily. As a rookie in 1985-86, the year which Jordan mostly sat out because of an injury, ‘Oak’ averaged 9.6 ppg and 8.6 rpg in 23.0 minutes.
From there, he jumped in the Bulls’ starting unit, missing out on starting only in one game in the 1986-87 and 1987-88 campaigns. And this team led by the 1988 NBA MVP Michael Jordan, and ignited by the shining performances of rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, became an instant hit across the States!
A classic Oakley performance from that era came on April 15th, 1988 in a 100-99 Bulls win over the New Jersey Nets. That night in Meadowlands Arena, in a match-up with the Nets power forward Buck Williams, ‘Oak’ was virtually unstoppable - he scored 17 points and grabbed 21 boards in 35 minutes!
The definite highlights of Oakley’s performance that night came in the form of two one-handed power dunks in traffic, something that could rarely be seen during Oakley’s later days with the 1990s New York Knicks.
What needs to be emphasized regarding this classic performance is that the numbers Oakley put across the board came as part of his effort to win the NBA’s best rebounder title for the 1987-88 season.
At the time, there was a massive battle on a nightly basis going on between Oakley and the L.A. Clippers’ power forward Michael Cage, with neither of them giving up an inch until the very last game of the season.
Then, on April 24th, 1988, on the last eve of the 1987-88 regular season, the ‘battle of the boards’ reached its peak. Oakley collected a total of 21 boards in a classic battle vs. the Boston Celtics in Chicago.
But, on that same evening, on the other side of the United States, in Los Angeles, Cage went on to collect an unbelievable 30 boards vs. the Sonics, thus achieving a minimum advantage in front of Oakley - Cage finished the season with an average of 13.03 boards per game. In comparison, Oakley’s stood at 13.00 boards per game!
Several months later, on June 27th, Oakley was traded to the New York Knicks for center Bill Cartwright, who soon became one of the critical pieces of the championship puzzle for the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Oakley’s gritty and uncompromising style fit in perfectly in the same frontcourt with the Knicks superstar Patrick Ewing, as they fought and won many massive NBA battles over the next decade!