One thing that the Knicks could certainly use as they attempt to contend with the Boston Celtics is a downlow enforcer like the one they once had in Charles Oakley. Oak put up career averages of 9.7 ppg and 9.5 rpg, all while playing a physical brand of basketball that is damn near unheard of in today’s NBA. We caught up with the former forward and current Bobcats assistant coach in SLAM 148 (on sale now!) and talked about his career and what he’s up to nowadays. —Ed.
by Christian Trojan
At 6-8, 230, Charles Oakley was never afraid to speak his mind—and today, as an assistant coach for Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, Oak still has many stories to tell. The former Bull and Knick (his 19-year career also included stints with the Raptors, Wizards and Rockets and ended with per-game averages of 9.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 1.1 spg) has had his mind set on coaching in the League for several years now. After Charlotte Bobcats’ coach Paul Silas gave him a chance in late December, Oakley has been out to prove what we already knew: that the NBA has missed the “Oak Tree”—big time.
While catching Oakley on the phone during a six-game road trip in late January, one can’t help but realize that the 47-year-old, now once again employed by an NBA team, is looking for the, shall we say, PC words to answer certain questions. But, Oak being Oak, he can’t be kept from giving his honest opinion on the Bobcats and Knicks, the current state of the Association, his relationship with his buddy MJ and his very own cooking show (yes, cooking show!). Still standing a solid 6-8, 260, Oak is still willing to speak his mind, and we know the NBA community is deeply grateful that he is back where he belongs.
SLAM: Tell us how you ended up with the Bobcats.
CHARLES OAKLEY: Well, after Larry Brown left, Mike wanted to get some people in quickly, people they can trust. So they called me. It was good timing for me. I always knew I was able to do it, to bring that type of leadership as a captain before and during the game. But it’s not all about the game. I just want to make sure everybody does it right when they are out on the court.
SLAM: Did you have time to prepare at all?
CO: I’m always prepared. All my years in the League prepared me for something like this. At the end of the day, it’s all basketball. With me being on the coaching side now, it comes in handy when you understand the game of basketball. I mean, the floor still got the same size. It didn’t get longer or wider. But so many coaches are not holding their guys accountable these days.
SLAM: What are your responsibilities with the Bobcats? Are you the defensive coordinator of the team?
CO: I do a little bit of everything, doing my part. In practice I work especially with the big guys, going over some defensive schemes, but everybody on the coaching staff is giving their input.
SLAM: Can you tell me a little bit more about the defensive approach that you are trying to get across with the Bobcats?
CO: You have to be aware of who you are playing against. There are many different things you can do on the defensive end depending on who you are guarding. Know what you can do when the ball is away from you. When the ball moves, you move. Ball moves up, you move up. Ball moves down, you move down. It’s really that simple. Just know what you can do on the floor at all times. I mean, the defensive philosophy is not easy, but if you come up with a good game plan, some good defensive schemes, it works. The most important thing you have to do as a team is work hard, work together.
SLAM: What is it like for you to work for your friend MJ? He’s pretty much your boss now, right?
CO: No, no. I work for Paul Silas. MJ is the owner. He is like the president and CEO. He runs the business and I work for Paul right now. Our relationship hasn’t changed.
SLAM: Is there a certain match-up that you are looking forward to now that you are back in the League—for example playing against the Knicks?
CO: I’m with the Bobcats now—that’s where my focus is right now.
SLAM: How about guys whom you have played against, like Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller, that are now covering the NBA for TV?
CO: I don’t really care about that, because nine times out of 10, they don’t know what they are talking about. Most of the commentators are joking anyways…
SLAM: When we last spoke, about a year ago, you said that the product that is put on the floor in the Association simply isn’t good enough anymore. Can you explain that in a little more detail?
CO: The situation is the same way it was when we talked last, even worse. It’s really bad. I mean, the players are all athletes, but their [basketball] education is bad. I see it first-hand every day around the League. A lot of players are letting themselves go. That’s why I said that the League is bad, because you’re scouting teams, preparing for a team, and you see that the talent level is so bad. It’s unbelievable.
SLAM: So how do you try to do your part in changing that?
CO: It’s a League problem first and foremost. You can only affect your own team, your own players.
SLAM: Do you think that an intensified focus on teaching the fundamentals of the game and the values of respect for veteran leadership would be a start?
CO: That can help, but you have to influence the culture of the League in its entirety. That’s tough to coach. The NBA has to take care of this situation. I mean, it’s nerve wracking.
