Charles Oakley, as always, speaks the truth.
On the day that Cleveland — Charles Oakley’s hometown team — was to play at the Garden, SLAMonline got a chance to chat with the former-Knick in NYC. The plan was to get an update on one of the Knicks’ most beloved players: where he’s been and where he’s at, all with a view to where he’s going. Our conversation sprawled over a number of topics including his past, his business endeavors (including a cooking show), what’s wrong with the NBA, and what measures will bring it back to health. With characteristic charm, honesty and humor, Oak broke it all down. And if all goes according to his plan, then Oak’s hiatus from the League will only last a little while longer. Don’t sleep on Coach Oakley! This time next year, he may be on a sideline near you.
The following is excerpted from a conversation Nick Rattner and Charles Oakley held in the lobby of The Ritz on Central Park South.
SLAM: Are you going to the Garden tonight?
Charles Oakley: Yep.
SLAM: To watch LeBron or the Knicks?
CO: I’m going to watch the best team. You know, the best team is the team that wins, so that’s who I’m going to watch.
SLAM: What about the Giants-Chargers?
CO: I like [the Charger’s] running back. He’s a great running back. I think about three years ago they lost a playoff, he wasn’t shaking nobody’s hand. Now he’s smiling. Been hurt three years. You’ve got to realize when you start getting hurt, you’re not getting three or four yards like you used to, you’ve got to look at yourself. You can’t blame the coach, the management, the line. It might be time for you to retire. Take the good with the bad, the bad with the good. Some people might say what does he know about football? I’m 6-9, 260. I can say what I want to say.
SLAM: You started in football, right?
CO: I was All-American in football. [And] I’m not talking about no one. I’m just talking about the game in itself. People talked about me when I was getting old. You need to retire, this and that. But it’s different. My thing is, wasn’t no guys scoring 20 or 30 points on me. Maybe I wasn’t dunking or jumping over the rim but I was still an integral part to the game. I could still hold my position. That’s the key: Can you still do your job?
SLAM: What is it about sports?
CO: I like football because I think always football is a game where you always have to protect yourself. And I think those guys always try to go out there and win… You can be losing but you can still play hard… Two years ago a few people, Michael and me went down played some golf in Grandover. We know Jason Terry… Jason said, “Come on Michael, give ‘em some words, some encouragement.” Michael’s a funny guy. People don’t know that. Well they probably know now after the Hall of Fame. So we go down there, [and] now it’s time for them to go in and go over their stuff… They asked him to come up and say a few good words… He just said, “Good luck on Sunday, hey, just keep your heads up.” They had lost so many games in a row. Next thing you know, the Jets came in and beat them 51-3. I said good motivational speech, Mike. They’ll never invite you back in life because they didn’t get no encouragement from that speech.
SLAM: What’d you think of his Hall of Fame speech?
CO: I told him a long time ago speak your mind. They know you’re a great player. Let people know. Let them know you’re great not because you want to be great or because you worked on your game but because it was a struggle to the top. A lot of things didn’t go his way. You wouldn’t think so because he’s the best player to play basketball… He’s got a resume say he’s the greatest, he’s got a resume that says ‘hey.’ He had to jump over some hurdles to be great.
SLAM: Would you be disappointed if he hadn’t spoken his mind?
CO: At first he said he wasn’t gonna say nothing. I knew he was going to say something. A lot of us [were] in the hotel, just talking about basketball, about life, the NBA, and this moment… For me it’s a statement that you did something nobody else could accomplish along the way. Somebody might have got 10,000 rebounds but you might have got 8,000 offensive, that’s something special… And look, I told somebody on Facebook, they keep asking when the Knicks are going to retire my jersey. They probably will never retire my jersey. The only way they’ll retire my jersey is if I marry Dolan’s daughter, and I never see that happening in life. People ask me that, but I don’t know.
SLAM: You want it to happen?
CO: That’s tough though. They retire your jersey that’s a big statement. A lot of people telling me, since I quit from basketball, a lot of people telling me that I was as good as this, good as that. I didn’t look at myself that way. I get so many praises now. I didn’t know I was decent. I thought I was just an average player. They’re telling me I was more than average, they said I was a statement. That was a great comment, to hear that from people because I just took it as an everyday job and went to work… I was always myself, never looked for someone to give me a handout, just did it. A lot of people can’t go out with someone praising them. I wasn’t like that. I just went out and had fun, I had a good time, went everywhere, didn’t worry about this and that happening.
SLAM: You never thought about being great?
CO: I know I wasn’t great but I held my own. I wasn’t a 20-point-scorer. I averaged a double-double for a long period of time.
SLAM: You didn’t feel recognition?
