An interesting, albeit limited memoir
A memoir from Charles Oakley — one of the toughest and most loyal players in NBA history — featuring unfiltered stories about the journey that basketball has taken him on and his relationships with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, James Dolan, Donald Trump, George Floyd, and so many others.
If you ask a New York Knicks fan about Charles Oakley, you better prepare to hear the love and a favorite story or two. But his individual stats weren’t remarkable, and while he helped power the Knicks to ten consecutive playoffs, he never won a championship. So why does he hold such a special place in the minds, hearts, and memories of NBA players and fans?
Because over the course of nineteen years in the league, Oakley was at the center of more unbelievable encounters than Forrest Gump, and nearly as many fights as Mike Tyson. He was the friend you wish you had, and the enemy you wish you’d never made. If any opposing player was crazy enough to start a fight with him, or God forbid one of his teammates, Oakley would end it.
“I can’t remember every rebound I grabbed but I do have a story — the true story — of just about every punch and slap on my resume,” he says.
In The Last Enforcer, Oakley shares one incredible story after the next — all in his signature, unfiltered style — about his life in the paint and beyond, fighting for rebounds and respect. You’ll look back on the era of the 1990s NBA, when tough guys with rugged attitudes, unflinching loyalty, and hard-nosed work ethics were just as important as three-point sharpshooters. You’ll feel like you were on the court, in the room, can’t believe what you just saw, and need to tell everyone you know about it.
I was looking forward to reading this memoir. Like many people, Michael Jordan’s prime years with the Chicago Bulls was my introduction to basketball. Oakley was one of Jordan’s earlier teammates, and is one of his closest friends, but was traded away to the Knicks just before the Bulls embarked on their epic six-championships run. This is his story, complete with honest, blunt appraisals of his teammates, the League (now and then), and more. It’s got plenty of interesting insights and illuminating stories. But in many ways, it also comes across as rather one-note.
Let’s start with Oakley’s friendship with Jordan. The megastar provides an introduction to the book, which does a great job of bringing the reader in — not just because it’s Jordan, but because of the way he writes about Oakley. Back when they were starting in the League, it was a far more physical sport, and Oakley was “perfectly suited for it”: “a hard worker, smart, competitive, and no matter the situation or who he was up against, he was not going to back down.” He continues:
“I knew that when I returned to the court, I’d have a bodyguard. I had become a target for other teams and Oak wasn’t afraid to mix it up with players who came after me who might have been bigger than him, but definitely weren’t tougher. I truly appreciated his willingness to take on that protective role and we quickly became close friends.”
So, it is perhaps unsurprising that Oakley’s memoir is replete with praise and fond memories with Jordan. The friendship comes across as genuine and heartfelt. Oakley’s not trying to acquire some of Jordan’s sheen, though: he is not averse to pointing out Jordan’s weaknesses, or how his hyper-competitiveness could create tension (between them, in the locker room, and elsewhere) — at one point he notes that The Last Dance doesn’t really present a fair portrait of Jordan’s competitiveness. As it is Jordan’s project, or course it presents the better side of his need to compete and gamble: “If you watched The Last Dance, you would think Michael joked around, but that wasn’t the case. It was Michael’s show, so you saw what he wanted you to see.”
Oakley spent a decade with the Knicks, and even made it to the NBA finals one year. The book is peppered with statistics and game details (never my favourite aspect of basketball books, but sometimes it felt like he was writing with a stats book or database open beside him). He seems to have enjoyed his time with the Knicks, but he spends a lot of time criticizing Patrick Ewing, repeating the sentiment that Ewing was just not good enough. (He later complains that Ewing wouldn’t come to his defence over an altercation with Madison Square Garden security, years after they both left the League. Given the contents of the book, I’m not entirely surprised…)
“We needed Patrick to carry us and he couldn’t carry us. Like I said, some guys are B players. And don’t get me wrong: I know where I am. I’m the butcher cutting meat for people to buy it. That’s my role. I’m not on the level of Hakeem or Michael Jordan. I’m not an A player. But guess what, Patrick wasn’t on that level either.”
