He is here every year at this time, like a businessman who never misses his industry's annual convention. This is where the real work begins, in the playoffs, and New York Knicks forward Charles Oakley has always gone where the work is. The NBA has not held a postseason without him since he entered the league in 1985, back when most of the young stars he likes to grumble about were in grade school. Other players have been in more playoff games or enjoyed more success, but few can match the range of Oakley's postseason experiences. He has been eliminated in the first round, and he has reached the Finals. He has swept, and he has been swept. He has won seventh games and moved on, and he has lost seventh games and gone home. Wherever the Knicks' first-round series against the Miami Heat takes them, you can be sure that Oakley has been there.
He has fought so many memorable battles in New York that it is hard to remember him as a young player with the Chicago Bulls, with whom he spent his first three seasons after coming out of Virginia Union. While in Chicago he soaked up the wisdom of veteran teammates in the twilight of their great careers, learning from Artis Gilmore what it meant to give maximum effort every night and from George Gervin how a sense of humor could alleviate pressure.
"I always had a special respect for the guys who had done it and done it and done it," Oakley says. Now, as one of those players, he often answers questions with a simple, "Hey, man, I'm a veteran." He says it with such pride that he almost sounds as if he means he's a war veteran. In a sense, he is.
Oakley has had individual playoff battles with every type of adversary. There have been leapers like Larry Nance and bangers like Charles Barkley, scorers like Orlando Woolridge and rebounders like Dennis Rodman, gifted athletes like Derrick Coleman and crafty technicians like Kevin McHale. "Nobody is going to show a guy like Charles anything he hasn't seen," says teammate Terry Cummings, who at 37 has been in the league three years longer than the 34-year-old Oakley. "There's a certain comfort that comes with knowing you can't be surprised."
That's why Oakley, when asked if he had playoff jitters before Game 1 of the Miami series last Friday, responded with a look that suggested he doesn't even know what a jitter is. "I don't get nervous," he said. "To me, being nervous is being halfway scared, and if you're scared, you might as well be playing for the other team."
Not even the prospect of guarding Miami center Alonzo Mourning because of the absence of injured Knicks center Patrick Ewing could shake Oakley's battle-tested cool. He sat in a Miami Arena locker room less than an hour before Game 1, laughing and joking as if he were about to play a summer-league game. Commissioner David Stern, he said, was a regular patron of one of the seven car washes he owns. "I charge him double," Oakley said. "Let him put a hard [salary] cap on that." What if Mourning were to drive through one of his establishments? "I'd back the line up and get him out of there," Oakley said. "Let 'Zo wash his car at home."
He had even more reason to smile after New York's 96-86 victory in Game 2 on Sunday tied the best-of-five series. The 6'9", 245-pound Oakley played his usual role in the first two games—essential but largely unnoticed, making plays that don't show up in the box score.
Knocked to the floor by Mourning on New York's first possession of Game 1, Oakley spent long stretches of the first two games slam-dancing with Mourning and Heat forward P.J. Brown. Oakley lugged his massive body up and down the floor in that arthritic-looking way of his, limping and wincing as he went, yet battling the 6'10", 261-pound Mourning for every inch of territory near the basket. "With 'Zo I make sure I don't play him the same way every time," Oakley said. "You front him sometimes, you play behind him and try to push him off the block other times. He'll bang you and try to push you around and get into the lane, but you just try to throw 13 years of knowing how to play back at him."
Oakley helped limit Mourning to 11 points and six rebounds and contributed 10 points and 12 rebounds of his own in Game 1, but it wasn't enough to prevent a surprisingly easy 94-79 Miami win. Afterward Oakley fell back on the blue-collar imagery he likes to use when he talks about himself and his team. "We just have to put our hard hats and our hard boots on," he said. "Some guys didn't go to work as hard as they should have, and that has to change."
It did change in Game 2, when New York guards Allan Houston and John Starks jump-started the offense and point guards Charlie Ward and Chris Childs did a better job of corralling Heat counterpart Tim Hardaway, who scored 34 points in the opener but was held to 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting on Sunday. But the deciding factor may have been the play of Cummings, who did an Oakley impersonation in the fourth quarter. He grabbed seven of his 14 rebounds in that period, kept several other balls alive with tips, stifled Mourning and generally played so well that Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy rested Oakley for most of the fourth quarter.