Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Review: The Last Enforcer (2022)

By Charles Oakley with Frank Isola

Charles Oakley seems to be famous by association. 

That might be the biggest takeaway from his autobiography, "The Last Enforcer."

Oakley played basketball with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from 1985 to 1988. Jordan was rather famous by then, but you couldn't call them "MICHAEL JORDAN AND THE CHICAGO BULLS" yet. They hadn't started winning championships by then. 

Oakley missed all of the fun in Chicago because he was traded to the New York Knicks. There he was part of a team that came close to a title in the mid-1990s, but couldn't quite finish the job. "Oak" did stay 10 seasons in New York, the longest tenure of his career. 

Oakley also grew up in the Cleveland area, but he's not the biggest basketball export in the history of Northeast Ohio. That title belongs to LeBron James. 

So recapping, we have a guy who played with Michael Jordan, spent a decade in New York, and knows LeBron pretty well. I'd say that's enough to get someone a book contract. Oakley succeeded, working with sportswriter and media personality Frank Isola. It might not be enough to produce a top-notch book, though, at least in this case. 

Oakley came out of Cleveland with a reputation for playing football, but he was a good enough to earn a hoops scholarship at Virginia Union. That's an historically black university with a good basketball heritage. Charles became a Division II player of the year, which made him something of a sleeper in the NBA draft. The Bulls grabbed him essentially in the first round (a trade was involved), and he quickly became Jordan's guardian of sorts on the court. If you wanted to mess with Michael, you had to go through Oakley. No wonder Jordan wrote the foreword.

It was surprising, then, that Oakley was traded to the Knicks for center Bill Cartwright. The deal worked for Chicago, as the titles indicate. But Oakley and his new team had to go through the basketball wilderness to reach some good times. He had a similar role in New York to his spot in Chicago - maintain law and order. Charles was good at it; I think his teammates felt secure playing along side of him. 

Oakley fit right in with the Knicks' new style when Pat Riley arrived as coach. New York played tough, physical ball in those years, which wasn't exactly pretty to watch but could be effective. The Knicks came within a game of a title in 1994. But they couldn't take advantage of a window opened by Jordan's brief retirement in the mid-1990s, and soon fell away from the list of title contenders - especially after Riley jumped to Miami. 

From there it was on play six more years in four different cities - Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Houston. He played until he was 40 - quite impressive. 

Throughout the book, Oakley comes off as someone who played with an edge to his game, and who did what he thought was necessary. The problem is that he doesn't seem to be particularly good at drawing lines ... and staying behind them. Too often, Charles took an extra step in the form of a punch or slap in an attempt to solve a situation during games. 

There's also an attempt to settle some scores, and explain why he's not getting along too well with certain people from his past. Let's just say Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley don't mix well together, even now. Oakley's career ended in 2004 - almost 20 years ago - but there's still some anger there. Some of it is directed at James Dolan, who was part of a celebrated incident in 2017 that saw Oakley arrested during a game in Madison Square Garden. The subtitle talks about "outrageous stories" from Oakley, but it's tough to say if many of the tales fit that description. Oh, there is some name-dropping of entertainment celebrities along the way if you like that sort of reference. 

It's a little surprising that there's not more about what Oakley has been doing since his playing days ended. There are a few references to his time as an assistant coach, which only lasted a season. What's he doing now? He's tied to some businesses that don't come up here. 

There are those who appreciate what Oakley did for his teams over the years - displaying muscle and a willingness to stand up for his beliefs. Those people will come away relatively entertained by "The Last Enforcer." The rest of us probably won't be so enthusiastic, and will come away with the idea that this should have been written 10 years ago.

Three stars

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