- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

A casual glance would not have been enough to identify the new Washington Wizard wearing No.34 in practice. No, a double take and some closer examination was required to recognize Charles Oakley, who signed a one-year contract with the club yesterday.
That's because "Oak tree," as Oakley is sometimes called, seems to have lost some of the rings trees normally add as they age he has slimmed down to under 230 pounds for the first time since his days at Virginia Union, a mere 17 years ago. The result is a leaner but every bit as mean Oakley, a player who brings veteran leadership on the court and in the locker room.
"I have minutes however many they want me to play," said Oakley, entering his 18th NBA season. "Just because you win one race doesn't mean you qualify for the next one you have to keep running. I'm not going to let my age determine that I can't play no more."
Oakley, 38, is very familiar with several members of the franchise. Oakley knows Michael Jordan, with whom he teamed in Chicago from 1985 to 1988; assistant coach Patrick Ewing, his teammate for 10 seasons in New York; and coach Doug Collins, under whom Oakley played for two seasons in Chicago.
"He has such an awareness of team basketball, playing to win, toughness," Collins said. "He's going to be great for our younger players. He's in the best shape I've seen him in in three years. He's going to give us another guy we can count on on the front line."
Oakley said he has lost 15 to 17 pounds since last season, when his listed weight was 245.
Oakley said he had several prospective suitors, including the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. When a potential deal fell through with the Lakers, Oakley said, "the next best thing is to play with Mike."
Oakley is known for his honesty; he concedes that he doesn't tolerate "nonsense" and in the past has not hesitated to speak his mind.
"If something's going wrong with the players, I'll let them know," Oakley said. "If management's slipping, I'll let them know. I'm not going to take one side. I try to make sure things are right."
Things weren't right last season in Chicago, where Oakley averaged a career-low 3.8 points and 6.0 rebounds while weathering injuries and constant losing. In November, after a franchise record-worst 53-point loss to Minnesota, he drew a $50,000 fine for criticizing coach Tim Floyd. Yesterday Oakley called the situation a "mudslide," and, as a free agent after the season, got out as quickly as he could. He doesn't see his production last year as a barometer of what to expect this season.
"I told [the team] I want to play, I don't want to just sit the bench," Oakley said. "I feel like my body's in good shape. I feel like I can play and compete. There are a lot of guys that are more athletic than me, but as far as [being] smart and understanding what to do in a lot of situations on the court, I think I'm one of the best in the game."
The Wizards no doubt welcome Oakley's gritty rebounding, steady shooting and toughness; he made his presence felt yesterday by administering two knockdown fouls, which Collins said were the first of the year in practice. The Wizards should also benefit from Oakley's leadership. On his first day of practice, he already was instructing second-year big men Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas on some subtleties.
As for where Oakley fits in the rotation, it is likely Brown and Thomas will get more time at center, though Collins considers the power forward and center positions essentially interchangeable. Collins said depending on how Oakley feels after today's practice, he could play in tomorrow's preseason game at Philadelphia.
It's fitting in many respects that Oakley returned to a team with so many ties to his past. Yesterday he remembered the "wars" he waged with Jordan against Ewing, then later with Ewing against Jordan.
They are all reunited now, and a leaner Charles Oakley is looking to wage and win a couple more wars.


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