CO: I didn’t play for recognition. I played to make things better, to make people happy. It wasn’t about me.
SLAM: Do you see any players out there now who are true to the game that you were playing when you came into the League?
CO: Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan. Garnett’s still got some push. Shaq’s still a force… he came at an age when the game was at its all-time high.
SLAM: What years would you say that was?
CO: I think the game started slipping in the early 2000s… I’m not trying to blame nobody but something happened. It’s just like the economy. They saying Bush and his cabinet, two awful terms of him. Now we’re at the bottom of the rope trying to pull our way back to the top. Some time the rope gets slippy, but there’s problems no matter what you do, so hopefully this country can get back on track like it used to be in the ’80s, early ’90s.
SLAM: Has the NBA shifted to hype?
CO: Way more hype. They’re spending more money on marketing now than all-time because they don’t have the product.
SLAM: [Jordan] knows that he got special treatment, right?
CO: You know, some people say I’m going to get a manicure-pedicure… No, they came to his house. I’m going to get an oil change. Jiffy Lube, they brought a truck to his house. He said he’s gonna get his haircut, the barber comes over… Looking back you might say the man might have deserved it. But while I’m playing, no… While we’re playing he’s trying to kill me. That’s how it is. He’s trying to cross me over with a jump shot, I’m trying to hit him in the paint…
SLAM: Did you ever have a night when you felt you hadn’t played hard?
CO: Naw. I laid it out. I might have played bad. But the effort, the understanding of what my role was. There was some nights guys might have got 30 points but he won’t get 30 next time. Have some balls… Only some guys really got consistent numbers on us. MJ might have. Reggie Miller, maybe. A few games here and there. But he got every call. If a guy doesn’t get every call and still gets 30, something’s wrong.
STATE OF THE ASSOCIATION
SLAM: Is there a shift of emphasis from production to potential?
CO: David Stern has too much control of the game. When you control the game like that it ain’t good for the public because of superstar calls. When you’re at a level like this, everyone’s a superstar… Why should you get a superstar call? … Because you already said he’s a superstar? I tell Michael this all the time. You’re the best player in the game and you got all the calls, you traveled. I ain’t Barkley talking about this behind his back. We talk about this all the time. Barkley talk about [#*$@] just to be in the paper. I don’t do that. I mean… He know how much I love him as a friend. We don’t be kissing like Magic and Isaiah… but we’re friends… This is gonna be a hype story.
SLAM: What do you think about Donaghy?
CO: I think he got some truth, I think he’s got something to tell. It’s gonna hurt the League. There’s a lot of tricky stuff going on in the NBA. I always said that. Too many people voiced their opinion but I always voice my opinion. You can’t go from two officials to three officials. The rim’s not higher, the floor don’t change, the court don’t get any wider. The game is too controlled… Too many whistles going the wrong way.
SLAM: Is money part of the problem?
CO: Everything is about the dollar. When it boils down to it, it’s money, money, money. The NBA is global. That’s where the money comes from. When I came in the League, there was maybe two European players; now you’ve got probably 25-30 percent. Even though there’s more American players in the game, the money’s European. That’s why you got all these different guys from different countries… making max. If you got play in these other countries the most you can make, at the most, is $1 million.
SLAM: Now they’re looking at guys in 5th grade…
CO: They’re trying to be like the Europeans. They grow their players. It’s like a farm. You raise your cows, your cattle. They’re put in a program. In the U.S. they watch them, but they don’t put them in programs. AAU don’t help guys. It might help the guys but looking at it, it gives them a big head at a young age. They not really teaching the fundamentals, they just let them use what they got. If a guy can jump, put him on the floor. That’s why the Europeans always have a chance over here, because they can shoot, their fundamentals are sound.
SLAM: Do you think about basketball when you’re not around it?
CO: No, not really. I play pick-up now and then. I play with the pros in the summer time. I played with Knicks about two and half months ago at their practices. I’m gonna play until I can’t hold my own. But I only play seven or eight times a year. It’s not like I’m playing every week. I stay in shape, they say they’re playing, let’s play.
SLAM: So you can still handle these young guys?
CO: I handle the guys I check. There may be some guys I can’t check… They might not see me again for eight months, but I always keep myself prepared.
SLAM: Ever think about playing overseas?
CO: If they would have called me, I would have played overseas. Two year deal. Rebound. My thing is, I can fit a shoe, still run the floor.
SLAM: You would do it now?
CO: I would go.
SLAM: Are you interested in coming back as a player-coach?
