The phone rang, and an old friend and fellow Knicks fan wanted to know if I was watching Thursday night’s game. I was finishing up some reading, so I wasn’t. Because of his prompting, I turned on the TV set to ESPN. And there it was… the unthinkable, security for the World’s Most Famous Arena had former Knicks all time great, Charles Oakley surrounded at his seat – three rows back from court-side – and manhandling him. Then, they forced him to the nearest exit, and along with a few cops, cuffed him and arrested him on national TV.
In the aftermath of his arrest, Maadison Sqaure Garden management hastily decided to ban Charles Oakley from the building.
We called him Oak during his playing days. Oak was feisty and he resisted. He staved of the inevitable humiliation as long as he could. The proud old Knicks captain slapped every hand that the half dozen or so, mostly white, security guards and cops put on him. Just like he used to when Chicago Bulls Bill Wennington and Horace Grant tried to keep him from snaring another missed shot by Greg Anthony or John Starks, in one of those epic Knicks/Bulls wars from the ’90s.
New York caught the business end of most of those battles, but they played hard and made us all proud to be members of the Knicks fan base and community. Proud to be New Yorkers, and proud to be black, and part of the Big Apple business community. Charles Oakley was the heart and soul of those teams.
Those Knicks were part of the early ’90s, New York Hip Hop community. And no one was more visible than Charles Oakley. Back then, you’d see members of those teams in the clubs and restaurants. You’d see them at concerts. You could easily run into them at Nell’s, at Kilimanjaro’s East or at the latest Spike Lee premiere. Oak would often be seen hanging out with the late Anthony Mason at the hot comedy clubs, or with his good friend Michael Jordan. Oak was in the mix, and for those of us involved in Black entertainment and nightlife circles, he was the face of the New York Knicks organization.
The ’93 Knicks won sixty regular season games for the first time in twenty years. They went into the playoffs marked as serious contenders to knock off Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan’s defending World Champion Bulls. Pat Riley was in his second year as head coach, and the team played a rough and tumble brand of hard nosed defensive minded ball that spread fear throughout the league. I had tickets to every home playoff game.
On the way to eventually losing to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks knocked off Reggie Miller and his Indiana Pacers. They played Charlotte in the second round, and the Hornets featured Alonzo Mourning at center, Larry Johnson at small forward, the league’s best shooter, Dell Curry coming off the bench and a lightening quick running attack led by Mugsy Bogues.
My mother was alive then, and living in Charlotte. She was a retired New York City school teacher with a basketball jones that she passed on to her only son. The Hornets were her team. Imagine her surprise when the captain of the New York Knicks called her to tell her that a pair of tickets would be left for her at the box office. I was proud that she could go as Oak’s guest.
Oak was entrepreneurial, and he had a yearning to be in the record business, so when I was an A&R man at EMI records, he used to bring acts for me to hear. He wanted a label deal but he never brought me anything that we could agree on. But he was humble, charming, gracious and serious. The buzz would spread throughout my building whenever he would come by for a meeting. The chairman of my label group (who was a diehard Knicks fan) came out of a meeting with a senior exec from the home office in London just to shake Oak’s hand once.
I’m just getting over the anger that has kept me from writing. The anger that comes from having invested nearly a lifetime of support in a team that hasn’t given me much in return lately. In the last fifteen seasons, they’ve won one playoff round, and have missed the playoffs altogether for eleven of the seasons in that same period.
I’ve just moved back to the area where I was raised, and I have had cable installed for the first time in nearly three years so I can watch the Knicks. Previously, I watched them on my NBA League Pass app on my iPads. Now that I’m living in the New York Metro area, games are blacked out on the Pass, but I keep rooting.
You see the Knicks mean something to men my age. They were more than a sports franchise, they were a cultural institution that served as a vehicle for change. They won it all when I was a kid, and they represented the integrationist’s dream; Black Southerners were scouted by the team, they played, won titles and became Hall of Famers. A future US Senator who had progressive leanings played with them, and he began to pursue serious presidential aspirations while he held the small forward position down. The most accomplished coaching mind the game has produced was a reserve on those teams. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford sat court side during those years, and rooted just as hard as I did at home.
In my day, I’ve seen over 400 live NBA games in Madison Square Garden. I’ve seen many a musical great play the World’s Most Famous Arena; Sly Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic, Run/DMC, the Beastie Boys, U2, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, New Edition, Bobby Brown, George Michael, Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Prince. I grew up in that building.
To see a guy who gave the Knicks the better part of his career hauled off like a common criminal is seriously bad optics. At a time when the formerly great coaching mind is trying to run the team’s most talented player out of town, and the very real questions of the value of Black life, of women’s rights, of religious discrimination, and other issues of oppressive behavior are being raised in the culture at large, I can’t imagine how a poorer choice could have been made by Garden management.
Oak and the managing owner met with NBA Commisioner Adam Silver in the League office yesterday. Michael Jordan – who now owns the Hornets – sat in via conference call. The Knicks are celebrating their 70th year of existence, and they’ve excluded Oak from all team observances. Reportedly, Oak has been estranged from the team for some time. Yesterday’s sit down yielded some sort of compromise that has allowed Oak to return to the building. I hope he can eventually return to the fold. His number should be retired and hanging from the Garden rafters.
This current Knicks crew sucks, and could use as many examples as possible of how one wears the orange and blue with pride. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, we all need as many examples of professional integrity that we can find.