‘Free Charles Oakley!’ The New York Knicks, a messy arrest and a feud that hasn’t ended (2024)

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On a February night in 2017, a New York police officer pressed through a set of doors at the entrance to the Midtown South Precinct and stepped out into the night. It was past 10 p.m. in Manhattan, and a group of reporters was gathered out in the cold, holding a stakeout two blocks north of Madison Square Garden. Frank Isola, a columnist at The Daily News, had been posted up for nearly two hours, keeping his eyes on the door and his phone. He really wanted a cup of coffee.


Nobody dared to move, though, because nobody knew when a 6-foot-8 former NBA power forward with an enforcer’s rep might emerge from the station. For now, it was just a single officer. He stood there for a moment, surveyed the scene, then started to yell.

“Free Charles Oakley! Free Charles Oakley!”

Nearly hours three earlier, Charles Oakley, the beloved former Knick, had been standing inside the Delta Sky360 Club at the Garden, posing for photos and soaking in the adulation reserved for a franchise icon. He had come with friends to watch the Knicks play the Clippers on a Wednesday night in New York. But first, he was happy to be Oak, the folk hero about whom stories are told and for family dogs and carwashes are named. “There’s Charles Oakley,” said Alex Taub, a Knicks fan standing across the lounge. “Pretty frickin’ awesome.” Out above the Garden floor, a Knicks fan named Ian Schafer had found his regular seat in Section 11, Row 13, which had an eagle’s eye view of the baseline and Knicks owner James Dolan. Schafer, a CEO of a New York startup, had come early to people watch and enjoy the ambiance. Isola, meanwhile, was four miles uptown, speaking to a journalism class at Columbia University.

Isola had plans to cover the game, but the class was running late. Long a Knicks gadfly and Dolan critic, he was in the midst of a long discussion about covering a team and owner that maintained an adversarial pose. He sensed some skepticism from the students. How bad could it really be?

Three hours later, he was standing outside a New York City police station. Oakley had been forcefully ejected from the Garden as Dolan looked on, put into handcuffs and arrested; Schafer had captured the scene on video and sent it out on Twitter. So Isola ditched his plans and headed straight to the Midtown South Precinct on 35th Street. As he stood out on the pavement, his phone kept buzzing. First, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. Then, former Knicks president Dave Checketts, who passed along a message:

“Tell Charles,” he said, “ ‘Whatever he needs, just call me.’ ”

The Athletic has spent the last year reporting on the dysfunction that has felled the Knicks the last two decades. The project culminates this week in the release of the podcast,Shattered:Hope, Heartbreak and The New York Knicks.


In that moment, though, as confusion reigned at the Garden and a New York police officer chanted Oakley’s name, nobody could understand what happened: How did Knicks of the 1990s — the swaggering, brutish, take-no-sh*t contenders — languish into irrelevancy? How did one of the most beloved figures in Knicks history get tossed out of Madison Square Garden?

Before Charles Oakley was thrown out of the Garden, he once owned it. Ten seasons. A million floor burns. A lot of blood. So many tales of sh*t-talking and fighting and Oak being Oak — almost all of them true. Take this one from Van Gundy: It was 1997 and the Knicks were in Miami for the Eastern Conference semifinals. On the morning of Game 5, the Heat had a 10 a.m. shoot-around, the Knicks would follow at 11, and Oakley stood behind a curtain in the bowels of the arena, locked in.

“What time is it?” Oakley asked.

“10:57,” Van Gundy answered.

The question came again a minute later. 10:58. And then again. 10:59. And finally, it was 11 a.m. and Oakley was stepping through the curtain, walking through the tunnel and heading for a ball rack.

“He picked up a ball and threw it as hard as he could down at the other end of the floor,” Van Gundy said. “It missed (Miami forward) P.J. Brown, but not by much, and Charles said, ‘Get the f*ck off the floor.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m with that guy.’ ”

Oakley became a New York legend, and not in the typical superstar kind of way. He was a literal legend, a story to be passed down, a mythic badass in the paint, a working-class enforcer who, according to Van Gundy, might have been “the best power forward help defender of all time.” When Oakley played at the Garden, everyone came away with a story because he was always doing Oak things. Charles Barkley once declared that Oakley went after the ball “like it’s raw meat.” Opponents feared going into the lane, lest they get drilled. As legendary Daily News columnist Mike Lupica once put it, “Oak always thought the whole place was in bounds.”

