Publish date:

The War Horse Having seen it all in a 13-year career, including 13 trips to the playoffs, the venerable Charles Oakley helped the Knicks hammer out a split in their series with the Heat

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

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

To Oakley, Cummings's Game 2 performance sparked a victory not
just of the Knicks over the Heat but also of age over youth.
"Everybody knows that the league gives the young players all the
hype," he says. "The veterans get pushed off in the corner and
don't get the credit they deserve. But this time of year, a lot
of the time it's the old guys who get you through."

That's why the Miami fan who heckled the Knicks before Game 2
used the wrong strategy when he yelled, "You're old, Oakley!
You're so old!" You get the feeling that if he had heard the
comment, Oakley would have taken it as a compliment.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BOARD BATTLE Going up against a player not only bigger but also six years younger, Oakley held his own against Mourning. [Alonzo Mourning and Charles Oakley in game]