“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish … It was so fragile” – Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator
Maximus, the power forward, returned to the Colosseum on 34th Street in midtown Manhattan, New York, on Wednesday night. But Charles Oakley barely recognized the place anymore.
The arena held no glory for him now, only painful memories of a past his former employer refuses to honor, and a team owner who put security guards in a no-win situation by allowing them to surround Oakley — in essence, cornering a man who was once paid to move aside larger mounds of muscle than himself — who knows one way to extricate himself from such circumstances.
It took six security guards to bring his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to the ground and escort him through the tunnel, where he was handcuffed and eventually booked at a Manhattan precinct.
It was then that you knew the Knicks had hit their nadir. The organization that knew no bottom finally found one.
The Knicks had yet again disregarded another important heirloom of Madison Square Garden’s past.
Years ago, they wouldn’t extend the contract of Marv Albert, forcing the world’s greatest basketball announcer to move out of what was once the world’s greatest arena — allegedly because Albert was too critical of the team.
They have shown no interest in having arguably the greatest player in franchise history as their head coach. Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Famer who has paid his dues to become one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches, can’t even get an interview.
And now, team owner James Dolan has likely cut himself off from ever benefiting from the wisdom of the man who helped hold combustible Knicks teams together so long ago.
The Knicks of Oak, Ewing, Anthony Mason, John Starks and later Larry Johnson and Allan Houston had their dysfunction, ego and agendas. But conflict produced resolution then. And resolution produced 50-win seasons and long playoff runs. (Starks, Johnson and Houston are all on the Knicks’ payroll now in various roles.) Eventually, Ewing and a bunch of half-decent role players began to buy in to the good of the group so strongly that they believed they could knock off Michael Jordan and the Inevita-Bulls.
It never happened, but they tried their damndest — no one more than Oakley, a dumptruck of a man in high-tops. He could never outjump Chris Webber or outscore Karl Malone. But hell if he would let either All-Star beat him down the floor to their spot on the blocks. You could outplay him, but you could never outwork him.
The conflict on Wednesday produced as regretful an image as there has ever been at the Garden. It began when Dolan, the Emperor Commodus of this tale, allegedly decided he did not want a former player who had been openly critical of him and the organization sitting close to him.
So, instead of anyone talking about a riveting run between the Los Angeles Clippers and the current Knicks — or even how the organization has failed to put the right combination of players around Carmelo Anthony — they left talking about the Legend of Oak.
“OAK-LEE! OAK-LEE!” the throaty Garden roar came, cascading down, from the pinwheel ceiling to the floor.
If you closed your eyes, it could have been the ’90s, Oak bobbing his shoulders back and forth in the layup line as “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” blared through the arena speakers. Late May, and the Garden full and vibrant, instead of eerily silent.
When you opened them, though, it was 2017 and Phil Jackson had used 140 characters to further alienate Anthony as if he were a newbie commander in chief baiting Australia.
TNT’s Reggie Miller delivered his cruelest Garden dagger in 20 years Thursday, tweeting, “If you’re a FA to be, why would you play for an Owner who treats the past greats like this or a President who stabs star player in the back?”
The Knicks have won one playoff series and had 11 different coaches in the past 17 years. They haven’t had a coach for more than three years since Jeff Van Gundy left in 2001. Between 2004 and 2010, they didn’t taste the postseason. And now they’re in what’s likely to be the fourth-straight year without a playoff appearance.
After all the GMs and coaches that have become fall guys over the years, the Knicks decided Friday to part with the Garden’s security chief two days after the Oakley incident.
This is not merely bad for the Knicks. It’s bad for New York. It’s bad for the NBA. It’s the equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys being an eyesore for five years at a time, the New York Yankees not mattering for a decade or more.
Every year, the Knicks damage their credibility as an organization and get further and further away from the good things they once were.
Remember when Jackson had the Midas touch? He left Los Angeles as the most decorated coach in NBA history to return to the place where he achieved cult-hero status on those early 1970s championships teams?
Well, the luster came off him pretty quick once he started doing business with Dolan. Call me crazy, but there seems to be a common denominator here.
Under Dolan, the Knicks have become a culture of utter tone-deafness. They have engaged in some of the most small-time, mean-spirited behavior imaginable, none more than the last line of their prepared statement on Oakley’s arrest Wednesday night:
“He was a great Knick and we hope he gets some help soon.”
I spoke to Oakley Thursday morning. He was wounded by that line, couldn’t believe that they would imply he was somehow psychologically troubled, all because a petulant billionaire wanted him gone from the arena.It was unconscionable simply because Dolan has dealt with his own addiction demons, and he should know about recovery, making amends and taking his own inventory instead of someone else’s.
“We hope he gets some help soon.” In therapy, they call that projection.
The Knicks put out another statement Thursday, calling Oakley’s version of the events “pure fiction.”
They don’t stop, these people.
I could go into how Oakley has never lied to me or sugarcoated a single fact, both good and bad, in the 20 years I’ve known him — and I sure can’t say the same about the Knicks.
But what’s the point? He’s not going to get the only thing he wants — the love and acceptance of an organization he gave everything to for 10 years. The ability to simply commune with the people who chanted his name without worrying about the fragile psyche of the team’s owner.
I almost want the last Knick gladiator to go back to the Garden once more, face his accuser and echo Russell Crowe’s part in the 2000 film:
“My name is Charles Oakley III, the soul of the 1990s Knicks, teammate to a short-changed Hall of Famer, loyal servant to the true fans of Madison Square Garden. And I will have my seat back, in this life or the next.”
But, you know what? The Garden in 2017 isn’t worth it. Oak needs to stop pining. He deserves better.
Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated.