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Basketball bonds, Maurice Stokes, and the time I (sort of) met Charles Oakley

A ramble about two classic power forwards, Oak and Stokes.

Cincinnati Royals Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images

During the 1987-88 NBA season, you might have heard Bill Cartwright humming George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All” (or Whitney’s version). That classic track contains the lyric, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow,” which articulated Big Bill’s sentiments about backing up fellow New York Knick Patrick Ewing.

In a 1988 Draft night deal, the 31-year-old Cartwright was finally freed from Ewing’s shadow. The Knicks’ GM Al Bianchi traded him and two draft swaps for a 24-year-old Charles Oakley.

Netting Oakley was a boon for New York. He fit the mold of a big-bodied, hard-nosed hooper, much like the late, great Maurice Stokes. More on him later.

“We have really solidified the power-forward position,” Bianchi told the New York Times after the trade. “I think we can walk away saying that the Knicks are happy and the Chicago Bulls filled their need for a center.”

Indeed, the Knicks needed a moose down low who could rack up points and rebounds. They wanted to draft Chris Morris (Auburn), but the New Jersey Nets snagged him with the fourth pick. Having whiffed on the 6’8” Tiger, New York pulled the Cartwright-for-Oakley switcheroo instead and used their 19th pick to grab Rod Strickland (DePaul).

These were the eighties, when players like Cartwright and Oakley earned about $1 million per year, shoes were worn without socks, and Charlie “Tiger Blood” Sheen was an Übermensch. Strange days, indeed.

The 245 lb. Charles Oakley had played collegiate ball at Virginia Union College before being drafted ninth in 1985. He was indestructible in Chicago, playing 241 games over his first three years and averaging 31 minutes, 11.6 rebounds, and 12.2 points. From 1986-88, Oak averaged 13 rebounds per game and collected an astounding 2,140 boards.

Years later, he told the Bulls Talk podcast, “I came in there and brought my hard hat and my lunch bucket and I went to work.”

He needed the hard hat. NBA work was hazardous back then, and Charles wreaked the most havoc. He averaged 3.5 fouls in an era when the refs overlooked A LOT of elbows.

At Chicago, his teammate Michael Jordan benefited from Oak’s role as the “enforcer”, charged with menacing anyone who harassed His Airness. They were also friends who lived near each other, shared McDonald’s breakfasts before practice, and played pool and ping-pong “constantly”. (h/t/

“He took me to the All-Star game my rookie year and it just kept going from there. We (were) just always chilling, always together. We just got tight,” said Oakley of the friend with whom he drove to home games. Sounds much like the bond between Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, and what Jack Twyman had with Maurice Stokes.

Celebrities Attend The 2022 US Open Tennis Championships
Immanuel and Obi: the bromance continues.
Photo by Jean Catuffe/GC Images

M.J. disliked the Oakley trade initially but came around after collecting a few trophies with Cartwright. Eventually, he would tell SLAM Magazine, “I was wrong with the Oakley-Bill Cartwright trade. I loved Charles Oakley—he was like a brother to me, and I felt we were giving away too many years by trading a young rebounder for an old guy who hadn’t played a full season. But in terms of what we were trying to get, he was the best…it was the best trade at the time.”

The Bulls needed a center and had already selected power forward Horace Grant with their 10th pick in 1987. The Times quoted Chicago’s Jerry Krause as saying, “The development of Horace Grant helped us make such a deal. We feel Horace can be a quality player and develop like Charles Oakley.”

Rick Pitino had just coached the ’87-88 Knicks to a 38-44 record and was “ecstatic” to add an Oak Tree to his frontcourt: “We’ve acquired one of the top power forwards in the game of basketball. He has strength and youth.” Pitino had occasionally experimented with playing Ewing and Cartwright together (kinda like a Stone Age version of the Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley tandem). The results were mixed.

What a simple transaction this trade was! Cartwright, picked third in the 1979 draft, wanted a larger role, and the Knicks needed muscle in the paint. Both sides could celebrate. Both men enjoyed long careers. Sadly, Maurice Stokes—a big, mischievous bruiser like Oakley—missed out on that.

During the summer of 1988, I knew little about the NBA. I was 11 years old and lived on a small farm in upstate New York. Picture Manhattan, then imagine the exact opposite, plus cows.

My father had followed the seventies Knicks and when we drove around our dirt roads, he would tell stories about Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. I loved when grown men had nicknames, and the old NBA was full of them (Pistol Pete! Dr. J!). It sounded like a league of superheroes—and was.

Cable was not available in our town, and our family TV received three and a half channels, one of which was NBC. When NBC aired the Knicks, my dad tuned in. I especially appreciated the matinee games, because they preempted farm chores.

