Several N.B.A. stars were quick to express their support for Oakley on social media. The Clippers’ Chris Paul, who was not at Wednesday’s game because of a thumb injury, bristled at the Knicks’ statement on Wednesday night that Oakley needed some sort of help, and Paul described him as “the realest person our league has seen.”
The Chicago Bulls’ Dwyane Wade and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James posted photographs of Oakley from his playing days with the Knicks on their Instagram accounts. James called him a legend.
And Reggie Miller, a former star with the Indiana Pacers and a player who had legendary playoff duels with Oakley’s Knicks in the 1990s, weighed in on Twitter with vehement criticism of the franchise. He questioned why any N.B.A. free agent would want to sign with the Knicks and “play for an owner who treats the past greats like this or a president who stabs star player in the back?”
The latter part of the tweet was, of course, a reference to Jackson, whose efforts to force Anthony out of New York have been overshadowed by the Oakley episode — at least for the moment.
The Knicks are, by any objective measure, a mess, and Miller may be right that they are taking on a toxic reputation around the league. The Knicks are even making the Nets, with their league-worst 9-44 record, look like the most stable basketball organization in New York City.
Less clear, though, is what actually occurred Wednesday night that resulted in Oakley’s ejection.
At the start of the game, Oakley was sitting with several friends, and they were not far from Dolan’s usual seat, which is in the front row in the corner of the court. Accounts of Oakley’s behavior at that point vary widely, with some fans saying they didn’t hear or see Oakley saying or doing anything inappropriate, or trying to provoke Dolan, and others suggesting he seemed somewhat combative.
In any case, when security guards approached Oakley, he clearly became angry, unleashing a string of profanities and becoming physical with at least two of them. As he was then removed from the arena, the crowd chanted his name, a moment that may come to symbolize an increasingly disastrous season.
Shortly after the encounter, the Knicks issued a statement that ended with the hope that Oakley would get “some help,’’ a suggestion that offended many people in addition to Paul.
On Thursday, the Knicks issued a follow-up statement in which they more explicitly stated that numerous Garden employees and New York City police officers had witnessed “abusive behavior’’ by Oakley as the episode unfolded. It dismissed his contention that he had done nothing wrong as “pure fiction.’’
Madison Square Garden officials provided one employee’s description of the encounter to The New York Times, identifying her as a woman who was an “order taker’’ in the section in which Oakley was sitting. According to the statement by the woman, whom the Garden did not name, Oakley was agitated when he sat down, asking where Dolan was and why security guards were looking at him. She said she urged him to calm down, to no avail.
Oakley played for the Knicks for 10 seasons and through much of the 1990s, when the Knicks were a tough, competitive team and Oakley’s determined physical presence near the basket epitomized everything the Knicks were about.
Dolan did not become the chairman of the Garden until Oakley had already left the Knicks. Nevertheless, the two men have managed to become adversaries in the years that followed.
In a recent interview, Oakley said that he tried to approach Dolan at the 2014 N.B.A. All-Star Game in New Orleans but was rebuffed. Dolan, he said, refused to shake his hand. Oakley said that he was later told that he had said “something in the paper” that had infuriated Dolan. Oakley said he had no idea what he said to offend Dolan.
Oakley has been a vocal critic of the team — and of Dolan, in particular — for years. His insistence that he does not know why the team treats him so poorly is, at the very least, disingenuous. He has been miffed that the Knicks did not offer him a coaching position. He has cursed Dolan through the news media, largely for Dolan’s refusal to meet with him. And he has continued to channel many fans’ frustrations by venting about the team’s poor play.
Oakley is no stranger to confrontation. As a player, he once punched Charles Barkley in the face during a preseason game. He was the consummate enforcer in an era of physical play. It has become clear, through some of his actions in retirement, that his approach to the game was really who he is. And that has caused some problems.
In 2010, he was involved in a scuffle at a Las Vegas casino that left him with a broken arm. More recently, after Game 7 of last season’s N.B.A. finals, Oakley screamed at security personnel in Oakland, Calif., who were trying to prevent him (with varying degrees of success) from entering the Cavaliers’ jubilant locker room. The Cavaliers had just won their first championship after defeating the Golden State Warriors, and Oakley, who grew up in Cleveland, wanted to join the celebration.
“They was just mad they lost,” Oakley said in a recent interview, referring to the Warriors.
Friends describe Oakley as loyal, generous and protective. But he is also sensitive to slights, perceived and real. Over lunch with this writer in November, he reflected on his playing days with the Knicks and lamented how the team, he thought, had refused to market anyone except Patrick Ewing.
“They probably never sold my jersey in New York until I left,” he said.
Oakley added that he still attended three or four Knicks games every season, always paying his own way. And every time, he said, he would be watched by security personnel. He said that Dolan was behind their actions.
“Anytime I go into the Garden, they have to call him and tell him where I’m at,” he said. “They got to let him know, ‘Oakley is in the building.’”
He added: “It’s so disrespectful. I bought my tickets. And you’re going to tell someone he can’t walk around?”
Oakley sounded most upset when he said that the Knicks had tarnished his relationships with many of his former teammates. Oakley recalled a game at the Garden last season when he bumped into a former teammate near the court. The teammate, Oakley said, apprehensively urged him to keep his voice down.
“The guys I played with,” Oakley said, “they can’t even talk to me or be around me.”
On Thursday, in an interview on ESPN Radio, Oakley apologized for his role in Wednesday’s episode.
“I feel sorry for the fans,” he said.
The fans, in turn, seem to be on Oakley’s side. Welcome to the world of the Knicks.
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