CO: [Laughs] Not a player-coach but a coach. Coach, consult and develop. You know I don’t mind doing it. I think that every team in the League needs someone around who’s been in the League who has respect, who can talk to these guys. They say the young guys are hard to talk to; I don’t think they’re hard to talk to; you just have to put the right person around them. They’ve got to respect the person around them. That’s how you get better. A lot of these guys don’t respect the players who played this game. They don’t have to respect me, but I’m not gonna let them say nothing crazy to me. My job is to try to make you understand what the team is trying to do. That’s a team. It’s not about me personally. It has nothing to do with me. So the players have to understand that if you want to get better then you’ve got to listen to someone. You’ve got to respect what someone is trying to tell you.
SLAM: Do you think that’s something that can be taught?
CO: It’s gonna have to be taught. They’re trying to go global and they don’t have the product for global. Europeans are more of a skilled player. U.S. guys are one-dimensional. Most of them want to dunk, can’t shoot.
SLAM: Do you see any way for the NBA to get back to that?
CO: They got to bring people around who understand the game, who know the game, who played the game the way the game should be played. You’ve gotta be consistent. If you don’t be consistent in what you’re trying to do you’re never going to win… Like the Yankees… Money can get you some players, but you still got to be on the same road to play together.
SLAM: Where does that attitude come from?
CO: You learn as you’re in the League… Coaching or no coaching, when you play against other guys that are good, you pick up things from them… You watch film, too. So you know who knows what, who don’t know… I always try to learn what the 2 and 3 do, not just a 4 and 5… I heard someone say that I can’t play the 4. I’m a 5. I mean, it’s embarrassing. ‘Cause when you’re on the court you have to be able to do two or three things anyway. So you get stuck in one position. Unless you just a 5-8 point guard, OK, I understand that. But if you’re a 2, 3, 4 or 5 you should know all other positions.
SLAM: Did you ever play with another guy who’s locked in like that?
CO: It’s a tough assignment. It’s like being a middle-linebacker. You have to call the plays… football is tough. You got to know a lot every play. Basketball is just easy. You’ve got to know one play. Most teams now don’t have a lot of plays. You watch games now you see the same old plays. Cleveland runs a high pick and roll about 75 percent of the time. That’s bad basketball. That means either the coach can’t coach or the players are slow. You can’t run no play 75 percent of the time. If it works or don’t work, they still run it…
CO: I can’t really say because I really don’t watch the teams like that. They’re some bad teams out there. I’m not gonna say the worst individual guy… what you need when you play this game is team defense. You’re always gonna have one bad guy on your team who can’t play team defense but the other four guys have to complement him. He might be a great scorer.
SLAM: Are you happy doing what you’re doing?
CO: I’m happy. I’m thinking trying to get involved in doing a big man camp next summer. Might land a job with one of these teams. Hopefully, New York or somewhere I’ve really been around. I’ve had some talks with the Bulls, Portland.
SLAM: You talked to Paxson?
CO: I talked to Jerry Reinsdorf, I talked to Larry Miller in Portland about working with some guys. The opportunity is there. I think it’s going to happen soon.
SLAM: Next season, this season?
CO: Maybe this summer. Get the big man camp running. Try to do some individual skill work with big guys, meet them for three or four days here, two or three days there, maybe twice a summer. Watch them during the season, try to tell them their strengths and weaknesses.
SLAM: So you have a decent relationship with Reinsdorf?
CO: I got decent relationships with everybody around the League. My thing when I played the game, I was myself. I wasn’t trying to pretend or this and that, it is what it is.
Stuff happened on the court. I’m not a kiss-ass guy. That’s maybe why sometimes I met with a couple teams and they say, “Sometimes you say stuff.” When you say the truth people listen. I’m not here trying to sugar-coat people. That may be why I’m not with a team now but when someone wants somebody real to be a part of something, I’ll get a call. Trust me. Because I know the game, they know I know the game.
SLAM: What do you think of D’Antoni?
CO: I don’t know the guy…The GM, President, who picked him felt that he was capable of coaching the team. But in New York, when you’re not coaching a team and winning, people are going to let you know… When you have a bad team, bad things happen. Most of the time when teams don’t win, coaches get fired… I guess he’s doin’ what he can do with what he have… Being here in New York, playing a whole decade, and knowing what people here like and want to see, I don’t think they’re seeing what they want to see.
SLAM: What five guys would you want put on the floor?
CO: I’m gonna build a Dream Team. I’m not just gonna take five guys and put them on the floor. I’m gonna get five guys at the best at their position. My point guard would probably be Chris Paul, Kobe the 2, LeBron the 3, Pau Gasol the 4, you need a post up, and Dwight at 5. Carmelo be my sixth man.
SLAM: You think he’d be all right with that?
CO: I’m not trying to make no one happy. You asked me who would be my five. That’s the thing. He have to be alright, if I ain’t say his name what can he do?
