Charles Oakley says it may take years for him to return to the Garden
He’s wounded and unhappy with the NBA
Charles Oakley called again on Wednesday morning. And then again late afternoon Thursday. Combined, he went off on everyone and their mom for maybe 30 minutes.
He said it might take him three to five years to feel right about returning to Madison Square Garden.
He said he felt a kinship with Draymond Green when he heard that the Golden State Warriors forward had talked about Oakley’s situation as a white team owner dismissively treating a former black player.
He talked reverently about his late grandparents, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama and whose struggle he feels the need to honor today.
He took aim at NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who he said had “tricked” him into being a part of a meeting with New York Knicks owner James Dolan for the sake of public relations.
He said he has lost all respect for the three former Knicks players who sat with Dolan during a game at the Garden last week. And he wondered aloud why his most celebrated former Knicks teammate didn’t say anything on his behalf during the most hellish week of his life.
“Any time for Patrick [Ewing] to speak up, you think this would be it – he was my closest teammate who played with me,” Oakley said.
Oakley and I have talked four times this week, and I guess I should feel special. But Oak is in a bad place. He has vented to a lot of reporters and friends, and the message is usually the same:
He’s emotionally wounded. He feels like a pawn in his own life, sacrificed for the good of the Knicks and the NBA.
That come-to-Jim meeting between Oakley and Dolan, the one mediated by Silver – and including Michael Jordan by conference call – that lasted between 45 minutes and an hour on Monday at the league’s offices in midtown Manhattan?
Good for appearances.
But in hindsight, Oak said he feels it was calculated to steer All-Star Weekend away from the ugly spectacle of his arrest-by-force at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 8. It didn’t fix the years of ill will between himself and Dolan that detonated in the Garden stands last week. Bygones can’t be bygones yet.
“I’m not happy,” Oakley said. “I told them I’m not happy. They’re tryin’ to sweep this under the rug. I gotta think about this. They tried to tell me, ‘Let’s get some understanding around this.’ I told them in the meeting, ‘My understanding is, it might be three, four, five years before I come to a conclusion how I feel about going back in the Garden. I’m not just going back in the Garden because you want to honor me.’
“Shoulda been done already, right? Why do we always have to wait for somethin’ bad to happen to get honored? They makin’ it look like I want something out of them. No. My thing is, you slandered my name. A Charles Oakley Day isn’t going to fix that.”
Charles Oakley III is a stubbornly proud man, the most stubbornly proud I’ve ever covered. He can get in his own way as much he can forge a path forward for himself, and he’s clearly done a lot of each the past week.
When Dolan asked Oakley if he could trust him if he gave him a position with the organization, the Knicks saw it as an olive branch. Oakley saw it as patronizing. “Can you trust me?” he said incredulously. “Why would you worry about that? Because I said some things about the organization a long time ago? Come on. This is some bulls—.”
When it was mentioned in the meeting with Silver that he is not blameless in this episode, he told them he wasn’t after a job or a special day for himself at the Garden, where he played tenaciously for 10 consecutive playoff teams between 1988 and 1998. He just wanted his name cleared after Dolan opined that he was an alcoholic and had anger issues.
“They keep sayin’, ‘Oh, you got these assault cases.’ [He was arrested and charged with three counts of assault in the incident at Madison Square Garden.] I told ’em, you know what, let me go to jail. Whatever happens, if I have to do a year of jail or two. I’d rather do a year or two of jail then let them know they did something for me now.”
No job offer can buy the silence of the grandson of Florence and Julius Moss, who helped their daughter Corine raise him as a child in Alabama before the family moved to Cleveland.
“I wouldn’t be respecting what my grandmother and grandfather put their lives on the line for when they was growing up,” he said. “They were getting beat up, never having a right to speak up. We didn’t have a voice back in the old days. Did we have a voice back in the ’50s and ’60s?
“Man, all this stuff happenin’ around the country with police and the black community the last couple of years. They say things have changed. They haven’t changed. Only the stoplight change – green, yellow, red.”
The moment race is brought up in some corners it becomes mistaken for racism or race-baiting. But you can’t take that part of the equation out of what happened with Oakley last week.
Etan Thomas, Oakley’s former teammate in Washington and an advocate for civil rights in his media career now, said that watching the Oakley incident unfold brought back disturbing images.
