We're like Jekyll and Hyde, like Jack and Jill. You know, they all went up the hill.
Charles Oakley says things like this often enough that they have come to be known as Oakspeak. They are like brain-teasers; you want to rearrange the words to reveal the hidden meaning. But as simple and straightforward as the elements of Oakspeak are, the combination is almost impossible to decipher, and once you have accepted that, you have begun to solve Charles Oakley.
He cannot jump, which tells you right away that he goes against the grain of convention. Nearly everyone in today's NBA can soar; it's as if the league had obtained a restraining order against gravity. But Oakley, the Toronto Raptors' 36-year-old power forward, has legs with only slightly more spring in them than your coffee table's, a fact that bothers him not in the least. He actually seems proud of being relatively earthbound in a league of leapers, so much so that you begin to wonder if he is truly incapable of clearing a deck of cards when he takes off, or if he simply wants to make it look that way.
There are, after all, those who insist that Oakley hasn't always played as if the soles of his shoes were slathered with glue. Dave Robbins, his coach at Virginia Union, remembers that Oakley had a perfectly decent vertical leap when he arrived at the Richmond campus, and some of Oakley's former teammates at John Hay High in Cleveland recall him as a spectacular dunker who would blow kisses to the crowd after his landings. Oakley only smiles when asked about these recollections, refusing to classify them as either fact or fiction.
Whether he can't jump or won't jump hardly seems like a mystery worth solving, because either by necessity or by choice Oakley has carved out an exemplary career on the ground. He has grabbed more than 10,000 rebounds in 15 NBA seasons—now that Charles Barkley has retired, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone are the only active players with more—and in the process established himself as the epitome of industriousness. Oakley is not so much a player as he is a selfless laborer, the kind who takes care of odd jobs such as flinging his 6'9", 245-pound body into the stands in pursuit of loose balls and setting picks that rattle opponents' molars. A typical Oakley moment occurred in early December when the Raptors were trailing the Washington Wizards 93-92 with one second left. Toronto guard Dee Brown drilled a wide-open three-pointer for the win, but almost unnoticed was the reason that Brown was free for the shot: Oakley had not merely screened Chris Whitney, Brown's defender, he had all but placed him in custody.
"He's tough as a pine knot," says Robbins. "I don't know if you've ever tried to hammer a nail into a piece of pine with a knot in it, but it will bend the nail. That's how tough Charles is. He'll bend the nail."
If a superstar scorer is an NBA team's primary need, a player like Oakley is its second. He ignores an open shot to find a better one; he's a master of the hidden art of helping on defense; he becomes a more reliable shooter in the clutch. That's why Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause wept when he traded him to the New York Knicks for center Bill Cartwright in June 1988. It's why 13 months after the June '98 deal that sent Oakley to Toronto for forward Marcus Camby, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was in Oak's living room, trying unsuccessfully to persuade him to rejoin New York as a free agent. It's why the Raptors believe Oakley can help lead them not only to the first playoff appearance in their five-year history but also deep into the postseason. He has done nothing to shake their faith, providing a steadying influence for the team's 22-year-old rising star, forward Vince Carter. Though the Raptors were 20-17 at week's end, Oakley, with characteristic clarity, says there's room for improvement: "If you've got a bakery and you're selling out the baked goods every week, you've got to keep baking. We built a bakery, but now we've got a store with a bakery sign but no bread or anything."
It's not surprising that Oakley has found a way to succeed without jumping, given that he has never been much impressed by fancy but unnecessary tools. He refuses to use any machinery in the chain of eight car washes he owns in Cleveland and suburban New York City because he hasn't seen the piece of equipment that can clean or wax more thoroughly than the human hand. John Hay High didn't have a weight room when he was a student there, so Oakley had a teammate stand on his back when he did push-ups and sit on his shoulders as he did squats. He even finds planes excessive, traveling exclusively—and extensively—by car in the off-season. After a decade and a half in the NBA, Oakley knows what's important and what's not, and he has determined that the ability to hang in the air long enough to rebraid his graying cornrows is not. "A rebound is still a rebound, whether you get it a foot above the rim or a foot below the rim," he says. "There's nothing wrong with the old-fashioned way."
So is it that this Oak remains rooted out of his affection for time-honored methods? Is it his way of proving that there is still a place among these high-flying whippersnappers for a man who excels on the ground? His game seems to be an homage to players such as Wes Unseld and Paul Silas, tough, granitelike big men of the '60s and '70s who waged their battles on land, not in the air. He also knows that keeping an opponent off-balance, nudging him, elbowing him, leaning on him one moment and backing away the next, is vital down low. "You can't come at people the same way every time, because then they figure you out," he says.
Oakley has the same philosophy off the court. He is a utilitarian player who wastes little motion, yet he dresses in colors Crayola hasn't thought of and thinks nothing of discarding a $2,000 suit after wearing it once. He will throw basic, fundamentally correct passes all evening long, then for some reason uncork a behind-the-back flip or a length-of-the-court outlet that sails out-of-bounds untouched. He believes hard work is its own reward, but he's just as interested in other rewards—financial ones—as any of his younger teammates. He proved that by shunning the more championship-ready Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers last summer and re-signing with the Raptors, who could offer him more money ($18 million over three years).