The Knicks-Heat rivalry from 1995 to 2000 was one of the most physical and heated in sports history. It all started when Pat Riley resigned with the Knicks and took over as head coach and team president of the Heat in September 1995, and the rivalry became a battle-tested affair of brawls, game-winning shots and down-to-the-wire playoff series. Former Knicks power forward Charles Oakley was part of the rivalry from 1995-96 to 1997-98, and his aggressive style of play exemplified what it was all about. He shared his thoughts on tonight's rekindled rivalry and reminisced about the past.
How do you see the Knicks-Heat matchup unfolding tonight?
Both teams are doing well right now; they've got the chemistry going. I think the Heat and the Knicks both started off slow, but now they’ve picked up a fast pace. I think whoever comes in and can play consistent early in the game [will have the edge]. The Knicks were a team, in the past, that couldn’t get scoring coming out of the gate in the third quarter and fourth quarter. But I think this year, they’ve been doing a great job. If they can sustain four good quarters against the Heat, they can win. Also, the Heat have no inside for Amare and I think the Knicks have great role players. Everybody is figuring out what they’re supposed to do on a consistent basis. That’s the most important thing -- how quickly you can get down your role. I tell the team, "Watch Utah play basketball. They’re a team that’s going to play the same way for a whole 48 minutes, no matter what happens. They can be down 20 or down 30, but still win." Miami’s a team that’s really trying to get a rotation and understand how they should be playing too. But with all the hoopin’ and hollerin’ that’s going to be going on in the Garden, I don’t think the fans should react like Cleveland fans. The Knicks are on a different page. They shouldn’t turn back a page; they should turn it forward. The Knicks have got something established and the fans shouldn’t spoil it with, "We don’t like LeBron" chants because he didn’t come to New York.
The Garden will definitely be electric, but the Knicks will really have to buckle down on their transition defense because the Heat is lethal on the fastbreak with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Well, my thing is, if the Knicks are making buckets, like they’ve been doing, they don’t have to worry about transition defense. If you’re making your shots, you can eliminate a lot of fastbreak buckets.
So what’s your greatest memory from those rivalry days in the late 90s?
With Pat Riley and without Pat Riley, playing against Zo [Alonzo Mourning], Tim [Hardaway] -- it was just a grind-out, just like Baltimore and Pittsburgh playing [in the NFL]. It was like every game was down to the last five, 10 seconds. It was tough. We didn’t wear pads like a lot of guys are wearing now in the NBA. I think guys who wear that on the basketball court look soft personally. That’s why we separated differently from the guys who play now. No disrespect to them, but they wear them because they prevent injuries. It was a war back then. We played so hard. I tried to make plays and give my team an opportunity to win.
Initially the rivalry started when Riley went from New York to Miami. But was there a game or specific moment that you think really heated up the series?
My thing is, we took one game at a time, but when we played them, it was just all out. I didn’t do anything differently than any other night. Our job was the same no matter who we played. Fans and the news reporters got into all the hype about Miami, the Knicks, the Knicks and the Bulls. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to play defense and score points to win the game. Officials might call the game closer, but you can’t get caught up in that because you can lose your mindset of what you’re trying to do. It was fun for the coaches and players had to play the game. Some guys got more riled up and hyped up, but my thing is, I had to do it for 82 games because my job was the hardest. I didn’t get 20 shots a night. I had to go get rebounds, I had to do what I could to make stops. My part of making the pot was hard. I had to go buy all the ingredients and then someone else sitting in the kitchen had to make it.
Were your emotions different in the locker room before a Knicks-Heat game?
Nah. Well, in the playoffs, we always cut our hair bald. But I didn’t get caught up into that. You’ve go to know how to be a professional on the court and off the court.
In those games, every possession felt like a last-second shot situation.
Like I said, it was a grind. I talk to guys today and we didn’t have a lot of blowouts against good, playoff teams. You wouldn’t beat teams by 20, 30 points. We knew what we had and they knew what we had, and every possession was key because we had to limit our turnovers, know who’s going to have the ball in clutch situations. That was the key I think -- everybody knew who was supposed to have the ball with the clock running down. We knew our role, we knew our position, we knew what we had to do to get points and get stops. That’s the big difference in a ballgame now than back then.
Well, because of newer rules that favor increased scoring, such as no hand checking and having to pass the timeline in under eight seconds, the game is more fast-paced now. Even look at a traditional halfcourt team like the Spurs -- they are running for the first time in 16 years.
The guys now, they still can play above the game and the game is so much easier for their ability now. Back then, it wasn’t. You had to know how to play to play. Now you can be an average player and still be good because the rules changed to guys’ abilities now. Now I’d say only 20% of the young kids are tough. Back when we played, it was probably 50, 60%. It’s a different mindset now. A lot of these kids try to assimilate with guys in the NBA, so it’s more jumpshooting and dribbling the ball -- not really going to the hole as much. I was just telling somebody that back in the day, we could make a fastbreak dunk like it was nothing. But if you do it in the halfcourt, that’s a real man's dunk. The game is all about hype now.
Can you imagine if the new technical foul rule was around back then? Because of the intensity in those Knicks-Heat games, you guys would have been T’d up so much, no one would be playing.
My thing is, we knew who our captain was. We didn’t have 10 guys who were all looking for calls. That’s embarrassing to basketball, anyway. I’m for that rule. I’m not for a lot of rules of the game, but I’m for that rule. I also hate the zone defense; the NBA should never have it. That should be something separate. I’ve voiced my opinion, but it is what it is.
What was the trash talking like when you guys played?
I don’t trash talk with guys because that’s not basketball. They said Larry Bird trash talked, but I never heard Bird say anything in the years that he played in the NBA. He would speak to you -- that’s it.
Do you and the fellas ever get together for reunion games?
Nah, but I go to the golf course. I went to John [Starks'] golf outing earlier this year. I go down to Virginia Union and see Terry [Davis] and some of the guys down there. I see Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen]. I talk to Allan [Houston], Mase [Anthony Mason], Larry [Johnson], so we still stay in touch.
How’s your golf handicap?
I don’t have a handicap. I can beat [Charles] Barkley, though. He’ll never beat me. He might have used to be able to beat me in basketball, but he can’t no more.
Do you ever hit the hardwood today?
I play every now and then. I go to Detroit and play with these guys and play Knockout. I play in Atlanta every now and then. Last time I played with the pros I was in Vegas. But now I play about 10 times a year probably.
Stay tuned for an interview with former Heat point guard Tim Hardaway, who shares his thoughts on the rivalry from his team's perspective.
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