As the curtains on 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend draw to a choreographed opening, sometime over the next few hours, Commissioner David Stern will make his way to a nearby “Space City” podium to deliver his always glowing state-of-the-league address. This year’s speech, however, comes with footnotes. Former NBA star, Charles Oakley is offering up talking points. It may not be the kind of chatter the Commish craves to hear, but as always in the case of the straight-shooting Oak, he can rest assured it comes from the heart.
TSL: Back in the 1980’s, the Association had a promotional campaign that boasted “NBA action… it’s fantastic!” How would you alter that slogan to best suit today’s game?
Oak: “NBA action… it’s now MIA.” It’s just not the same game we played; the talent level is nowhere near what it was. It’s so downgraded, I rarely even watch games anymore. Guys like LeBron, KD and Kobe could more than hold their own in any era, but there aren’t a whole lot of others. These guys lack fundamentals; they react to situations as if they’ve never spent one day thinking about the game. Guys go to the best schools to groom themselves for basketball, so you’d think the training would show itself. A guy like me went to a small-time school, but I always wanted to be better and took it on my own shoulders to do the work. Accountability, that’s the biggest difference between old school guys and youngsters.
TSL: So, nothing about today’s NBA excites you? Not all the speed, all the athleticism?
Oak: Just being athletic is like driving a high-speed car you can’t control. You have to be able to pace what you’re doing for it to be any fun. Most of these guys can’t connect the athletic stuff they can do with being a solid basketball player. Crying, pouting and finger-pointing, that’s all you see from guys. Most of them don’t care enough about winning or making their own games better. Every other player’s got a whole team of trainers he works with during the offseason. Still, the next year all of them come back and you can’t see any change in their games. When I played, you handled your own business and kept yourself in shape. You knew where you needed to be better and it was on you to put the work in. To a man, that spirit just isn’t there anymore.
TSL: How would you fix it all?
Oak: Used to be, Stern ran the show like a Cuban dictator. If you were going to play in the NBA, you were going to do it based on his rules and regulations. Now, the agents have taken over. They control teams and hold franchises hostage by deciding who plays where and what players become teammates. Deciding where to play has become as political as running for the White House. As far as the style of play, it’s all European, no toughness or aggressiveness. Real basketball fans are being cheated. I guess the only way you change things is by making it all about basketball again. That’s the only way.
TSL: Speaking of unspoken rules, how foul would you rate some of the trash talk KG is alleged to have hurled at Melo during their recent Garden dust-up?
Oak : If it’s working for you, I feel you’re free to say whatever you want to say. It’s just talk and guys are doing more and more of it these days. It’s like everybody wants to be a reality-TV tough guy. Melo has to be stronger and smarter than that. Everybody knows KG’s a talker, always has been. That was never my style, but if I could take a guy out of his game that easily, absolutely, it’s going down. My way was to just outwork and physically destroy the other guy. It’s about whatever works for you.
TSL: Y ou were known as the ultimate enforcer, yet not a lot of players have followed in your footsteps. Why do you think your style has become somewhat of a lost art?
Oak: That enforcer stuff is something you guys in the media started. I was never a dirty player or one to try to scare a guy out of his wits. My thing was to outwork you and that brought me respect. I didn’t care about being a bully or psyching you out. As for today, it’s all about posing and profiling. Those are the guys that get all the endorsements and all the big contracts. Everybody’s got stars in their eyes.
TSL: So, there wasn’t at least some gamesmanship going on back in the day when you slapped Tyrone Hill before a game, then threw the rock directly at his head the next time you faced him?
Oak: That was different. He owed me a debt (rumored to be a gambling debt in neighborhood of $60,000) and where I come from any gentleman always pays his debts. And if you don’t make good on time, the price automatically goes up and up.
TSL: Is there any current player that reminds you of yourself in the way he plays the game?
Oak: If I had to pick a guy, the only one that comes close is maybe Tyson Chandler. Everything’s style and finesse. You’ve got your centers shooting nothing but jumpers and averaging just two rebounds a night. Defenses just let guys run up and down the lane and you’ve got guys allowed to dribble eight or nine times before they make their move. Right now, I’d average double the points and rebounds I did over my career.
TSL: What do you see becoming of this year’s Lakers?
Oak: It’s curtains for the Lakers. First off, before D’Antoni, I’ve never seen a coach that can’t make live adjustments. No matter how bad they’re going, his team’s come down the floor and do the same things all night long. Run Kobe off a pick or some other guy and take another bad shot, that’s the whole offense. Then, Dwight is so overrated. Not that D’Antoni requires anything different, but he’s horrible at team defense. He thinks everything starts and ends with blocking a shot. Shaq had problems playing screen-roll defense, too, but he was so dominant in everything else he was able to get away with it. Dwight ain’t Shaq.
TSL: So, do you think yet another change of scenery might be in the best interest of Howard?
Oak: What difference would that really make? Are they going to change the size of the ball or the rims to make it easier on him with all those missed free throws, too? Are they going to change all the rules for him? All the so-called experts need to know that the change-of-scene crap is just that. If you can play ball, you can play anywhere.
TSL: You were an assistant coach with Charlotte for a year. Can you see yourself coming back to coach again someday?
Oak: I don’t know about all that. I’ve never been good at being a ‘yes man’ and it seems those are the guys moving up the ranks, nowadays. That’s just not my way. A lot of people are scared of the truth; they don’t want to hear it. It’s the only way I know how to do business.