SLAM: Of coaches you’ve played for, who would you model yourself after?
CO: Butch Carter was a great coach. A great offensive coach… probably one of the best X and O coaches I’ve ever played for… if LeBron had a coach like Butch Carter, he’d have a couple rings right now… Don Nelson is great for the guys now but I’d want to be more of a Pat Riley. You’ve still got to be grounded. Don Nelson wins games but I don’t know if his players get it on both ends. Pat Riley gets it on both ends… Some coaches don’t tell a guy nothing… You can be a good coach on a bad team but you’re still have to have your team ready to do it no matter. You might get blown out but you’re team has to have some integrity about winning… It’s all about effort.
SLAM: Who’s on the Dream Team sidelines?
CO: Guys who know the game but might not get a lot of credit for knowing the game. I like Pete Myers in Chicago. He’s a great assistant up there. He played with Chicago. He knows how to get the players going, he knows the game. My thing is seeing guys up and talking to players… I’d like to see guys who played the game. You go to Cleveland you like to see Larry Nance on the bench. You go to Philly, you see Maurice Cheeks. Anybody who played with them on that team, when a player comes out of the game he can go ask him about this and that. So many coaches never played basketball at a high level, so how can you ask them about something in the heat of battle. They don’t know. In the heat of the battle it’s hard for coaches to communicate with players. You see them drawing plays up.
COOKING, CUISINE, CARDS
SLAM: So this cooking show, how’d that come together?
CO: Well when I first got into the League I was staying by myself in Chicago. The next year by myself. We used to get together play spades, talk, cook some fried wings. Spaghetti. Salads. Then I started making sliders. Macaroni salads. Sautéed carrots. Went from there started making pasta. The meatloaf, the potatoes, string beans, macaroni and cheese.
SLAM: Where’d you learn?
CO: Just learned, on my own. My mother is a great cook. I just learned. I go to a restaurant, if I don’t know something I just ask.
SLAM: You’ve got a feeling for it?
CO: Oh, I got a good feeling for it. I can make anything taste good. That’s the key. I’m not fancy… if something cooks…when I get in the kitchen… I can do most anything. Breakfast, lunch, salads. I can put it together. I’m pretty crafty in the kitchen.
SLAM: How many people do you prefer to cook for?
CO: Twenty, 40, 50, whatever. Oh, yeah.
SLAM: What’s your main spot [in NYC]?
CO: I’m really picky. Four Seasons have great lunch, great lunch. I don’t eat room service.
SLAM: So if you’re meeting up with old friends?
CO: According to who I meet up with. I meet with MJ and we out of town he’s gonna want a nice dinner so we’re going to go to a nice place. Some people, we just go to wherever. Not saying that he’s more special than the other friends. Some people aren’t on his level because everything he does is first class. I’ve been around him 25 years, I know what his style is. You know, a quiet place, good food, good wine, kick back.
SLAM: You play cards? Poker?
CO: I love poker. They tried to get me in a couple poker shows. I had an idea when I was in Washington in ’00-01, or 2002 I think. Whenever we was in Washington that last year with the Wizards. I told MJ and some friends that we should do a poker show.
It would concern six guys, doing their regular, everyday work. We meet up, I cook the meal. We talk and mess. Eat dinner. Then we all put masks on and play poker.
CO: Yeah, but we’ll be talking mess while we’re playing. Get chips, buy in. You know, tape it. It was just something fun. So people wouldn’t know who was playing. They’d probably figure it out. It was just something different.
SLAM: Would you say you’re a businessman now?
CO: Slash businessman. You know, just trying to keep living, everyday, life, keep building the portfolio.
SLAM: What’s your business plan?
CO: I’m trying to go global.
SLAM: So as a business man can you fault the NBA?
CO: I don’t fault no one. I love the game. It aint’t shorting me, it’s shorting your fans and your country. Your product. In the U.S., we sell our soul in a lot of business, not just the NBA. It is what it is. I guess it just comes with the territory. We’ve been behind the 8 ball now we’re behind the 10 ball.
SLAM: Are we gonna get back up to the 9-ball?
CO: We keeping it even, though. Eight, 10, next will be 12… but I hope it goes back down to 6. I don’t know… but I think the players will get locked out next year.
SLAM: Parting words?
CO: They say I got traded because I said some things in Chicago. I played hard, I deserve to speak my mind. It is what it is. I’m laid back. You don’t live but once. When I die they gonna dig me up and say, “OK.” If they dig me up, they’re gonna take my casket and sell it to someone else. Now, if they’re talking about me they really must have no story to write. But people might like to hear someone who’s always going to be truthful.