Given how critical Oakley is of a great many things and people in The Last Enforcer, I was a little apprehensive about how he would write about Toronto (he was traded to the Raptors by the Knicks). After a very brief moment when his arrival didn’t bode well, it turns out he (like many NBA players who end up on the Raptors) came to love the city:
“Thankfully, it didn’t take too long for me to fall in love with the town, the culture, and the people. The fans in Canada were great to me and still are today. I’ve spent a lot of time in Toronto since retiring, and the Raptors organization invited me back for the 2019 NBA Finals. The city and the franchise had come a long way. I never would have thought it was possible twenty years earlier.”
As on his other teams, Oakley’s role with Toronto was to “protect the stars” — in this case, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Oakley seems to have a lot of respect for them, especially Carter, and by all accounts seems to have very much enjoyed his time as a Raptor. He loved seeing Carter’s impact on the sport, and also on a city and country in which hockey dominated. It was also during his time in Toronto that he first got to know Steph Curry:
“Dell would always have his wife Sonya and their kids hang around after practice. There were plenty of times when the eleven-year-old Steph Curry played Vince Carter one-on-one at the end of practice. Even back then Steph was hitting half-court shots. I should have known something big was going to happen to him because he was doing incredible things as a kid. His shot was gold.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Oakley shares a common criticism of the League today: specifically, that it’s populated by “soft” players who couldn’t hack it during his time. This is a bit tiresome, but it is a discussion that is seemingly endless in wider basketball fandom/commentary. Who cares? It’s fun as hell to watch! It also offers Oakley another opportunity to make it very clear to the reader that he is/was tough:
“Today, the players whine about how hard they got it. It’s not that hard, especially when it comes to travel. Every NBA team flies charter. I think that 20 percent of today’s guys would be tough enough to play in our era. Maybe not even that many.”
One particularly interesting aspect of the book, given the author’s apparent intent on airing all of his beefs, is Oakley’s opinion of Jerry Krause. The Bulls General Manager who started as one of the most respected and successful scouts, Krause is presented as Jordan’s nemesis and primary antagonist in The Last Dance — an opinion that seems to have taken root more widely. Sure, he made some poor decisions and seemed to resent the attention and power that Jordan accrued over time. Oakley, however, has far more sympathy and respect for him (and not just because Krause also scouted Oakley from a college that would have been an afterthought for NBA scouts), and was particularly disappointed that Jordan and Pippen didn’t attend Krause’s funeral. In terms of Krause’s place within the Bulls:
“As I saw it, Krause was a scout at heart, who knew talent. Later, when the documentary series The Last Dance came out and people were blaming Krause for all sorts of things, I saw him as the fall guy. Jerry Reinsdorf was and still is the owner of the Chicago Bulls. His name is on the checks, and the buck stops with him. Jerry Krause knew basketball and put the team together. He did his job. He would prove that again and again in the coming years, drafting Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and building a dynasty.”
Ultimately, The Last Enforcer contains plenty of interesting insights into the NBA, some of its luminaries, and the ways in which culture and society has come to embrace the League and its stars over time — in addition to Jordan and his contemporaries, Oakley also writes very positively about LeBron James and his impact on the sport and League. There’s a good chapter on the recent social justice efforts in the NBA (although, he gives too much credit to LeBron — something which maybe isn’t quite justified, if you read other accounts of the Bubble season). The memoir can also become a bit of a slog at times. It sometimes felt like a string of remembered beefs and slights (with Charles Barkley, for example), with plenty of posturing dolloped on top. Late in a book filled with examples of his bullying, physical altercations and more, he professes to be surprised that anyone might think of him as violent or confrontational. This was a lot less interesting than I think the author believes.
Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of the NBA, and especially if you followed basketball during the years Oakley was active, then I think you’ll find a lot to like in The Last Enforcer. So, worth a look.
Charles Oakley’s The Last Enforcer is due to be published by Gallery Books in North America and in the UK, on February 1st, 2022.
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Review copy received via Edelweiss