BY: CRAIG ELLENPORT
On September 30, 2016, a portion of Deering Avenue that runs across the north side of John Hay High School near downtown Cleveland was renamed for the school’s most famous athlete. The street sign reads:
Charles Oakley Way.
“This means a lot to me," Oakley said that day. "Coming from the inner city of Cleveland and growing up you never expected a street to be named after you or anything. It's a special honor."
So in Cleveland, Charles Oakley Way is a street sign. In the world of basketball, the “Charles Oakley way” is a style of play. It’s defined by attitude, force of will and respect for the game.
The respect part has come full circle for Oakley. After a 19-year pro career as a hard-charging, rebounding machine, Oakley earned the respect not only of his peers but also so many players who have followed him.
It’s why current players – who weren’t even born when Oakley was an all-rookie first-teamer in 1986 – rushed to his defense when Oak was kicked out of Madison Square Garden and arrested following an incident with New York Knicks owner James Dolan on Feb. 8.
LeBron James was among the many current players who pledged support for Oakley on social media following the incident, but James went further than that. He told reporters on Feb. 9 that he had reached out to Oak to make sure he was okay, and he ended a post-game statement to the media after that night’s game with the declaration, “Charles Oakley for President!”
Current players who might not have known much about Oakley before certainly got that chance after hearing the outpouring of support from the likes of James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and others. They got to see highlights of Oakley crashing the boards on his way to pulling down 12,205 career rebounds (21st all-time). They heard about the passion and drive of a player who ranks 18th in career games played. A player who started every single game of the regular season and playoffs in the 1993-94 season – a record 107 games.
And for those younger players who wished they had the chance to see Oakley take the court once more, they’ll get that opportunity when the BIG3 tips off on June 25. The BIG3 announced on Feb. 17 that Oakley, who retired in 2004, would be a part of the inaugural season of the professional 3-on-3 league.
Oakley will serve as a player/coach of the Killer 3s, the newly announced BIG3 team with superstar captain Chauncey Billups and co-captain Stephen Jackson.
What’s more, Oakley’s return to professional basketball will officially begin back in New York. The BIG3 announced on March 12 that its June 25 opening games will be played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The announcement was made at a Knicks-Nets game at Barclays Center – Oakley’s second appearance at a Knicks game since the MSG incident. (He was courtside for a Knicks-Cavaliers game in Cleveland on Feb. 23, ironically seated next to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.) At the Knicks-Nets game, he sat next to BIG3 co-founders Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz.
Even before Oakley joined the BIG3, one of Oak’s new teammates was among the most vocal supporters when his feud with the Knicks boiled over. Jackson posted a video to Instagram following the arrest.
“Oak is one of the realest people you’ll ever meet,” said Jackson – who got to know Oakley when he played for the Charlotte Bobcats and Oak was an assistant coach there in 2010-11. “If the Knicks organization had as much heart, as much passion as Oak did, they probably wouldn’t be so (bleepin’) terrible. … All that heart he brought to the Knicks all those years, now they want to disrespect him.”
Despite efforts by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Oak’s good friend and former teammate Michael Jordan to broker a peace between Oakley and the New York Knicks, the feud lingers. His ban from Madison Square Garden has been lifted, but Oakley said he won’t be back there anytime soon.
Of course, feuding with owners will not be a problem for Oak in the BIG3. None of the players has to worry about being disrespected by an owner… because there are no owners. The focus is squarely on the players.
“I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this league,” said Oakley. “Everyone seems to realize we are about to make history together as players. What an exciting opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best ever.”
Competing at the highest level has always been the Charles Oakley way. When he takes the court this summer with the Killer 3s, all signs point to that happening once again.