In Exile From the Knicks, but Still at Home in Cleveland
“I’ve been through a lot here,” Oakley said. “I’ve seen a lot.”
Oakley splits his time among Cleveland, Atlanta and New York, where he has a studio apartment outside the city. But his 81-year-old mother, Corine, still lives in Cleveland, and he considers the city home. He remembers when downtown bustled.
“The city used to have four legs,” Oakley said. “Now it’s got two and a half.”
As he maneuvered his S.U.V. along Superior Avenue and approached his childhood home on East 123rd Street, Oakley pointed to some of the spots that he frequented as a boy, places that have been replaced or boarded up. The record store. The barbecue joint. The corner market. The barber shop. Back then, he said, the neighborhood was tightknit.
“Everybody looked out for one another,” he said.
Oakley had to catch two buses to his old high school, where he was a star in football and basketball. He also became known for his work ethic, habits that he had picked up from spending time with his grandfather, a farmer in Alabama. Oakley was never known as a leaper. But he worked hard, and rebounding was work, plain and simple.
With the Knicks, Oakley averaged 10.4 points and 10 rebounds to help them advance to the playoffs in each of his 10 seasons with the team, from 1988 to 1998. He remains popular among fans who revered him for his no-nonsense approach. He once brawled with Charles Barkley — in a preseason game.
“I didn’t try to be pretty out there,” Oakley said.
He is not a huge fan of today’s N.B.A., which he thinks is full of players who are unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good. These days, he said, everyone wants to be a superstar.
“That’s why there are so many bad teams,” said Oakley, although he does appreciate the Cavaliers’ LeBron James. “We cool. Cooked at his house before. Everybody enjoyed the food.”
An afternoon with Oakley is equal parts improvisational theater and sports-talk radio. He would fit right in next to Statler and Waldorf, the hecklers from “The Muppet Show.” He is prone to sharing his opinions. He cannot help himself. Ask him anything.
On his brief experience as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats: “Guys don’t want to learn. If someone’s doing something wrong, you have to look the other way. I can’t do that.”
On Barkley: “He talks too much.”
On the truck driver who refused to merge behind him: “Dummy.”
To friends and fans here (more than one passing driver honked or shouted, “Oak!”), he personifies some of the city’s finer qualities: tough, generous, honest.
“Maybe too honest,” said Jeff Warren, a childhood friend who has run summer camps with Oakley. “But he’s always been a relentless worker, and he believes in hard work to this day.”
His brand of — what is the word? — authenticity is not valued by everyone. Oakley has been estranged from the Knicks organization for years, a rift that stems, at least in part, from Oakley’s inability to keep some of his more caustic opinions to himself. He has, at different times, criticized the team’s front office, coaches and resident stars. In 2010, he advised James to avoid signing with the Knicks in free agency, which hardly endeared him to the organization. He has also called James L. Dolan, the owner, a bunch of bad names.
Former teammates have encouraged Oakley to be more polite in his dealings with the team, but without much success.
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