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Charles Oakley Arrest: Why Was a Basketball Legend Dragged Out of Arena in Handcuffs?

The New York Knicks, one of the more storied franchises in the history of the NBA, are in the midst of a season defined more by dysfunction than dominance on the basketball court.
Image: Charles Oakley exchanges words with a security guard during the first half of an NBA basketball game
Former New York Knicks player Charles Oakley exchanges words with a security guard during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the LA Clippers on Feb. 8, 2017, in New York.Frank Franklin II / AP

The New York Knicks, one of the more storied franchises in the history of the NBA, are in the midst of a season defined more by dysfunction than dominance on the basketball court.

Case in point: on Wednesday night, Charles Oakley, one of the most iconic players of the team's 1990s golden era, was escorted out a game, cuffed and arrested after an alleged altercation with security at the team's stomping grounds, Madison Square Garden.

"It was a bit hard to tell but people heard him yelling something about [Knicks owner James Dolan] in the tunnel. Can't tell what," Ian Schafer, who witnessed and filmed the incident, told NBC News. "It didn't look like he did anything to provoke this, but several security guards approached him and things escalated from there."

Although official accounts of who started the scuffle differ, the fact that it took place right behind the Knicks' lightning rod of an owner did not sit well with fans and friends of the former NBA star.

Nicknamed the "Chairman of the Boards" for his tireless rebounding, Oakley in his day was known for his heart and energy.

"Oakley was all hustle and muscle for the 1990s Knicks in his ten years with the franchise. With some flashier players around him, Oakley's non-stop motor and nastiness under the basket — and the fact that he always stuck up for his teammates in a scrum (more on that in a minute) — was one of the key things that made the Knicks contenders, especially with hard-nosed Pat Riley at the helm," wrote Charles Curtis in USA Today. "If there was a basketball equivalent of a hockey enforcer, he was it."

Related: Who will last longer in New York: Melo or Phil?

"What does this all mean after Wednesday? For New Yorkers, it's doubly sad to see a legend who gave everything he had to the franchise involved in something like this," he added.

Oakley is reported to have blamed his ejection and arrest (he was charged with three counts of third-degree assault and one count of criminal trespass, according to the NYPD) on Dolan, who he has feuded with over the years.

Ironically, Oakley, who became a beloved fan favorite for his dogged style of play, saw his 10-year tenure with the Knicks come to an end one year after Dolan took over the reins twenty years ago.

"I was there for four minutes," Oakley told the New York Daily News, after being released from police custody. "I didn't say anything to him. I swear on my mother. They came over and wanted to know why I was sitting there. I bought the ticket. I said why do you guys keep staring at me. Then they asked me to leave. And I said I'm not leaving."

Meanwhile, the Knicks released their own statement painting a very different picture of what took place: "Charles Oakley came to the game tonight and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner. He has been ejected and is currently being arrested by the New York City Police Department. He was a great Knick, and we hope he gets some help soon."

Later on Thursday, the Knicks updated their statement: "There are dozens of security staff, employees and NYPD that witnessed Oakley's abusive behavior. It started when he entered the building and continued until he was arrested and left the building. Every single statement we have received is consistent in describing his actions. Everything he said since the incident is pure fiction."

What is not pure fiction is the fact that since 1997, the Knicks have made just one NBA Finals appearance in 1999 and otherwise have mostly been plagued by years of futility. Dolan has been routinely blamed for bad hires, trades and investments. He has been branded one of the "worst owners in sports" and a "troll."

Dolan even once upbraided an elderly Knicks fan who criticized his decision-making, by telling them in a letter to "start rooting for the Nets because the Knicks don't want you." He also once called the disgruntled fan a "sad person" and an "alcoholic maybe."

Still, prior to Wednesday, much of the current drama and tabloid headlines surrounding the team were more focused the fractured public relationship between their president, 11-time NBA champion coach and former Knick Phil Jackson, and star player Carmelo Anthony.

Related: Phil Jackson showing he's stuck in the past

Jackson and Anthony have been engaged in a season-long Cold War, trading some not-so-thinly veiled barbs in the press, and increasing speculation that the 32-year-old All-Star will inevitably be traded any day now.

According to sportswriter Frank Isola, the most recent spat between Oakley and the Knicks was sparked by the team's failure to include him any of the team's 70th anniversary celebrations.

"He wants to be connected to the franchise and the fan base that adores him. In the past he's tried to meet with Dolan to settle their differences but that hasn't happened," wrote Isola in the New York Daily News. "Two years ago, Phil Jackson talked to Oakley about working with the team's big men. Oakley was interested but the job fell through. Perhaps Dolan put the kibosh on that."

"This is how the Knicks treat their best players, both past and present," he added. "For nearly 20 years there have been plenty of dreadful and embarrassing nights at Madison Square Garden. Too many to count. This one tops them all."