In the moment, Oakley was a character. In retirement, the stories of Oak have become a genre unto themselves. There was the time that he fought seven guys at a pool in Las Vegas; he took out three or four. (In a separate Vegas incident in 2018, Oakley was arrested and accused of committing a fraudulent act in a gaming establishment; he later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.) There was the time he punched Knicks guard Charlie Ward in the face in practice just to test him. The time he slapped the 6-foot-10 Otis Thorpe (not exactly a man to be trifled with), and the time he walked up and slapped Tyrone Hill in the preseason. In that latter case, Oakley was reportedly calling a debt. “The season hadn’t even started yet,” former Knicks guard Chris Childs said.

In fact, there were so many slaps. When Oakley appeared on Dan Le Batard’s ESPN show in 2011, Le Batard asked him if it was true that he had slapped Barkley and Jeff McGinnis. “Man,” Oakley said, an enforcer’s twinkle in his eye. “You got the resume.”

Oakley would play until he was 40, surviving 19 seasons on toughness and dirty work, and to hear the Oak stories that have been shared is to wonder about the ones that can never be. Last year, for instance, Tracy McGrady appeared on the “All the Smoke” podcast and told a story of Oakley, then a veteran with the Raptors, pouring an entire handle of liquor on a suit-wearing teammate during a flight to Sacramento. “Oak was a different dude,” McGrady said. “I love him.”

To reduce Oakley down to the stories, though, obscures why he was loved in the first place. There was Oak, the man who would slap you if you violated a code, the man of a million flagrant fouls, the man who would pour alcohol on your head if you hid a bottle on the team plane. There was also Oak, the man who came to represent the character of the ’90s Knicks.

“What gets overlooked in these stories is the every-day commitment to greatness,” Van Gundy said. “Oakley didn’t miss games, didn’t miss practices, didn’t miss shoot-around, was always early. The basketball character was above reproach.”

Oakley had been raised on the streets of Cleveland, educated at Division II Virginia Union and steeled in Chicago as a young body man for Michael Jordan, who once called him “an ostrich.” But Oak, the persona, was made in New York.

“If you give him respect, he’ll give it back,” said Childs. “But if you try to disrespect him, good luck.”


The thing was, Oakley always respected the game, so New Yorkers gave it back tenfold. They didn’t care if he wasn’t a superstar. He was, in his words, “a piece of the cake.” They didn’t care if he communicated in his patented Oak-speak. They just wanted an honest answer.

“What do they say,” Oakley once told reporters. “When the milk is spilled, you have to wipe it up and get some more.”

For 10 years, he averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds. For 10 years, the Knicks won, making the playoffs each year and advancing to the NBA Finals in 1994. For 10 years, Oak, along with Anthony Mason and John Starks and so many others, gave the Knicks their identity: “We’re not all good Samaritans,” he said.

Oakley was the defender who dropped the hammer, the butler who cleaned up the mess, the power forward who came to symbolize New York basketball. So on the day in 1998, when Oakley was traded to Toronto for Marcus Camby, Isola, then a young beat writer, picked up a phone and called Oakley’s mother, Corine.

“I hate it,” she said. “Charles needs to be in New York.”

‘Free Charles Oakley!’ The New York Knicks, a messy arrest and a feud that hasn’t ended (1)

(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

On Feb. 8, 2017, nearly two decades after Oakley played his last game for the Knicks, Ian Schafer looked down at the floor at Madison Square Garden. It was around 8 p.m., just a few minutes before the Knicks would tip against the Clippers, and Schafer noticed Oakley in a section along the baseline, not far from Dolan’s regular spot. Schafer remembers Oakley carrying a drink and finding his seat. Schafer then said to the person next to him: “This should be interesting.”

An advertising executive turned startup founder, Schafer is the kind of Knicks fan who understands the history and follows the day-to-day minutiae. In the early 2000s, he once covertly created the website, “FireLayden.com,” helping launch a fan movement to oust Scott Layden, the unpopular team president. As he watched Oakley mingle in the stands, he recalled a New York Times story from earlier that season, when Oakley told the newspaper that “the Boss” — meaning Dolan — “don’t like me.”

“He won’t meet,” Oakley said. “I want to sit down to talk to him. I want me and him in a room. And lock the door. Lock that door!”

