Charles Oakley helped define the 1990s NBA, for good and for bad. His Knicks teams were always in contention but could never get past the Michael Jordan hurdle. And when Jordan went away for a couple years they finally made the Finals but lost to Hakeem and the Rockets. Oakley had skills – he could shoot the midrange, defend the opponent’s best front court player and was a nifty passer. The 6’8″ power forward was prototypical for the position in the ’90s – a plodding enforcer and rebounder who could be a complementary scorer. That type of power forward is becoming a relic, in today’s small-ball, stretch 4 craze, and I won’t argue that the evolution is bad (even though I love the ’90s). One thing about ’90s basketball I can’t wax nostalgic about were the New York Knicks, and while not as famous as Patrick Ewing and John Starks, Oakley was the spirit animal of slow, boring, overly physical play.
Oak had some nice statistical years, especially between 1993-94 and 1996-97. He average between 10-12 points and 8-12 rebounds in those years, upping his game in the 93-94 playoffs to 13 and 12 over 25 games, and making the 1994 All Star Game.
But to be honest, enough about his numbers or even basketball in general. The true legacy of Oak is his on-court brawling, his disdain for modern players (and Charles Barkley), and his membership in Michael Jordan’s entourage. Oak has been MJ’s right hand man and security detail for years after becoming one of the most feared players in the NBA. If you step on MJ’s Pumas in a club or he owes you money from a gambling debt, have fun dealing with Oakley. But that doesn’t mean tough guys don’t dance. Watch this video from a ’90s Oprah show and thank me later.
MJ and Oakley became close when they played together for the Bulls in the late-’80s, but he probably earned his quasi-bodyguard role in the 90s after showing a quick temper that usually meant haymakers for anyone in his path. He even fought Barkley in a PRESEASON game. That’s great hustle.
In later years, Oakley has very predictably become the type of crotchety ex-player that I love to hear grieve for the game’s great past. He showed recently that he may be the least self-aware former athlete in history, quite an accomplishment, when he said the modern NBA game is hard to watch. This from a guy whose teams played some of the slowest basketball since the all white guy days, specializing in low scoring snooze-fests that only became watchable when a brouhaha would break out. Here’s one more fight video to enjoy, along those lines…
In the 1990s, the Indiana Pacers were a perennial Eastern Conference contender that was consistently overshadowed by the Bulls dynasty. They battled with the Knicks, Magic and Heat for the throne when Michael retired and finally broke through to the Finals in 2000 where they met another Phil Jackson-led dynasty in the Lakers. Through it all Rik Smits, the 7’4″ Dunking Dutchman, was the Pacers’ mainstay in the paint. Smits played his entire career for the Pacers, drafted in 1988 as the 2nd overall pick and culminating in the 4-2 Finals loss to the Lakers in 2000. Smits started out his career backing up the immortal Steve Stipanovich, who went down with an injury early in Smits’ rookie season. This was Smits’ Wally Pipp moment, as the Dutchman took over that starting center spot and held it down for over a decade.
Smits only made one All-Star game, in 1998, but was a model of consistency, protecting the rim, cleaning the boards and providing a fundamentally sound scoring option down low. He was always the second banana to Reggie Miller, together they gave the Pacers an identity both on the inside and outside, always keeping opposing defenses on their toes. Smits quickly became a fan favorite in Indy, where fundamentals are worshipped and white basketball players are heroes. His popularity reached its peak with the Hoosier State when he hit a game-winner at the buzzer in Game 4 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. In your face Penny Hardaway.
Smits retired with the following career numbers: 14.8 points, 1.3 blocks, 6.1 rebounds, .507 FG %. His top season was ’95, where he scored 18.5 points per game. Smits never stood out at his position, where larger than life stars like Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing highlighted a renaissance period for NBA big men. However, Smits didn’t need to stand out…he quietly did the yeoman’s work while Reggie buried 3’s and the Davis’s (Dale and Antonio) played the enforcers. Smits was a key cog in one of the truly trademark ’90s teams.
The great Lucien James Longley was a big inspiration to me as a young Bulls fan living in a Chicago suburb as I worked on my own rugged white man post game. Luc shared the court with legends Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr, while playing for coaching guru Phil Jackson. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle. But the big man from Australia was integral to the Bulls success on the defensive end, and as a cog in the Triangle offense.
After being drafted by the Timberwolves #7 overall (and becoming the first Australian in the NBA, paving the way for Dante Exum), Longley came to Chicago in a trade for the current voice of the Bulls, Stacey King, who can be heard in all his glory in the video below.
Longley became the team’s starting center, won three NBA titles and averaged career highs of 11 points and 6 boards in the Bulls’ transcendent 1997-98 season. The 7’2″ monster was slow of foot but demanded a large berth in the post and was an underrated passer that could dish to his more well-known teammates cutting to the lane. Longley really created his legend in Chicago via his sharp Aussie wit. A particularly poignant example: after separating his shoulder body surfing with teammate Jud Buechler – who may have a future in this column – he claimed the injury was sustained while fighting a shark, who Longley said “was bigger than me – and better looking.” Longley missed two months, which I’m sure went over well with Jordan.
Post-Bulls, Longley’s career playing for the Suns and Knicks was decidedly less illustrious, highlighted by being stung twice by a scorpion (once on the ass) in his home in Phoenix while organizing his CD collection. Ahh the 90s, those halcyon days of compact discs. It was a simpler time.
I leave you with this video evidence of Luc Longley telling MJ and Pip “I got this” (not verbally, Luc lets his play do the talking) and putting the Bulls on his back in this glorious 16-point first quarter in Detroit in 1996. The future Hall of Famers could only stand aside and watch Lucien’s torrent of post game footwork and swift bucket-getting. Note the capable left hand, yeoman’s work on the offensive boards, slow but effective ball fakes and fundamentals at the line. “How’s Detroit going to stop Longley?” How, indeed.
Hall of Famer and 1995 All-Star Game MVP Mitch Richmond personified the prototypical shooting guard, with his mix of catch-and-shoot, silky smooth release and just enough athleticism to make plays at the rim. Defensively he could get steals (81st all-time) but was never known as a lockdown guy. Richmond was an offensive juggernaut, the shooter you’d have coming off the bench in your custom late-90s NBA Live super team. Toiling on many bad Warriors, Kings and Wizards teams may have earned him a ‘good stats-bad team’ reputation, but that’s mostly unfair, as there’s only so far a team could go in the 90s when its best player was a (non-MJ) 2 guard. I’d say Mitch suffered from poor roster construction. He did win a championship in 2002 – scoring a measly 3 points in the playoff run – with the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, one of the few times in his career he shared the court with multiple All-Stars. The 1990-91 Run TMC Warriors were an early bright spot, led my Richmond (23.9 ppg), Chris Mullin (25.7) and Tim Hardaway (22.9)
Richmond’s most impressive stat is being one of the few players in NBA history to average 20 or more points per game over 10 seasons. The man could fill it up.