SLAM: What are your thoughts on some of the rule changes that have become effective this summer, especially the way that complaints toward the referees have been handled this season?
CO: That’s the new rule so you have to follow it. But I think that at some point you have to let the guys play the game. Players should be allowed to talk to the referees. Not everybody, of course, but the captains.
SLAM: What do you think when you hear that players spend their offseason working on an album or shooting a movie rather than spending that time in the gym to improve their game?
CO: I have never really followed what is going on in that regard, but it’s everybody’s own choice. Look at guys like Derrick Rose. He got better. Westbrook got better. You can see who is putting in the work.
SLAM: Dwight Howard is working with your former teammate [and Magic assistant] Patrick Ewing. How do you think he’s developed?
CO: Howard is not a scorer to me. He should be able to put up 25 points every night. Get 20 and 20, easily. When a guy jokes around a lot…I don’t like that demeanor on the basketball court.
SLAM: What’s your relationship with the Knicks like today?
CO: I’m with the Bobcats. I don’t think about the Knicks.
SLAM: But do you think about whether the franchise should retire your jersey number? Is that something you would appreciate?
CO: [Pauses] I don’t know what they should do with that. I just try to move forward, focus on today and let the rest develop. I mean, Patrick’s number is retired but I don’t know which other players they might think about. But I would be honored, no doubt.
SLAM: Can you tell me what the atmosphere was like in the Garden back in the day when you were playing for the Knicks?
CO: The thing about New York is that the fans kept coming every night because of the way basketball was played, especially games against teams like the Lakers and the Bulls. The other thing is that when you play hard, the fans will notice and they will appreciate that. That’s what is so special about that era. But today it’s the same thing. Just look at the way you’re playing and you will figure out where you’re at.
SLAM: If you guys had won the title in ’94, the town would have gone crazy.
CO: I’m sure, but we weren’t able to win it all. We had our chance and we really tried hard. I’m sorry for the fans who cheered for us, but we had some really good years.
SLAM: You have always referred to yourself as an average player. But with all the success you had and all the Playoff battles you fought in front of a sell-out MSG crowd, many players would love to have a career like that.
CO: I didn’t look to get a pat on the back. I just played the game. I mean, Patrick and John were our main two scorers. I wasn’t trying to compete for publicity or anything like that. I was just trying to play the game. Not too many guys could play the way I played and not too many guys did play the way I played. I was a power forward, but most 4s wouldn’t hit free throws or hit jumpers or play defense like that. I mean, it was all out, every night.
SLAM: That’s exactly why I have a hard time with the “average player” label.
CO: I think it was just different back then. There were a lot of good teams that we faced. Many times we won, but sometimes we lost. The thing was that everybody was really competitive back then. But these days there are so many bad teams in the League. At least the Clippers have some pieces now. They look like they are moving on up.
SLAM: You also told me that you always took basketball as an every-day job. Is that something you try to teach to the guys in Charlotte as well?
CO: I just talk to the guys and tell them to treat it as a job. Come to work. Don’t be weak-minded. Players complain a lot these days. You can’t do that, I tell them. You’re nobody, you’re not getting any calls. Stop complaining. I mean, when you are winning 65 games a year, the refs might know you. But if you’re losing, you are getting less attention. You’ve got to get it together.
SLAM: You are active on Facebook and Twitter (@CharlesOakley34). What do you enjoy about getting in contact with fans so directly?
CO: That’s just something that you have to do today—talking to the fans, listen to what they have to say. You have to respect their opinion.
SLAM: Can you bring me up to speed regarding your cooking show [Café Oakley]? Do you still have time for that?
CO: Yes, the cooking show is still on. Hopefully we can get the last steps done and get a deal with a network soon.
SLAM: One thing I’ve always wondered about are your car washes [Oakley owns four in the New York area]. How did you come up with the idea, or was that something that you always wanted to invest in?
CO: I just got into that early in my career. The opportunity of an independent business was presented to me and I jumped on it. The thing that has always driven me is that we were able to have good people there. That’s important to me. It took off from there.
SLAM: And you also have a steakhouse, called Red, down in Miami, right?
CO: Yes, I’m one of the partners.
SLAM: Are you a business partner or do you sometimes step in the kitchen yourself?
CO: In the offseason I do. When the season is over, I will cook for the crew. Before the restaurant opens we‘re going to cook for everybody there. It‘s always a lot of fun.