Oakley always embraced confrontation, of course. And in retirement, he’s maintained his favorite hobbies: cooking, business ventures and occasionally taking aim at everyone, including Barkley, Patrick Ewing and those faceless suits who, in his view, have turned the NBA soft. (If being retired means slaps are socially unacceptable, Oakley continues to lob public shots. On Ewing: “He wasn’t a team player in a lot of ways. We needed him to show he had some balls … his ball was big at Georgetown but not in New York.) Oakley never hesitated to tell it like he thinks it is. So, if anyone asked, he spoke freely about the state of the Knicks and Dolan’s stewardship.

“There’s facts, and then there’s opinions, and Charles is very unvarnished,” Van Gundy said. “He’s blunt; I think he’s not politically correct. Not everybody might agree with him, but I always appreciated that when asked a question, he would give his honest answer.”

That Oakley was sitting just a few rows away from Dolan was intriguing enough, Schafer thought. Under Dolan, the Knicks had tried to control everything, constantly attempting to suppress dissent, and even striving to punish some fans who voiced their displeasure. But nobody can control Oakley. That’s what made him Oak. So as the game began, Schafer kept peering down to the corner near the Knicks bench.

Oakley appeared engaged like any fan, and the game moved along. At one point, Schafer said, he noticed Dolan glance back at Oakley. “Dolan kept turning around, like in disgust,” he said. Schafer said he was close enough to hear if words were exchanged; he doesn’t recall any. All he remembers is a collection of security guards appearing midway through the first quarter. It was then, Schafer said, he remembers seeing Oakley do something he’d seen him do hundreds of times inside Madison Square Garden. “Touch chests with the opposition,” he said.

Around that moment, Schafer remembers reaching for his cell phone.

‘Free Charles Oakley!’ The New York Knicks, a messy arrest and a feud that hasn’t ended (2)

Frank Franklin II / Associated Press

With six minutes left in the quarter and Kristaps Porzingis standing at the free-throw line, the Garden was started to buzz. Something was happening on the baseline near the bench, though nobody could sort out what. Was that Charles Oakley? Was there a fight? Were they kicking him out? “It was like a whole game of telephone across the different sections,” said Andrew Steinthal, a Knicks fan in attendance.


Porzingis wandered off the line and walked toward the baseline. He looked confused. The Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan took a step toward the fray, where tennis legend John McEnroe was standing. Near the end of the bench, the Knicks’ Ron Baker looked over, saw Oakley surrounded and couldn’t make out what was going on. He hadn’t heard any words exchanged between Oakley and Dolan, he said, but as he watched the chaos, he heard Oakley say something.

“I couldn’t make out words,” he said. “It was too loud.”

Oakley, according to an interview conducted later that night, had been watching the game when a security guard had approached and said that “someone ordered you to leave.” Oakley believed that someone was Dolan. (In December 2020, he alleged in a civil suit that Dolan didn’t just order his ejection;’ he ordered “the use of unreasonable force.” The Knicks have disputed Oakley’s version of the story and insisted that Oakley was the instigator.) As the confrontation escalated just off the floor, Oakley asked the security personnel to let him sit in his seat. He then told an MSG official, identified as event manager Tom Redmond, to “get the f*ck out of my face.”

On the floor, Derrick Rose was confused. Then again, so was everybody. The Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn stood near the baseline. The Clippers’ Blake Griffin walked over to listen. “I walked back to catch the third, fourth and fifth rounds,” he said. “It was crazy.” Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach and former teammate of Oakley, had considered rushing down the sideline to help. But then he stopped. What was he gonna do?

Oakley poked Redmond in the side of the face, then shoved another official twice. Moments later, the assembled security personnel grabbed Oakley and started pulling him toward the tunnel. Schafer stopped his recording, logged onto Twitter and posted the video.

“Soooooo Charles Oakley just got into a fight at he (sic) Knicks game,” he wrote.

Soooooo Charles Oakley just got into a fight at he Knicks game. pic.twitter.com/klZBD89VI7

— Ian Schafer (@ischafer) February 9, 2017

It was 8:23 p.m.

As Isola drove back down the west side of Manhattan, heading toward the Garden, Schafer’s video was already going viral. Oakley had been escorted off the floor and handcuffed. As reporters and other witnesses made their way down to a loading dock area adjacent to the floor, they heard Oakley screaming and saw team president Phil Jackson trying to calm him down.


