Coaching in the NBA can be a dangerous job
Charles Oakley, one of the NBA's all-time tough guys, doesn't want to talk about his excruciating back pain.
''I'm good,'' the Charlotte Bobcats assistant said recently before brushing off further questions.
Yet one quick look at Oakley shows he's not. He hasn't returned to the bench since having to be carried from the court before a game in San Antonio last month with a sciatic nerve problem that's made it difficult to walk.
''He's not doing too good right now,'' Bobcats coach Paul Silas said Thursday.
The 47-year-old Oakley is the latest example of an NBA coach walking the fine line of teaching from the sidelines and hands-on instruction.
There's plenty of other harsh examples, ranging from Patrick Ewing's broken foot to Nate McMillan's ruptured Achilles' tendon to the sight of Bobcats owner Michael Jordan icing both knees after practicing with his team.
''It catches up with you. I've been through that. You forget,'' said Golden State coach Keith Smart, who when he was an assistant regularly banged with players. ''It gets to the point where your body tells you that can't do it anymore but your mind tells you that you can. So you start having the pains players are having, but you're older.''
According to STATS LLC, Oakley is one of 17 former All-Stars serving as assistants in the NBA. Many of them feel they can still do some of what made them great. And until recently, the fit and strong Oakley looked like he could suit up and give the Bobcats 20 solid minutes.
Oakley, who claims the NBA's beefed-up flagrant fouls rules were in response to the hard fouls he committed during his playing days, consistently tangled with Kwame Brown and Charlotte's other big men in intense workouts. Oakley has been credited with helping Brown have one of his best seasons.
''He really gets after it with those big guys and makes them work,'' Bobcats forward Stephen Jackson said.
It's uncertain if Oakley's injury is directly due to banging in practice. But seeing one of the NBA's top enforcers being in too much pain to walk was a cruel example of aging.
''I learned my lesson early. Oak, he still tries to play,'' said the 48-year-old Ewing, an Orlando assistant, Hall of Famer and Oakley's former teammate in New York. ''I'm too old to go out there and try to mix it up with them. I stay away from that.''
There's a reason. Ewing broke his foot a few years ago while working out with the Magic. When Portland had so many injuries last season and didn't have enough players for a 5-on-5 scrimmage, the 46-year-old McMillan took to the floor. The Trail Blazers coach promptly ruptured his Achilles' tendon.
''Unless you want to go to an orthopedic surgeon, you don't want to practice,'' Knicks assistant Herb Williams said, laughing. ''I don't know if it's the elasticity or the strength in your joints and then that's when you end up getting injured. You've got to be careful.
''If I was to go out here and play with one of these guys, I wouldn't be jumping up in the air, trying to do all kinds of crazy stuff. Everything I would be doing would be on the floor.''
Yet the ability of former players to work with current ones can be invaluable. Ewing helped tutor Dwight Howard early in his career. Jordan's presence always ratchets up the intensity at Bobcats practice. Rookie John Wall has spent countless hours going up against Washington assistant and former All-Star point guard Sam Cassell this season.
''He gets banged up a little bit, but you hope that ex-players can keep on playing,'' Wizards coach Flip Saunders said of Cassell. ''I'm a firm believer that you want to keep your coaches, everyone, in shape. Coaching takes a toll on your body, whether the stress, the travel or everything else. They need to be active.''
But Saunders also noted the 41-year-old Cassell, in his second year as a coach, is still adjusting to a much different role.
''I still have to get on him because he has to understand he's not still a player,'' Saunders said. ''That's always the big adjustment for guys that have played in the league. But he's learning as a coach and I think the players are learning from him.''
And as injuries and fatigue mount late in a grueling season, an energetic assistant who can push players can help boost a team.
''I hold my own,'' said Minnesota's Darrick Martin, who turned 40 last month. ''I probably surprise them a little bit every now and then.''
Yet there's a fine line to how far you can go. Watching Oakley walk gingerly with shooting pain that's moved from his lower back to his legs is the hard-to-watch proof.
''He says the pain has gone to his knee,'' Silas said. ''Hopefully, he can resolve that and get better. But right now he's struggling.''
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York; Associated Press Writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio and AP Sports Writers Colin Fly in Milwaukee, Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis and Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.