From the “replayed reel of Eric Garner being surrounded by police and choked to death, Thabo Sefolosha’s leg being broken by NYPD, tennis star James Blake being tackled to the ground by NYPD and countless other cases, there was a disturbing racial component seeing security and police surrounding Oakley in the Garden, dragging him out of view and tackling him to the ground,” Thomas said.
Thomas would like the NBA to take a hard look at how Dolan and the Knicks handled the incident, saying it could have easily ended in tragedy.
On his weekly podcast, Green upped the ante when he referred to Dolan shunning Oakley because of his criticism of the Knicks: “You doing it against me — you speaking out against my organization — it’s not good anymore? That’s a slave mentality. A slave master mentality. That’s ridiculous.”
Kevin Blackistone, the ESPN commentator and Maryland journalism professor, compared the treatment of Oakley by Garden security to “a guy on the street selling loosies,” alluding to someone selling loose cigarettes, for which Garner had been accosted for by New York City police.
There was also something tone-deaf about Dolan inviting three former players to sit alongside him in the first game after the Oakley incident – Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson and Bernard King, all of whom are black.
“I’m really pissed about how they brought those guys back to sit with him,” Oakley said. “Bernard King is a legend and everything, but he went through an incident where he was wronged in college by the police.
“And I can’t respect Sprewell. These guys were flown in town to make him look good. I can’t respect those guys no more.”
Let’s be clear: Oakley obliterated polite physical boundaries after he was told to leave and a security guard appears to have touched his shirt. He shoved and pushed until he was forcibly removed. But Dolan, a recovering alcoholic for many years, went beyond the pale in his response.
“I’m sure he has problems,” he told the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro. “When you’re fighting addiction, it’s not that much different from anger management or other diseases where you can’t control yourself. The first step is to turn that around for yourself, is admitting you have a problem. And then, from there, you can begin to take the steps to take control back in your life.
“I’m very familiar with this: When you’re an alcoholic … I’ve never met an alcoholic who, while he was actively using, who said, ‘I drank too much.’ They never say that. It isn’t until the consequences of their own behavior catch up and there’s someone beside them that they can begin to see that they have to take control of this.”
This was character assassination. Dolan has no evidence that Oakley has a drinking problem. And, even if he did, any addiction and recovery advocate will tell you that conducting a public intervention – in essence, shaming them – is the worst way to help someone. It stigmatizes the person and inhibits recovery.
When Oakley grew truly angry as we spoke, he went to the place a black man tackled by eight white security guards might go – really, any former player whose reputation has been impugned by a white billionaire, and a league that wishes this would all go away:
“All them white boys stickin’ together,” Oakley said, his voice rising. “All of them f—–’ stickin’ together. I don’t give a f—. It can be a race thing. I don’t care. Because someone got to take a f—–’ stand.”
Later, without evidence, he told SI.com that Dolan had similarities to Donald Sterling, the former Los Angeles Clippers owner banned for racist comments that became public.
On the vitriol goes.
He’s upset with Silver, he said, because “the commissioner thinks he did a good job.” But Oakley believes the three-sentence statement the NBA put out after the meeting should have been approved by him as well as the other parties involved.
Not all Oak’s feelings jibe with the facts. The truth is, Oakley’s lawyers called for a meeting with Dolan and the commissioner. The truth is, the people in that room agreed a short statement would be released. They tried in vain to get in touch with Oakley for four hours and when they couldn’t, Jordan, acting on Oak’s behalf, said he’d be fine with everything Silver said.
“See, what does that tell you, they couldn’t get in touch with me but they still released it?” he said. “That’s the game they play.”
I kept asking Oak what the endgame was, what he needed to have some closure.
He really didn’t have one, except that he needs time. Time to sort this out. Time to stop talking about it to everyone and, as he said Thursday, “just let it play out and see what happens.”
“I don’t want this to spin it like everything is OK. This man called me an alcoholic. I have four or five business deals on the table and I can’t go through with them now because I’ve been called an alcoholic.
“Everybody thinks this is over. This is far from over.”
Reached for comment, neither the NBA nor the Knicks wanted to respond publicly. The only person talking about this going forward will be Charles Oakley.
And right now – Lord help him – he just can’t stop.