When Oakley's up, he still gets around

Wizards: At 39, Charles Oakley isn't yet closing the door on his career. Rather, he has acquired the habit of shutting it on his opponents.

January 14, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Charles Oakley knows what most fans are thinking, namely, what the heck is he still doing playing basketball?

Oakley, in his 18th season in the NBA, after stints in Chicago, New York, Toronto, back to Chicago and now with the Washington Wizards, sits on the baseline most nights and hears the scattered taunts, nodding at the amusing ones.

"There's stuff that you can't control," Oakley said last week before the Wizards met the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. "I don't worry about it. I know fans come to the game and yell that I'm old and can't do anything."

And then the moment comes when Oakley is called into service for a brief but meaningful stretch of the fourth quarter, and, as the kids say, it's on.

"When I get in the game, I try to come in and make a difference," Oakley said. "That's the attitude I try to take, and that's what I try to tell the guys. I tell them, `Don't just check into the game and only have people know that you're in the game because they saw you check in. Go out there and make a foul, get a rebound or a loose ball, anything to help your team win.'

"I don't worry about this or that or scoring. I've never been into scoring. I've never led the league in scoring. To stay inside the league, you have to be good in something."

What Oakley has been really good at lately is being a presence. Saturday night, for instance, Oakley scored six points in the final two minutes, to help Washington scratch out a narrow win over the Knicks, one of six victories for the Wizards in their past seven games, to launch themselves into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Wizards' Doug Collins, who coached Oakley for two seasons in Chicago, said he thinks of the power forward as a baseball closer, the guy who comes in late in games to nail down the win.

"[He's like Mariano] Rivera from the Yankees. I just look over at him with this," Collins said, tapping his left arm, then his elbow. "He goes like this [throwing elbow, swinging arm]. The thing that amazes me is that Oak is ready. I might look at him and I might be watching the game and I say, `Oak, be ready in about a minute.' And he'll start getting his thoughts together and he'll get up."

More to the point, Oakley, who turned 39 on Dec. 18, is like Lee Smith, the former Orioles closer and all-time major-league saves leader. Like Oakley, Smith was ready with a quick quip and homespun wit and was never the most dominant player in the game, instead thriving on his guile and preparation.

Of course, Oakley never sleeps for three quarters, as Smith used to nap in the clubhouse for six innings before heading down to the bullpen to get loose. But Oakley is accustomed to sitting for most of the game before getting the call from Collins to close things out.

"I just have to be ready," said Oakley, who is averaging 1.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 11.3 minutes. "I have been from Day One. I come in for the challenge. The guys understand that they can do a little more, because they know I know. The guys know that when I'm in there, they can roam a little more. It's good to know that we have good corners, a good pass rush and good linebackers like the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Collins raves about Oakley's performance in the fourth quarter of a win over Boston on Jan. 6, the team's first road victory over a winning team in more than a month. Oakley committed four hard but clean fouls in a matter of seven minutes, effectively sending the message to the Celtics that the paint area was closed to their drives and post-ups.

"Our young big guys have a tendency to worry about fouls, and they give up layups when they shouldn't. We've got to use fouls," Collins said. "He took four hard fouls, and Boston ended up shooting 32 threes. A lot of those were late in the game. You're driving to the basket and then all of a sudden you get fouled and go to the line and from there you're shooting from the outside. As the game tightens up, those shots have a much tougher time going in. That's the effect he has on a game."

If you're looking for a happy, happy, joy, joy, rah-rah type, then keep going past Oakley's locker, which is the first one you come to in the Wizards' dressing room at MCI Center.

Oakley is 6 feet 9 and 248 pounds of cranky. He's filled with opinions and not afraid to express them to anyone who will listen, whether someone wants to or not.

It was Oakley, don't forget, who speculated a few seasons ago that 60 percent of the NBA's players were using marijuana, a figure widely scoffed at in league circles.

Just this season, he has already blasted Canadian fans ("They don't know polo from lolo."), former Bulls coach Tim Floyd ("He'll land some good middle-school job; you've got to start somewhere.") and the Knicks ("The talent level is not there, and these guys really don't know how to play the game, so I'm not going to be watching. There are other things to do.").

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