The 1990s Knicks were a family. They had each other's back, they battled through tough times. They ran up against some of the best to ever play the game. One thing they did not do was win a championship. And the wound still cuts deep.
Charles Oakley was the heart and soul of those New York teams. Patrick Ewing was the star. Oakley was the guts. So when Knicks fans heard Oakley call out their superstar, on a team that supposedly was a family, it struck a chord. A deep chord.
“He could never put us on his back like he should have because every adversity he ducked away from," Oak said on my radio show this week. "Every leader, every superstar in this league, if you go through adversity and you're trying to duck and dodge and you're in the biggest city, it's going to damper your team.”
Oakley's criticism of Ewing became national news. Within the Knicks community it was seen as the ultimate betrayal. Hadn't Ewing carried that team, full of no-names, ragtags, aging veterans, and never-will-be's to the conference finals? To Game 7 of the NBA Finals?
"He was a high-maintenance player,” Oakley said. “Everybody in the world knows he was. You got to be special to play with Patrick. You had to do so much out of your ordinary just to be on the team, and that hurt us sometimes. As a team, we’re supposed to be close and together. It wasn’t that. We had to make sure he was happy. He didn’t care if we was happy or not. . . . He was tough to play with, but he wasn’t no problem to me because I understand. Mase [Anthony Mason] had a problem with it because Mase always hollered and cussed at him.”
Ewing was the Hall of Famer. Ewing was a member of the Dream Team. Ewing was the No. 1 overall pick.
But just like Oakley, Ewing doesn't have a championship ring, either. While Knicks fans in support of Ewing called Oakley names, there was an unfortunate truth in his words. Patrick did feud with the media his entire career. Patrick was extremely sensitive to any criticism. Patrick could be aloof, a man on an island, to many of those who surrounded him throughout his life.
The deeper reservoir of resentment from Oakley toward Ewing is not even about basketball, though. Let me play Oakley translator.
Charles is a man of conviction. He is a man of values. He is a man of principle. And when Oakley was thrown out of Madison Square Garden by the vindictive James Dolan, he expected his former teammates to have his back. He expected all of the guys he protected to protect him. Patrick didn't. The most important player on those teams, said nothing. And that silence was deafening to Oakley.
The '90s Knicks were greater than the sum of their parts. A grocery store clerk in John Starks. A fringe-player-turned-enforcer in Anthony Mason. A backcourt full of 30-somethings at the twilight of their careers in Doc Rivers, Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman. That brotherhood, that bond that made the 1990s Knicks so strong, can also be a weakness. Twenty-five years later, some of them expect that same brotherhood and loyalty to rise above all else. But a quarter of a century later, other things get in the way. Career aspirations, financial stability, legacy definitions.
Many claimed this was just a bitter Oakley all alone looking for new targets to fight, a brawler looking for a first-punch. But other former teammates said the same thing. Chris Childs played with Ewing in the late-90s and echoed Oak's sentiments during the same segment on my show. Then a few days later, Derek Harper chimed in. He was the veteran point guard on those teams. He supported Oakley's claims.
“Oak is talking about, in my opinion, about Patrick being selfish,” Harper said. “There were a lot of situations where Oak feels like Patrick could have stepped up. There were a lot of situations where I think Oak feels like Patrick could have stepped up for, whether it’s a player, whether it was a coach, and Patrick didn’t do that. Patrick is a little bit different. He takes care of Patrick. That’s the bottom line.”
Not only did Harper suggest Ewing was selfish. He also said it cost him, and the franchise, a championship.
“We lost to the Rockets in ’94. The difference in winning and losing that series was Olajuwon’s unselfish nature, so to speak, to move the basketball when the basketball needed to be moved. That was the difference in us winning and the difference in Houston beating us. Plain and simple."
Woah. It's easy to color Oakley as an old bitter man, picking fights with everyone. But his criticism clearly has some truth. Patrick's basketball excellence and production cannot be questioned. He is one of the greatest centers ever to play the game. But off the floor, Patrick wasn't always the leader the Knicks needed him to be. His trophy case reflects that. Twenty-five years later, that cut still has not healed.
Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 6:00AM-10:00AM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.