I watched games too infrequently to identify anyone other than stars like Larry Bird. I knew Patrick was important by the reverence my father paid him. And I’d heard dad grumble about Coach Pitino while reading the newspaper’s sports section.

So, I wasn’t a fan yet, but I knew some things, and when a game was on, I was quite content to sit in my dad’s proximity, read a book, and not have to shovel cow manure.

At the breakfast table one morning, my dad looked over his paper and asked if I wanted to go to the Maurice Stokes Memorial Basketball Game. He would buy the tickets.

30th Anniversary Poster

I didn’t know who Maurice Stokes was. Per Wikipedia, “Maurice Stokes (June 17, 1933 – April 6, 1970) was an American professional basketball player. He played for the Cincinnati/Rochester Royals of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1955 to 1958. Stokes was a three-time NBA All-Star, a three-time All-NBA Second Team member and the 1956 NBA Rookie of the Year. His career – and later his life – was cut short by a debilitating brain injury and paralysis.”

Further reading: Bryan Curtis wrote a superb piece about Stokes for Grantland, found here.

How good was Stokes? For their “Top 25 Rookie Seasons in NBA History,” The Score ranked him 19.

How tough was Stokes? About the injury that Maurice suffered at age 24, Bryan Curtis wrote,Stokes drove to the hoop, got his legs cut out from under him, and smacked his head against the floor. A news photo shows Stokes on his knees like a penitent, his head buried in his palms. He played the rest of the game. He had 24 points and 19 rebounds.”

The injury was more serious than anyone understood. Soon after, Maurice fell into a coma and became paralyzed. His friend and teammate Jack Twyman was appointed as his legal guardian. Twyman cared for him for the rest of his life.

Again, per Wikipedia: “On June 9, 2013, the NBA announced that both Twyman and Maurice Stokes would be honored with an annual award in their names, the Twyman–Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, which recognizes the player that embodies the league’s ideal teammate that season.” Jrue Holiday took the honor last season.

Twyman started Stokes’ namesake exhibition game in 1958 to help defray the medical bills. After Maurice died in 1970, the annual event continued, with proceeds going to retired players in need. Stars who participated over the years include Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, and more. No, you don’t typically find those sorts of luminaries hanging around Monticello, NY.

On the eve of August 9, 1988, my dad drove me to Kutsher’s Country Club for the Stokes game, which happened to mark the event’s 30th anniversary. The gym was packed with people. I remember dad pointing with awe at celebrity players during the action, and nudging me to notice certain famous heads in the crowd. I can’t recall a single player, and the action of a real, in-person game was so fast, my eyes couldn’t keep up. Yet, I loved everything. The gym was hot, the crowd was raucous, and I had discovered a thrilling, secret (I thought) society that I wanted to join.

The roster for that game probably exists somewhere, but I can’t find it. If you do, or if you were there, hit me up. I’m curious to know what little Russell witnessed.

After the game, my father shuffled me into the exiting queue, all of us cheek to jowl, sweaty and spent. As we advanced down a corridor toward the doors, a small gap opened in the procession before me. Suddenly, the people ahead of me began turning around. To look at me! I thought. Their faces brightened with smiles as they charged in my direction. They recognize me! I thought, evidently a budding egomaniac.

Of course it wasn’t me they recognized. I sensed an enormous presence behind me, and I turned, slowly looking up a suit and into the bemused grin of a towering giant.

My father rescued me from the throng, and we skirted the mob of autograph seekers to make our escape. Outside in the cool air, my dad explained who that was.

“Charles Oakley!” he exclaimed. “The newest Knick!”

Not too long after that, my house would acquire a satellite dish that allowed us to watch Knicks games every night. That’s when my fandom took off. And whenever I watched those classic nineties Knicks teams with someone new, I always slipped in the anecdote that started, “Have I told you about the time I met Charles Oakley….”

I understand now that “met” was a bit of a stretch.

Back in the present, the friendship between Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley is top of mind. Drafted on the same night, they developed a special bond over their first two seasons. The chance to watch their kinetic kinship and their joyful camaraderie on the court is honestly what excites me most about the upcoming campaign. It’s gonna be fun, just as it’s supposed to be.

We can discuss later the stupid beef between James Dolan and Charles Oakley. As for what happened with Jordan and the Bulls, Oakley said, “We stayed friends to this day. And he won six championships and I won zero.” As for Quickley and Toppin, don’t be surprised if one of them gets the Twyman–Stokes Teammate of the Year award this year.

Contemplating these things warms my heart: Sharing a game with my dad…Jordan and Oakley grabbing Egg McMuffins before practice…Obi & Immanuel taking selfies together all over NYC…Jack Twyman caring for his friend Maurice, wiping his chin, and upholding his legacy.

The basketball bond. It’s one of the greatest loves of all.