NEW YORK -- I came to see a game.
How could I watch a game?
I never left the press room, and I wasn’t alone. In 26 years of covering sports, I may never have spent a weirder night. The only thing that was close was the night we heard that Scud missiles were flying around the Middle East. But as real as that was, the whole thing seemed like some sort of abstract. This time it wasn’t the Middle East, where most of us have never been. It was California, and the central figure was O.J. Simpson.
How could I leave the press room to see the Knicks play the Rockets when CNN was showing me, live and in color, “Thelma and Louise Meets Dog Day Afternoon, And Featuring O.J. Simpson”? I mean, that was O.J. Simpson in that Ford Bronco, and that wasn’t a scene out of “Speed” or anything else on that TV screen. That was real life. That was O.J. Simpson who was sitting inside that Bronco with some sort of weapon held to his head as the vehicle proceeded from I-5 to California 91 to I-405 with a legion of police cars in pursuit and people lining the highways and byways of Southern California shouting words of encouragement for the Juice.
The double doors from the Madison Square Garden press room leading to the arena floor not 75 feet away were open for most of the second half, and we who remained inside could hear the cheering outside. We could hear the Garden organ pounding out that dreaded “Let’s-play-defense” cadence, and we knew that inside more than 18,000 people were a lot more concerned with the Knicks finding a way to take a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets than they were about what was going on with O.J. Simpson. After the game, there would be plenty of time for them to worry about the Juice.
But if you started off watching that police caravan trailing Al Cowlings’ Ford Bronco when it was discovered down there in Orange County, you could not develop a Pat Riley-type focus on the basketball game. I mean, that was the Juice in that Bronco. That was the Juice who had asked that a note in which he sounded suicidal be read to the public by a friend. That was the Juice who had written that “I can’t go on . . . No matter what the outcome, people will always point.” That was a crazed, despondent and desperate O.J. Simpson.
Once O.J. Simpson had his Garden moments. For him, they were outdoor days of glory, but no matter. He had been given a special athletic gift, and he had developed it to the fullest. He ran his way to a Heisman Trophy. He ran for
2,000 yards. He marched into the Hall of Fame. Whatever glories Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing might know, the Juice knew. And now he was said to be sitting in the passenger seat of an old teammate’s Ford Bronco with a gun to his head, a double murder 1 rap hanging over his head?
I had to see this through. I helped create the Juice, and so did you. We take our athletic heroes and we elevate them to unreasonable heights, on and off the floor, and we demand they stay there. We often have a difficult time grasping how frail and flawed they can be when the game and the cheering both stop. The Juice swore he was innocent, but rather than stay and fight the charge, he had come to the conclusion he would never have a life left. Joe
Average could have a life. Even a cleared Juice could not. His life would be forever scrutinized. Or so he thought.
There has never been such a scene involving anyone with the remote stature of O.J. Simpson as that shot of the Ford Bronco proceeding along those California highways with all those police cars trailing behind. All night long, reporters charged with the duty of reporting what I am now told was a pretty good basketball game would come into the press room for a look at the O.J. coverage. How could they not?
They came streaming in by the scores at halftime, attaching themselves to the TV sets, playing journalistic catch-up on one of the Stories of the Century (well, isn’t it?). But duty called within 15 minutes, and back they went to the basketball game. Sort of.
For long stretches of the evening, the television monitors provided for the press folk watching the game inside the arena were tuned not to NBC but to CNN, or whatever outlet could provide the almost-impossible-to-believe O.J. Simpson saga.
As the second half unfolded, I could hear Marv Albert’s voice reverberating throughout the press room. I heard something about a Knick 13-point lead, and then I heard the Rockets were up by 3, and then I heard the boomp-boomp-boomp- boomp of the Garden organ and the shrieks of “De-Fense!” from the devoted Knick crowd while I was staring at the Bronco parked in the driveway and wondering if we were about to see something unspeakably gruesome unfold. Thank God we did not.
If this had been some guy named Oliver John Simpson who had commandeered his buddy to drive him along the California freeways while he pointed a gun at his own head, there would have been no crowd in the press room. There might have been some people paying attention along the route, but very few. Hey, California is California, after all.
But this was Orenthal James Simpson, The One And Only Juice. It isn’t supposed to come to this when you’re the Juice.
Anyway, I knew there’d be another game. There always is. Every once in a while, Real Life comes first.