Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Time Flies; The White Bronco, Not So Much

Sometime around the age of 30, it seemed as if someone had pressed the "double-speed" button on the remote control of my life. I remember my parents telling me how quickly time seemed to move once they got older, but I found that such assurances don't prepare you to handle the true surrealism of it. Now, when I'm asked how long ago some event occurred, I've learned to literally double my gut-estimate, and that usually pegs it just about right.

Anyway, all of this to say I was a bit surprised when an old coworker of mine reminded me on Facebook the other day that it was the 15th anniversary of the murders of O.J. Simpson's wife and her friend. And today, a few days later, is the 15th anniversary of the infamous low-speed chase on the freeways of Los Angeles after Simpson was named as the suspect in the murders.

What a strange week that was. My children, at the time, were 23 months old and five months old, respectively. What they know of O.J. Simpson is that he's a murderer and a pariah (and until recently walked free because of an incompetent prosecution). I've realized that it is impossible for them to understand what O.J. Simpson was before he killed these two people. If there is any former athlete today who is as personally adored as O.J. was, I can't think of him. Through talk shows, movies, sports commentary, and commercials, O.J. Simpson had woven himself into the fabric of American society in a way that even Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan could envy. I have no idea if they ever actually did favorability ratings on the guy, but if they did, I would be O.J. would've scored in the top 10% of all public figures in America.

That's what made that week so surreal. For those too young to have been there when O.J. was on top, it would be as if...oh, I don't know...Tom Hanks were suddenly being chased down the highway by the LAPD as a murderer.

That Friday is still very vivid in my mind. I was covering the Cardinals for KFNS, the all-sports station in St. Louis. After each game, we would do a live recap show from some local establishment featuring interviews with players. Right before the game, the television in the press lounge was blaring the press conference being held by the LAPD. Gil Garcetti, the district attorney, announced that not only was Simpson being charged with the murders, but that at that moment he was also a fugitive from justice. The jaded denizens of the press box literally gasped, as did the media members covering Garcetti on television. Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian haltingly read what appeared to be a suicide note from O.J. It was unreal.

It got weirder. A few innings into the game, someone came out of the lounge into the open air pressbox at the old Busch Stadium and told us that Simpson had been found and was being chased on the freeway. A bunch of us ran in to begin watching the drama unfold, while simultaneously trying to keep one eye on the game we were actually covering. All I remember is that the game finally ended, and I ran down to the clubhouse with the tape recorder to try to do interviews. It was useless. The players on both teams were repeating the scene from the press lounge, lined up in rows in front of the clubhouse televisions watching it all happen. I got some perfunctory comments about the game (the Cardinals had lost to the Pirates) from manager Joe Torre and a few others and scrambled off to some bar on Highway 40 we were doing that night's show from.

By the time I got back to the broadcast location, it became clear that nobody was interested in that night's game (nor in the NBA Finals game that had also been played). O.J. was now sitting in his Bronco on his driveway in Brentwood surrounded by SWAT teams. The worst-case scenario was looking more and more possible, and most of us were thinking "shootout." Right after I arrived with my post-game interview tapes that nobody cared about, we did a phone interview about O.J.'s legal situation with Jon Sloane, the station's morning host who was also an attorney. Then the station's general manager (who, as per usual on such occasions, was drunk out of his mind, and whose name is cleverly hidden in this series: xzxkszBobBurchxxxzx), who happened to be at the bar that night for some inexplicable reason, boozily ordered us to go back to the studio and start doing what turned out to be several hours of O.J. coverage. Man, did we scramble that night. We got one of O.J.'s NBC Sports colleagues (Todd Christiansen) on the phone late in the evening to give us his reactions. We strung a microphone into a little room at the station that had a TV in it and put the microphone up to the speaker on the TV set so that we could "carry" the LAPD press conference after Simpson's surrender.

The next day was the mug shot, and O.J. Simpson became the O.J. Simpson we now know. Decades later, it seems like it was never any other way. Jonnie Cochran and Robert Kardashian are long dead (with Kardashian's name now far more associated with his bimbo TV daughters than with him). Todd Christiansen has gotten rid of his mullet. Joe Torre went on to some moderate success after being let go by the Cardinals. My kids are now nearly 17 and 15 1/2. Fittingly, O.J. is spending this anniversary in prison, as he deserves. Though justice was not done in the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Smith, his criminal nature ultimately got the best of him and landed him where he belongs, albeit 14 years too late.

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