The New York Knicks hit an all-time low when Charles Oakley was ejected from Madison Square Garden and arrested. Why did it matter so much to fans?
The New York Knicks have hit low after low this season, but the lowest of them all had nothing do with any current member of the team. Their latest blunder strikes deeper than that.
By physically removing Charles Oakley from Madison Square Garden, the Knicks have managed to turn a beloved icon into a martyr who represents everything fans realize the Knicks will never be again under Dolan.
The details of Oakley’s bizarre removal are still murky, but based on the current reports, it doesn’t look good for the Knicks. Whether or not Oakley said anything to Dolan can’t be confirmed since there are varying accounts from nearby fans, but what is undisputed is the humiliating optics of a phalanx of MSG security guards shoving Oakley out the building and into police custody.
Minutes after the scuffle the Knicks PR team released a statement claiming he needs help.
Not too long after that the NYPD revealed that Oakley is being charged with three counts of assault and criminal trespassing.
Regardless of what happened, this didn’t have to escalate to this level.
The shock of a Knicks icon being treated like a derelict instantly took over the game as #FreeOakley trended on Twitter and became the latest off-court distraction in a season full of embarrassments.
Knicks fans are used to disappointment and tabloid sideshows, but something about this incident was different. There’s something about attempting to depict every 90s Knicks fan’s beloved player as some kind of inconvenient rift raft that made everyone’s stomachs turn.
The last time Oakley was seen in a Knicks jersey was 20 years ago, so unless you’re over 30, you may not have much of a reference point for the Oak man and probably have trouble comprehending the degree of reverence Knicks fans have towards him.
I’m also sure that younger fans are tired of hearing about the 90s Knicks, but there are certain moments when it’s important to honor your team’s history. What happened at the Garden last night is a perfect time as any to understand why Knick fans will always love Oakley.
It’s true that Oakley’s 10 years on the Knicks don’t stand out so well statistically, so you have to go beyond his numbers to appreciate his impact. And by impact, I mean that in a literal sense because, back on Pat Riley’s Knicks, Oakley’s dedication to the “No Layup Rule” became a vocation of sorts.
His protection of the rim and enforcement of the rule was so physical that it’s part of what led the league to crack down on physical play.
The 90s Knicks weren’t pretty to watch, but his tough blue-collar approach to basketball stood in stark contrast to a league full of rising stars and increasingly flashy players. In a pre-gentrified New York full of workaday 9-to-5ers, fans gravitated to this toughness and took pride in it because it was similar to the identity of many New Yorkers.
Sure the Knicks had a superstar in Patrick Ewing and a spark plug in John Starks, but it was Oakley that represented New York the most. In early 90s New York, toughness was more important than wealth because in a city where crime and homicide peaked, walking with your head held high and always ready to defend yourself was our way of life.
When Knick fans saw Oakley knock guys around who attacked the basket or his teammates, it gave many of us pride to see him standup for the team. In Oakley’s words:
“If something occurs during the game that calls for us to be physical then whatever. The rules aren’t going to affect me. If somebody goes out of their way after me, I’m coming after them, rules or no rules.”
Oakley’s Knicks didn’t have the offensive talent to keep up with teams like the Bulls, but what they could control was their defensive tenacity. Both Riley and Van Gundy’s Knicks put a premium on defense because that was the only way they had a chance at winning.
On defense, Oakley took particular pride in it by saying:
“Teams don’t like the way we play defense, up in your face for 48 minutes, but we aint stepping back.”
It’s quotes like these that make older Knick fans rabid when seeing how today’s Knicks struggle with stopping other teams from scoring. Obviously, the league has changed a lot and defense like this is a vestige from the past.
More so than that though, it’s today’s Knicks inconsistency with effort that drives many of us crazy when we think back to how much pride Oakley took when defending against the Barkley’s and Malone’s of the era.
No matter whom the Knicks played, with Oakley on the court, there was always a battle to be fought. And in the end of it, their opponents would always respect them more.
Since Oakley left, there haven’t been many players that enforce pride in being a Knick the way he did. Sure, there have been many who talk about how proud they are to be a Knick, but Oakley was one of the few players who showed it. He continues to do so by reaching out to Knicks management, but his efforts have been fruitless.
For whatever reason, Dolan has made it clear that he isn’t welcomed back at the Garden the way other Knick vets have been. Much like the player he was, he hasn’t given up on trying, and perhaps on Wednesday, it finally got the best of him.
What hurts most to fans is that by rejecting Oakley, it’s akin to rejecting our past. And that is a past Knick fans like myseld continue to cling onto and hope that one day we can see again in some form.
The 90s Knicks never won a championship, but each year, they were a part of the conversation and we knew that they would always give it their all.
For New Yorkers, that’s really all we want to see. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen it in the Garden for nearly 20 years.