The good news is Charles Oakley’s new memoir, “The Last Enforcer: Outrageous Stories From the Life and Times of One of the NBA’s Fiercest Competitors,” comes with a six-page index, for easy perusal. The bad news — particularly if you played in the NBA during the power forward’s 19-year career, from his 1985 debut alongside Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls, to his 2004 retirement from the Houston Rockets — is if you find your name in the book . I hope not. I mean, after a light, laudatory forward by Jordan himself (“He truly was my enforcer”), Oakley begins, in the first sentence, with direct words for Charles Barkley. No, he never punched Charles Barkley, he explains:
“I did, however, slap the (expletive) out of him.”
Barkley — who would become the Joker to Oakley’s Batman, or perhaps vice versa — gets dozens of references, not one pleasant. “Mention my name to Barkley today,” he writes, “and he’ll go the other way.” Oakley does not mince words, on and off the court. During a Toronto shootaround, he barks at Lamar Odom (“You want some of this?”); In Derrick Coleman’s Detroit restaurant, he pushes TV’s Judge Mathis (“real hard”).
That’s a taste.
“The Last Enforcer” is about the dust-up as a way of life, and an often thoughtful argument for standing your ground. After retirement, Oakley would throw himself into cooking, and a brief stint on “Dancing With the Stars” (he was axed after one week), but the confrontations would continue, most notably at Madison Square Garden in 2017, when Oakley was arrested after fighting with security (he has a few thoughts for Knicks owner James Dolan). The video record of his brawling may be long and harrowing — a punch for Paul Mokeski, a shove for Alonzo Mourning — but the memoir is measured and charming. It’s closer to that old video of Oakley slapping a rookie Scottie Pippen. They’re both smiling; Pippen would later say, while he laughed, “Charles was a bully.”
The other day, I spoke with Oakley by Zoom. He was at his home in Atlanta. The following is a shortened version of a longer conversation, edited for clarity and length:
Q: Have you heard from any NBA players since the book came out?
A: People would rather call 911 than call me.
Q: What’s the difference between, say, how you saw your role in the NBA and what an enforcer in the NHL does?
A: I always just saw my place on a team as closer to the way my grandfather was to my family. I took that into my life. I understood I could protect people with my size and physicality, so I should never back down. That kept me a leader on the court and in life — people look at you as the guy who will speak up. I conduct myself the way my grandfather did. And my mom, who moved us to Cleveland, had to find a job and provide for six kids — but on holidays, she found a way to cook not only for us but other families in the neighborhood. Which was exactly like my grandmother back in Alabama.
Q: But did it limit how you were seen within the game — as a supporting man and never a leading man? Though I suppose when you are playing alongside Jordan …
A: You just answered your question. But yeah. Coming to that team, they had like three or four guys who would get 20 points a game. In my college career, I averaged 20 in my last year. But I wasn’t trying to get 20 (in the NBA), through maybe 10 or 15 rebounds. I was just happy to be there, and to have been drafted, to be playing with Mike. I accepted that role. I choose to be the guy inside, who set down the paint, played tough, set the tone. For a team to win, you need different instruments. Everybody can’t sing.
Q: Do people come at you now, in regular life?
A: I do get that. People try to start something. I take my time, I play it down, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. And it doesn’t happen a lot, which is amazing.
Q: Ever fight with Jordan?
A: Nah, though in Chicago back then, there was a lot of war during practice. A lot of things happened there that you left at practice. And we would have physical practices. Guys do get pushed, but that’s also how guys got better. That’s how the team grew.
Q: Tell me about slapping Scottie.
A: That was nothing. We were messing around and cameras were rolling. Scottie’s a good guy, I like Scottie. I didn’t really smack him. I took him under my arm when he was a rookie in Chicago. But he was cocky, though! He just had a book, too. He said a lot of stuff about “The Last Dance.” We were all interviewed. You didn’t have to do it. But he had a point: He should have gotten more action in (that film). He did a lot for the Bulls.
Q: As for Dennis Rodman — you threw him out of a steakhouse in Miami?
A: And I will if I see him again. I love what he did on the court. He worked hard. But sometimes, he takes things too far. He was eating off other people’s plates. He overdid it. I can’t respect him no more.
Q: That said, you could have this book titled “Barkley and Me.”
A: Yeah, well.
Q: How did that beef start?
A: I guess when he tried to smack me on the cheek in a game. Ever since, it’s all-out warfare. I have been around him a couple of times since. Nah, he can’t get it. Him and Isaiah (Thomas). Now Isaiah is talking smack. He’s mad he wasn’t on the Dream Team. When he didn’t get on the Dream Team, it hurt his feelings. He’s sensitive. He’s mad Mike came and took his hometown, Chicago (where he spent high school). He’s a mad guy.
Q: But Isaiah was responding to your comment on a podcast about how players now would have handled the NBA in the ’80s and ’90s. You said it’s a softer game and that the Buck’s Giannis Antetokounmpo would have come off the bench then.
A: It was a style of play (then) where everybody had a role. In this age, yeah, Giannis is everything. I mean, all these (contemporary) guys could have played then but how effective could they have been? That’s all I’m saying. It’s different. You could ask: Giannis, in this era, would he have been better than Kevin McHale in the ’80s? Or a Derrick Coleman? Back then, you didn’t have two or three years to develop your game. You had to come out with a game. Anybody given three years to work on something, they should get better. But back then, you weren’t drafted on your potential, you were drafted because they knew you could already play. You didn’t get three years.
Q: Who do you like right now?
A: Well, Giannis is doing it every night right now, and you have to give it up for the guys doing it every night. Would he have started back in the ’80s or ’90s? No, I don’t think he would. That’s my opinion. That said, what he’s doing now — you can’t knock the hustle.
Q: How do you think the Bulls will do?
A: They need a power forward. Couple of guys are injured. A lot of teams are not as good as their records say they are, and a lot of teams with bad records live up to the moment. The Bulls are winning games. They’re not beating the big teams but they’re winning games. They’re doing the same thing Cincinnati did to get to the Super Bowl. They’re winning the games they can win. And once playoffs start, anything can happen.