Charles Oakley has finally stopped pining for New York
It's the little things that keep Toronto veteran Charles Oakley
going now, like that overtime basket on March 21 that sealed a
victory against the Knicks, his former team, the team that ripped
his heart out, stomped on it, then shipped it to Canada,
second-day air. All right, so maybe that win wasn't such a little
thing after all. "I'm still enjoying that one," Oakley admits.
When Raptors vice president and general manager Glen Grunwald
swung the deal for Oakley in June, many said it was folly. Oakley
would be a free agent in the summer of 1999, skeptics noted; why
on earth would he stay? "It takes some courage to come up here,"
says Grunwald. "Oak could have been like some other guys, but
he's been real positive."
Oakley arrived with his elbows sharpened and his mind open. He
and fellow veteran Kevin Willis tutored young players like rookie
Vince Carter and former high school phenom Tracy McGrady, who had
floundered in his first season. The mix of young and old has
worked. Through Sunday, Toronto was 14-14 and flirting with a
The shock of being traded for forward Marcus Camby has worn off,
and Oakley has made a place for himself north of the border. He
brought his defense, rebounding, toughness and locker-room
presence to the young Raptors. Carter, who has vaulted over
Sacramento point guard Jason Williams and Boston forward Paul
Pierce as the Rookie of the Year favorite, is the rising young
star who can invigorate the franchise, but if you look a little
closer, you'll see Oak in the background, telling the kid what's
around the next corner. "Vince is getting a lot of double teams
now, so I tell him how they're going to come at him," Oakley
says. "But he doesn't need any lessons on [how to deal with]
intimidation. When we played Atlanta, he went inside and Mutombo
blocked him. Next play, Vince goes in again, only this time he
goes in a little higher."
Carter is Oakley's kind of guy: He's not afraid, and he's
willing to do whatever's needed to win. He's also willing to
tackle even bigger challenges, like bringing respectability to a
franchise that was reeling last year. Executive vice president
Isiah Thomas resigned in an ugly dispute with ownership,
franchise player Damon Stoudamire forced a trade, and veteran
Kenny Anderson, dealt to the Raptors by Portland in exchange for
Stoudamire, refused to report. Toronto had become an NBA death
sentence--it was too cold, the taxes were too high (a canard),
the team played in a cavernous baseball stadium (SkyDome), and
the Raptors, a poor stepchild to the Maple Leafs, couldn't even
boast of being the big fish in a small pond.
Toronto attempted to sign Oakley to an extension before he'd
even unpacked his bags, but he was still chafing from the trade
and still hopeful that the Lakers would swing a deal to acquire
him. Oakley won't say how much the Raptors put on the table,
but, referring to a $10 million balloon payment due this year,
he cracked, "I lost more money during the lockout than they
Oakley, who will be 36 in December, says he will take less money
to sign with a contender next season, but don't be surprised if
he stays with Toronto, which can pay him more than anyone else
can and may be willing to reward him with a three-year deal. The
team has a nucleus of young talent, a new arena (the Air Canada
Centre, which opened on Feb. 20), new ownership and a chance for
another bountiful draft, because it has Denver's first pick this
summer. Former players' association executive director Charlie
Grantham, who represents Oakley, says the Raptors "might be the
best fit for Oak."
Oakley may have moved on, figuratively and literally, but he's
not about to feign indifference about the Knicks, his team for
10 seasons. He talks regularly to his former teammates, and he
senses the tension on that team. "The stuff is swirling around
there, ain't it?" says Oakley. "Let me tell you--something's
going to blow."
Oakley realizes that the Knicks needed to start looking toward
the future, which is why the 25-year-old Camby was attractive to
them. But he also knows those fickle New York fans still love
him. "If you are going to make a move, at least get some guys
who have been there before," he says. "Spre is a great player,
but he's not an East Coast player. He belongs out West. And
Camby... I know he's got talent, but in a seven-game playoff
series, I like my chances a whole helluva lot better."
The Raptors agree, and they're hoping Oakley will stick around
long enough to show them how that postseason stuff works.
Divac's Family Peril
THE WAR COMES TO SACRAMENTO
Four-year-old Milica Divac was playing with her doll last week
when the sirens sounded throughout the streets of Belgrade.
"Daddy," she said, "does that mean freedom is coming?"
Milica, the niece of Sacramento center Vlade Divac, was told
that the sirens were warning of an air raid, so she quickly
gathered her coat, her blanket and her doll, and followed her
parents to a nearby bomb shelter. Her native Yugoslavia is under
siege by NATO, which began bombing it on March 24 after Yugoslav
president Slobodan Milosevic refused to halt attacks on Kosovo.
This story is merely a USA Today headline for most NBA players.
For Vlade Divac, a Serb, it is a living nightmare. When Divac is
not at practice, he scans CNN for the latest news or tries to
make contact with his elderly parents, who live in Prijepolje, a
small town perilously close to some of the designated military
targets. "I am not a politician," Divac explained, "but it is
ridiculous to think these bombings will solve anything. Please,
stop bombing and start talking."
Divac does not blame Americans for their disdain of Milosevic,
but, he said, innocent people are paying for Milosevic's sins.
