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Charles Oakley Is Still The People’s Champ

James Dolan, the Knicks’s infamous owner, is feuding with a beloved ex-player. We know whose side we’re on.

February 17, 2017
Charles Oakley Is Still The People’s Champ Charles Oakley in 1998.   Andy Lyons / Allsport / Getty Images

Charles Oakley is one of the most beloved players in the history of the New York Knicks. He was never a flashy gunner, never a plucky overachiever, never a handsome or charming do-gooder. For a decade, during the NBA’s rough and tumble ’90s, he was only ever one thing for the Knicks: the heavy. He trafficked in rebounds in traffic, indefatigable putbacks, the bruising physical dirty work. Oak won his love the hard way. Oak earned it.

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So last week, when Oakley was ejected from Madison Square Garden while watching the Knicks play the Clippers, it was nearly unfathomable. This being 2017, video quickly surfaced. You can see pretty much the whole thing: Oakley being approached by security. Oakley growing frustrated, and shoving back. Oakley being dragged into the tunnel, pinned to the ground, and handcuffed. What you can’t see is Oakley subsequently being arrested by the NYPD.

According to the team’s account, security approached because Oakley was being belligerent. According to Oakley, his ejection was the work of one man: team owner James Dolan.

Oakley and Dolan have been quietly feuding for years. Oakley has no formal relationship with the Knicks; for the most part he doesn’t get invited back for alumni events. He attended the game by buying his own tickets. In Oakley’s telling, it was his presence alone — coincidentally, in a seat a few rows behind Dolan’s seat that night — that set Dolan off.

The sins of James Dolan — who inherited the team from his father, Cablevision founder Charles Dolan — are manifold, and prodigious. He’s been found legally culpable in a sexual harassment lawsuit; he’s semi-badgered the Rockettes into performing at Trump’s inauguration. Also! He’s a struggle rocker who financially blackmails great Nashville session players into working with his band.

Above all, though, is that one truly unshakeable New York crime: during his 17-year-run as owner, the Knicks have been nearly uniformly trash.

Dolan didn’t need an ounce of help being hated in New York. And then he had Charles Oakley handcuffed and kicked out of the Garden. Oh — and then Dolan banned him for life.

In PR statements after the incident, the Knicks went on the offensive. The aggressive deniability of all culpability with the ugly personal attack. Sean Spicer would be proud!

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Not explicit enough for you?! Dolan then sat for an ESPN radio interview and sounded thoroughly Trumpian. “People need to, you know, sort of understand that, that, the, you know, he is — he has a problem with anger,” Dolan said. “He’s both physically and verbally abusive. He may have a problem with alcohol, we don’t know.”

He did so while consulting a white three-ring binder of speaking notes he’d brought along — a white three-ring binder marked “Preparation.” (By the way: Dolan himself is a recovering addict, which makes the unfounded allegation simultaneously more confusing and way more dickish.)

Oakley’s response: "He's trying to peg me as a different person. I'm not that guy."

Perhaps realizing he’d gone way too far — or perhaps pushed into action by the ever image-conscious NBA — Dolan tried to walk it back. On Monday, in a sit-down with commissioner Adam Silver and Oakley (with Oakley’s good pal Michael Jordan calling in) a truce was reportedly reached. According to the commissioner’s statement, Dolan had apologized to Oakley and was prepared to welcome back to the Garden in the “near future.”

Understandably, Oakley wasn’t buying it. In comments to the press over the last few days, Oakley compared Dolan to virulently racist ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling and dismissed any idea of peace. “I feel like I was pulled out of the meeting like I was pulled out of the Garden,” he told SI. He also specified to ESPN exactly what he was looking for: “I want to have a press conference, and I want him to apologize to me and the fans.”

In the days since, fans throughout the city have voiced their support for Oakley over Dolan. Current stars have as well: the Cav’s LeBron James apparently called the Manhattan precinct that Oakley was being detained at; the Warriors Draymond Green said Dolan’s actions stemmed from a “slave master mentality.” "You doing it for me, it's all good," Green added. "You doing it against me — you speaking out against my organization — it's not good anymore?”

It’s one thing to have some kind of personal disagreement with a former employer; it’s another for that employer to publicly treat you like an unhinged criminal. Oakley has stipulated his demands pretty clearly, and they’re fair. Dolan should follow suit. His reputation tells us he won’t. In a long career of fuck-ups, this is Dolan’s masterpiece.

On a side note — I actually played basketball with Charles Oakley once. It was 2008 or 2009, and Pros Vs. Joes — a now quaint-sounding reality show in which professional athletes were matched against plain ol’ regular folk — was hosting a press event. Reporters were invited to play 2-on-2 against Oakley and his fellow ex-Knick Charles Smith on the court at Madison Square Garden.

I signed up with my buddy Ben, beyond stoked at the opportunity. And then the day off, being the shithead twentysomething I was, I slept in. Groggy, probably hungover, I rushed to the Garden as fast as I could, and made it in time to get some playing time. Friends, I don’t believe I made a shot that day. But I did, in a moment subsequently captured on film, cleanly and effectively pump fake Oakley into the air. In other words: along with Dolan, I’m one of a few handful of people alive who can say they’ve ejected Charles Oakley from the Garden.

By the way, my guy Ben was splashing that day. Blessed with the shooting mechanics of a young Jud Buechler — and you know, the heart of a champion — he’d managed to sink an array of threes on a sleepy Charles Smith. And after one make or another, Smith actually got fed up. He got so fed up that he asked Oakley to switch — he wanted to make Oak chase Ben around the three-point line. I’m not going to say Oakley didn’t grumble. He grumbled; he’s a grumbly guy. But he grunted his approval. He switched onto Ben. He did the dirty work.

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Charles Oakley Is Still The People’s Champ