In the good, bad-old days of the Toronto Raptors franchise, Charles Oakley was a constant on-court reminder that opposing ball handlers were to be considered fair game when trying to venture toward the basket.
A well-placed derrière here, perhaps a forearm shiver there, and the message was delivered loud and clear. Approach the rim at your own peril, trespassers will be violated.
The garrulous Oakley dined out on his no-nonsense reputation during a 19-year NBA career.
He played three of those seasons in Toronto and was a key component of the 2001 Raptors squad that extended the Philadelphia 76ers to seven games before a missed Vince Carter jump shot prevented the Raptors from reaching the Eastern Conference final.
The next season Oakley was gone, shipped out to the Chicago Bulls, and many believe the franchise has never been the same since without the grit of the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward lurking in the paint.
The quotable one was on hand at the Air Canada Centre last night to be fêted by the franchise as part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, and the Raptors could have used some of his hard-nosed defensive presence in the lineup against the Detroit Pistons.
The Raptors (2-2) still managed to prevail - barely - despite having their 17-point third-quarter lead evaporate in the fourth. They regained just enough composure late to emerge with a 110-99 victory over the Pistons (2-3), snapping a two-game losing skid.
The Pitstons were coming off a big victory the night before when they handed defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic their first loss of the season at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.
But this was a hurting team that the Raptors should have been able to better exploit, as the Pistons came to town without Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, two of their starters, both sidelined by injuries.
Oakley flew in from Atlanta where he makes his home these days and was pressed by the Raptors media relations staff to make sure he arrived on time for a pregame chat with members of the media.
"I ain't been late a couple times," Oakley told a Raptors official in typical Oak-speak, feigning indignation.
Oakley still arrived more than 15 minutes late for the media session, but it was worth the wait as he quickly warmed to a favourite topic - the audacity of today's young NBA players.
"These days with these guys I don't know if you can say too much to them without them breaking down and crying, like a girl," Oakley said. "It is what it is."
As for those talented Toronto teams he played on, which included such players as Carter, Antonio Davis and Tracy McGrady, Oakley said each of those players understood their specific roles, the reason the team was able to enjoy some moderate success.
"We said, Vince, you're our lead singer," Oakley said, warming to the memory. "Tracy, you're our back singer. Everybody else is in the band. I'm playing drums, Tone [Antonio Davis]playing guitar. Somebody else is playing the flute."
After that, Oakley said the music just got better and better.
Last night, with Oakley taking in much of the game from his courtside seat, the notes were often sour sounding for Raptors, who played with just enough defensive indifference to allow the Pistons to hang around.
"I don't think our problem is going to be at the offensive end," Toronto coach Jay Triano said after the game. "This is a very good defensive team coming into this game and they did hold us to 43-per-cent shooting. But we still find a way to put 110 points up on the board.
"I think the one thing this team will be able to do is score. We've got to get better defensively."
The Raptors led by as many as 17 points midway through the third quarter - 79-62 - after Andrea Bargnani connected on a 15-foot pull-up jump shot.
But the Raptors could not step it up on the defensive end.
And when Will Bynum of the Pistons made a nifty drive and finished with a reverse layup, the Raptors faithful were groaning with dismay as the Pistons led 91-90 with just under eight minutes to play.
Triano opted for a big fourth-quarter rotation that included Chris Bosh, Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu all lined up in the front court, and their dominating presence down the stretch proved the difference.
After falling behind, the Raptors finished the game on a 20-8 run to close out Detroit with Turkoglu providing the telling blow - a 17-foot pull-up jumper with under four minutes to play that moved Toronto ahead by eight.
"Not only are you dealing with three guys who can make plays, they can handle the ball and they can make free throws," Triano said. "Late in the game I like that."
Notes The Toronto Raptors will play seven of their next eight games on the road against Western Conference teams, beginning tomorrow against the New Orleans Hornets. ... The Detroit Pistons came to town without two of their starters - leading scorer Richard Hamilton (ankle) and Tayshaun Prince (back). ... Last night marked the first time that Chris Bosh of the Raptors (25 points, eight rebounds) has not recorded a double-double in a game this season. ... Ben Gordon of the Pistons notched 12 of his game-high 30 points in the first quarter, making four of his six shots. ... With 22 points and 12 rebounds, Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani posted his first double-double of the season. His rebounding total also represented a new career high.
Next / Tomorrow, Raptors at New Orleans Hornets, 8 p.m. EST
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