By Jason Keidel
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For those who were barely alive and lucid 20 years ago, it’s hard to fathom how big and beloved O.J. Simpson was.
Like everything that happened on June 17, 1994, context is essential.
Before the Bronco chase and media histrionics and all the accidental celebrities who fell into America’s lap on that day and the days after, June 17, 1994 was a day of white-hot sports in New York City.
You remember odd things about big days in your life. I was a travel agent for American Express, working and living in Manhattan. But my mother was away that night, and asked me to care for her dogs in New Jersey, using her mammoth, Sony Trinitron (remember those?) as bait.
So I convinced a few of my boys to hop the Hudson with me, order pizza and watch the Knicks, who were about to play Game 5 of the NBA Finals, with a chance to jump up to a 3-2 advantage and soon end their (then) 21-year title drought. This was obviously before Pat Riley migrated to Miami and Jim Dolan ruined the team and I jumped the good ship Knickerbocker.
I was reared on the back-nine of Clyde’s career, worshiped Bernard King and the Hubie Brown Knicks. My old man mused over the old times, of going to the Garden in 1969, while I was in my mom’s belly, to see a beautiful brand of basketball. He told me for 10 bucks they could sit a few rows from the blessed hardwood. Only much later did the Knicks, the world, and my mind, become poisoned by harsh and hardwood realities.
New York City is still a baseball town and, frankly, football ruled my neighborhood, but a bouncing leather orb was the heartbeat of Harlem, just a few blocks north of my 14th-floor abode on Columbus Avenue. If you didn’t at least have an oblong love for b-ball and b-boys, then something was wrong with you.
The late ’70s and early ’80s were the dawn of a new music and magic of Magic and Larry and later Michael, all to the soundtrack of Run DMC, we called it rap long before hip-hop. Every court was serenaded by a large cube of music, called a boom box, from which the latest rhymes bellowed from Kiss FM or WBLS. It wasn’t about class or cash or color. Basketball in NYC had a unifying power that transcended the superficial.
And so the Knicks were about to give us our own title, our own team, our own stories to tell our offspring.
Earlier in the day the Rangers rode up Canyon of Heroes like war heroes, under rabid applause and storms of confetti. And it was our sense — even those of us who didn’t adore hockey — that the Knicks were not only about to follow the Rangers, but were preordained to do so.
There was a sense of symmetry and unity among New Yorkers then, an implicit brotherhood that sports fans feel on the street or at a stadium when things go well.
Remember, there was no Twitter or Facebook or even much of an Internet to speak of. Heck, I knew no one with a cell phone for at least another five years. So our three local papers plus radio and TV were the tablets and tableau of daily information.
When the Mets played that endless, iconic game against the Astros in 1986, bars and bodegas twisted their radios to high octaves so that passers by could stop on sidewalks for a moment and get a taste the latest, extra-inning endeavor.
We didn’t have the world on our hips. We weren’t tech zombies walking in an eternal hunch, eyes on some omnipotent, four-inch screen, eagerly awaiting the latest, synthetic thoughts from folks who think history was written in 140 characters.
People actually read, and read off paper. Millions of us sweated in subway stations all over the five boroughs, folded newspapers raised to our brows until the latest, long, steel snake blew into the station, our air-conditioned portal to work.
People actually talked, not tweeted, their feelings, their days, their families. We settled into our cubicles and discussed the day’s events, some newspaper sprawled out across our desks. And the male segment of Manhattan’s commerce was excited about what just happened and was about to happen.
There was something magical about New York City when a big moment was mushrooming, a charge or current or murmur among the masses. And that’s what it was, like eight million of us forming one organism for the Knicks. Silly? You can decide if sports are worth it. If you’re a sworn member of the red wine and wind chimes crowd, then this doesn’t do much for you. But to us regular folk, the plebeians and proletarians and blue-collar tribe, it was a fun time.
Since all in my circle were 24 or 25 years old that day, we all had jobs and were not hard-wired into the day’s events until we clicked on the Knicks. And while I can’t tell you exactly when that white Bronco changed our lives and our country forever, it’s impossible to forget the surreal, split-screen saga that NBC brought into our living rooms.