"People ask me if I support that gentleman in Belgrade
[Milosevic]. That is not the issue. I care about the innocent
people--the children in my town, the Albanians [in Kosovo], the
pilots who are flying over there. This is not some cartoon. The
pictures on your television are real. People are dying."
The Kings have pledged their support to Divac and have tried to
help him maintain contact with his family. In the meantime he
suits up each night with trepidation, his hands shaking after a
day spent worrying. He now realizes that the game he loves is a
welcome distraction. "Believe it or not, basketball helps so
much," Divac said. "For a couple of hours, at least, I can
actually think about something else."
REMEMBRANCE OF POUNDS PAST
Remember when Cleveland forward Shawn Kemp reported to camp
looking like the Michelin Man? Estimates varied, but it was
clear that Kemp was at least 30 pounds over his ideal playing
Nearly two months later, Kemp has whittled away at his
waistline. Now there's only one problem: He wishes he had some
of that heft left. Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas broke his
left foot and is lost for the season, and his backup, Vitaly
Potapenko, was dealt to Boston on March 11. Although Cleveland
received big man Andrew DeClercq and a first round pick in that
swap, coach Mike Fratello informed Kemp that he will be playing
major minutes in the middle for the balance of the season.
"People have been talking about my weight all year," Kemp says.
"Well, I could use some of those pounds back now."
When the Cavs got Kemp in a three-way trade with Milwaukee and
Seattle in September 1997, they handed him a $107 million,
7-year extension with the expectation that he would emerge as a
leader and their franchise player. Last season Kemp was up to
the challenge, averaging 18.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
The Cavaliers had high hopes for the shortened 1999 season--only
to discover that their power forward had spent the lockout
powerlifting a fork. "Our expectations were high," says
Fratello. "But Shawn came in with all that weight, then Zydrunas
Fratello says Kemp has played well despite the excess tonnage.
"He is an incredible physical specimen," Fratello says, "to be
able to play like that even with the extra weight."
Kemp concedes the wisecracks about his physique would have
destroyed him when he was younger. "Five years ago I might not
have handled it too well," Kemp says. "But I've learned how to
take a thing like this and turn it into a challenge."
Kemp is not thrilled about banging against the likes of
Shaquille O'Neal and Patrick Ewing night after night, but he
plays center without complaint because the team has no choice.
The consolation, Kemp says, is that Ilgauskas will return next
season. Or so Cleveland hopes. There is some fear that
Ilgauskas, who has been sidelined by a broken foot before, has a
chronic condition. "It's an unknown," Fratello says of his
center's prognosis. "You can ask as many professional people as
you want, but the truth is, we're not really sure."
The Fine Line
BRAD MILLER, HORNETS
In a 110-81 victory over the Toni Kukoc-less Bulls on March 24,
rookie center Brad Miller--whose previous NBA high was 14
points--had 25 points (9-of-9 FG, 7-of-7 FT), five rebounds, two
steals, two blocks and no turnovers in 18 minutes. His
single-game points-to-minutes ratio was the highest in team
history. "I was amazed by my performance," Miller said.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Marty Burns's exclusive NBA
team rankings, check out www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SAFFRAN/NBA PHOTOS Valued for his toughness and wisdom, Oakley may stick around Toronto beyond this year.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Divac (shooting) can't forget the war back home.
Brick of the Week
With boos from the home fans raining down on him after each
miss, Celtics forward Antoine Walker was 1 for 14 from the floor
(he finished with six points) in an 87-68 loss to the
Timberwolves last Wednesday. Walker's dismal night came just
three days after he hit 2 of 15 shots in a home loss to the
Bulls. Looks like Employee No. 8 is in need of a job-skills
Around The Rim
You know Portland is deep, but did you know that seven players
lead the Blazers in major stats categories? Through Sunday,
Isaiah Rider led in scoring (15.7 ppg), Damon Stoudamire in
assists (6.9), Rasheed Wallace in field goal percentage (52.8%),
Brian Grant in rebounding (11.0), Jimmy Jackson in free throw
percentage (85.0%), Arvydas Sabonis in blocks (1.39) and Greg
Anthony in steals (1.25)....
Naysayers who predicted Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston
couldn't play together had a point. While Sprewell was out with
a stress fracture in his right heel, Houston shot 51.1% from
beyond the three-point line. With Sprewell in the lineup,
Houston is shooting 39.6% from the three-point line through
Sunday. The question persists: Will the Knicks try to deal one
of them this summer--more likely Sprewell, who has ignored hints
from coaches, teammates and local columnists that he consider
the occasional pass? ...
In the waning seconds of a 115-86 loss at Milwaukee, Detroit
coach Alvin Gentry lambasted his players for not reacting when
Bucks guard Michael Curry shoved Pistons forward Jerome Williams
out of bounds. After the game, Bison Dele second-guessed his
coach's challenge, asking, "What does that accomplish? You just
end up writing a fine check and looking like a fool." It would
have been hard to make Dele look any worse that night. His line:
8 minutes, 5 fouls, 4 turnovers, 3 points and 0 rebounds.