Somewhere along the line, Oakley will explode every assumption you make about him. "Oak will fool you," says Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers, Oakley's teammate with the Knicks in 1992-93 and '93-94. "It's like he thinks you're getting too close to figuring him out, so he throws you a little curve. It's like he's saying, You think you know me? Well what do you make of this?"
Robbins points out that, to survive the punishment under the boards, Oakley gained about 35 pounds during his years at Virginia Union and that the extra weight might have robbed him of some jumping ability. That makes sense. Yes, that must be it. After all, he couldn't have been fooling us all this time, could he?
Oakspeak: If it ain't broke, don't break it.
Oakley is grumpy, even more proof that he's not of this era. You don't see grumpy much anymore, certainly not among athletes. Today's player is arrogant or charming or savvy or angry or any number of other things, but rarely is he a good old-fashioned grouch. Oakley isn't scary grumpy; he's grumpy like your grandpa, just enough to make you brace yourself a bit before you approach him. It is one reason he has never been married, although he does have a three-year-old son, also named Charles, who lives with his mother in Tallahassee, Fla. Oakley supports his child financially and spends considerable time with him in the off-season, bringing young Charles to visit him and his extended family. It is a measure of how closely he guards the details of his private life that many people who consider themselves friends of Oakley don't know he is a father. "Personal life is nobody's business," he says testily. "I'm not one of those stars people want to know everything about, anyway."
It doesn't seem likely that Oakley will become a husband anytime soon. "I think he's got such traditional values that it would take a '50s-style woman who wanted to stay home and devote herself to the family to really make him happy," says Billy Diamond, Oakley's friend and business manager. But he certainly doesn't need someone to cook and clean for him. Oakley keeps an immaculate house and is comfortable enough in the kitchen that Toronto forward Kevin Willis nicknamed him Chef. "I've been on my own so long that I had to learn," Oakley says. "And I like being able to make my food the way I want it."
Almost anything can bring out the curmudgeon in Oakley. "You don't have to listen, but he has to talk," says Rivers. "He has to tell you how his sneakers are tight, his uniform is stiff, his locker is dirty, the chicken has too much salt, the bus is leaving too early, the plane is leaving too late. You just put up with him because he's Oak and somehow he's still lovable."
Oakley seldom complains about the things he ought to complain about. The flavor of a birthday cake or the color of the locker room rug can be nitpicked, but work or pain are to be endured in silence. He returned to Virginia Union for the school's annual celebrity golf tournament last summer, about six weeks after the season. "When he walked into the gym, he had a lump on his elbow as big as an orange," says Robbins. "Not a lemon, an orange. He said he must have banged it up during the season sometime. He didn't think anything of it. I made him go see our team doctor, who drained it and said he'd never drained more fluid at one time than he did out of that elbow. Oak's toughness ain't no act."
Oakley's feelings have been bruised almost as much as his body, but he plays through that pain as well. He has no romantic notions about hard work making him deserving of some special reward. If the reward is being traded from the Bulls just when they're on the cusp of a dynasty; if it's losing almost 40% of his $10 million balloon payment in 1998-99 because of the lockout; if it's being traded from the Knicks before last season and watching them reach the Finals, so be it. That's the way life is. The trade from New York, where he was a Madison Square Garden favorite, hurt him, and he had harsh words for Ernie Grunfeld, the Knicks' president and general manager at the time. But for the most part Oakley has kept up the tough facade. "It wasn't hard to accept," he says. "I'm an employee, and I got transferred. Happens every day. You just move your pencils and your tools to another building and get yourself a new desk."
Still, there are places where he is the boss, such as Oakley's Wash House, the combination car wash and Laundromat Oakley founded in east Cleveland. His sister Carolyn and mother, Corine, oversee the operation, and it seems as if an Oakley is at every station, making sure the stainless steel washers and driers gleam like freshly polished silverware on one side of the business and running a soapy sponge over a Mercedes on the other. A block down the street are Hair Solutions and Nails EtCetera, salons started with seed money from Oakley and run by his sisters. "Charles takes care of family," says his sister Saralene. "He got this started, but we do the work."
The Wash House helps the image—a practical, no-nonsense business for a practical, no-nonsense player—and Oakley does more than just lend the place his name. While in town he can often be found with a sponge or cloth in his hand, working on customers' cars. "You can go down there some days and see Oak in an expensive Italian suit, scrubbing like he was in overalls," says Herb Williams, Oakley's friend and former Knicks teammate.