We didn’t love the Knicks any less, but we were rendered mute and inert by watching some car inch along a “freeway” as they call it in California. With captions telling us someone named Cowlings was behind the wheel and our childhood hero, O.J. Simpson was somewhere inside, gun to his head, after his wife was murdered. (Not to trivialize Ron Goldman, but he was not the story at that point.)
And you remember the peripheral players, like Larry King and Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren. Or Gil Garcetti and Patricia Clark and Lance Ito. People we had no business knowing, and, in retrospect, wish we never had.
O.J. Simpson wasn’t popular in NYC because he played in Buffalo. For those not acquainted with the Empire State’s landscape, Buffalo might as well be Siberia to those of us in the big city, a cold, flat wasteland, way closer to Canada than Queens.
No, we loved Simpson because he was perhaps the first football star who crossed social and racial lines and nestled nicely into our hearts. He wasn’t a black football player, he was a great football player, gaining all the yards for the forlorn franchise 400 miles northwest. And for those of us born in the late-’60s and raised in the ’70s, Juice was swathed across our televisions for the Bills on Sunday and for Hertz on Monday, galloping across some airport, with some old gal cheering him on.
And in winter we swapped basketballs for footballs and ran on the snow-coated concrete of playgrounds and even the hard dirt of Central Park, using lampposts or trees as sidelines, pretending to be some stallion of the ’70s, from Franco Harris to Walter Payton to Earl Campbell. But before they became gridiron monoliths, there was O.J., who was then considered the second-best halfback in history, behind Jim Brown.
O.J. had what any kid wanted, the high cheekbones, the cool name and game and the smooth gait of the gifted athlete. You can tell if someone is good just by the way they walk. And the Juice had our attention.
So now we see one of our gods being pursed by a battalion of cops, all kinds of static and frantic talk about a gun and homicide and suicide and some guy imploring O.J. to toss the gun from the car. We didn’t need Tom Brokaw or Bob Costas to tell us how horrific or historic this was. I remember wishing this were some abstract nightmare, some Freudian mess I could fix later, and that I would wake up to see someone else in that white, cruising coffin.
Perhaps it’s blasphemy, but the Knicks really became peripheral, secondary to the primary event of the night, year, and decade. The Bronco chase became so hypnotic it was not hard to forget the Knicks were even playing. Even those at MSG that night spilled into the bowels of the arena to watch the drama in California.
The Knicks won the game but lost the series and it turned out to be a lousy summer after the Rangers. We had no basketball title, and still don’t. And even baseball canceled the World Series after the Yankees were showing the first fruits of a dynasty.
Like all born-and-bred New Yorkers, I was born with the native narcissism and view all affairs through the Big Apple’s core. June 17, 1994 was a New York story for me because all things are. But O.J. was the rare man and moment who transcended our city. And for a few hours we were all one family, shocked and wounded to see an essential slice of Americana twirl down the drain of history.
Much later, after the verdict, it felt like a firewall rose, almost strictly along racial lines, which was sad, because the beauty of Simpson was his organic ability to draw idolatry from all nooks of Lady Liberty. I remember being surprised by the verdict, but not happy or hurt by it. Some folks may think they won or lost that day, but we all lost, no matter the verdict.
Like Chris Rock famously said, he goes to his mailbox every day looking for his O.J. prize and has yet to find it.
I remember a nanosecond of excitement, not because I thought Simpson was innocent, but I wanted him to be Juice for one more enchanted moment, my preteen sense of heroism prolonged for 60 seconds. But he was gone.
Simpson would famously lose his noggin, charge into some hotel room demanding some slice of his past. Some see it and his subsequent prison sentence as a kind of karmic tax. But it’s hard to find winners in any of this, or that.
Some say it was the birth of reality TV, of cable as vital vein of news, or the death of some lingering innocence. But it’s clear that many dreams were shredded that night, lots of losers.
And so were the Knicks, who still haven’t won a title. Turns out there were really no winners that night.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.
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