“Phil went from his seat (and to the) back just to find out what was going on,” said Clarence Gaines Jr., a former Knicks vice president under Jackson. “And I think he had an opportunity to talk with Oak. But that whole situation was a damn shame.”

Jackson, one of the most accomplished men in NBA history, had little sway. Oakley wouldn’t calm down. He was loaded into a police vehicle. Witnesses saw its flashing lights as it drove away. A few blocks away, Isola was parking near the Midtown South Precinct, where Oakley was being booked for misdemeanor assault. Back in the Garden, it was still unclear what happened. Schafer spent the entire game on his phone, answering questions from media outlets that wanted his video. At one point, he said, other fans in Section 11 started to offer their portable chargers.

‘Free Charles Oakley!’ The New York Knicks, a messy arrest and a feud that hasn’t ended (3)

Oakley stares down Phil Jackson during a 1991 Knicks-Bulls game in Chicago. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

“I felt like I was there defending the fan,” Schafer said. “And even to a certain degree, defending Oakley, as someone who just brought so many great memories to this team. Maybe some of the last great memories that I can remember.”

Oakley would be released later that night, disappearing out a back door and into a SUV, before ending up at a restaurant not far from the Garden. The feud between legend and franchise, though, was just starting to simmer.

“I kind of felt like it was a tipping point for the Knicks,” Isola said. “Because nobody cares that they treat the media like crap. But when you see one of their own players … ”

Added Steinthal, one of the fans in attendance: “You don’t throw Charles Oakley out of Madison Square Garden. That’s not how this goes down.”

In a statement that night, the Knicks said that Oakley had “behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner.” It added: “He was a great Knick, and we hope he gets some help soon.” Oakley was banned from the Garden. Then he wasn’t. The charges were ultimately dismissed as part of a deal in which Oakley agreed to stay away from the Garden for a period of time.


In addition, Oakley filed a civil lawsuit against Madison Square Garden that alleged assault and battery, false imprisonment and defamation, among other claims. The case was dismissed in a lower court in February 2020 before the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the assault and battery claims and upheld the dismissal of the others.Oakley’s attorney did not speak for this story, though Oakley recently discussed the ordeal in a February podcast with former NBA player James Posey, calling the incident “over the top, unnecessary.” Dolan and the Knicks also declined comment. Dolan’s attorney, Randy Mastro, has written in court papers that footage captured that night would support Dolan’s argument that Oakley was an instigator.

“This man trying to blame me for the incident,” Oakley told Posey, before appearing to compare Dolan to then-President Donald Trump. “It’s just bad. He lyin’, like the president. He’s just like the president. I call him the president’s nephew. Because it’s similar, all over the place. Everything they do. He’s just a control freak. He sets up and gets somebody else to come in and do his dirty work.”

Oakley and Dolan have their own versions of what happened on Feb. 8, 2017. Van Gundy, however, believes there is one issue on which they should agree: Oakley’s No. 34 jersey should be hanging in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.

“If I was Mr. Dolan, I would retire his number and I would have a ceremony with or without him,” Van Gundy said. “I think his play, his impact on winning and his unique relationship with the fans warrants that he has his number retired.”

Oakley has his own ideas. He is 57 now and no less blunt than ever. He is still Oak — still unvarnished, still cooking and doing community work in Cleveland, his hometown. He still represents a bygone era of the Knicks, one of fights and suffocating defense and playoff battles against Michael Jordan, one the franchise hasn’t been able to match in two decades. He also is still telling people what he thinks. Oakley is now working on a book with Isola, tentatively titled “The Last Enforcer,” and he promises more stories, more Oak-speak. So as he talked to Posey earlier this year, he revealed his own idea for his No. 34 jersey. He loves New York, and he loves Knicks fans, and he’d rather have his jersey hanging outside the Garden, near the flagpole, where all of New York could see it. When it comes to the Garden, Oak just wants to fly free.

“And I take that to heart,” he said. “I’d rather for it to be on the outside than the inside, because I wasn’t welcome inside …

“They came to me and said they were going to retire my jersey, do this and do that. And I’m like, ‘Nah, you can’t buy me that easy. If you retire the jersey, that benefit you, that ain’t benefitting me.’

“If you want to put it outside with the flag, and people don’t have to pay to come in and see it … let them drive past and see it. Let it be a tourist spot.”

(Illustration: Adrian Guzman)

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‘Free Charles Oakley!’ The New York Knicks, a messy arrest and a feud that hasn’t ended (2024)
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