On this day 20 years ago, Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson—who was scheduled to turn himself in to the LAPD after being identified as a suspect in the brutal double-murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman—lead the California Highway Patrol on a low-speed chase that ultimately ended with Simpson’s arrest in the driveway of his Los Angeles home. Driven by friend and former teammate Al Cowlings, Simpson created a two-hour spectacle that captivated the nation, but interrupted Game 5 of the Finals between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets, as NBC—where Simpson provided NFL analysis at the time—split coverage between the game and the chase. An astonishing 95 million people tuned in, engraving the most notorious police chase ever into both sports and popular culture history.
To fully grasp the infamous chase’s magnitude, you have to understand how high the stakes were during the Finals. The 1994 NBA Finals remains one of the most storied series in NBA history. With the New York Knicks facing the Houston Rockets, it pitted legendary centers Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon against each other with a championship on the line once more, as Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas and Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars battled in the NCAA Championship game 10 years earlier.
Just two nights before, the Knicks had defeated the Rockets 91-82 at Madison Square Garden, tying the series at two games apiece. The New York Rangers had just ended a 54-year championship drought by winning the Stanley Cup at the Garden the day before, and legendary Rangers center Mark Messier—the hero who scored the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals—attended Game 4, bringing the Stanley Cup to the Knicks’ locker room, and to mid-court during a halftime celebration for motivation. With the city on the verge of explosion at the possibility of two championship teams in one year, the stage was set for a pivotal Game 5 showdown at the Garden, where the Knicks had the opportunity to take command of the series. Little did anyone know, this would be upstaged by an event that would crash TMZ’s website if it happened today
It was a Friday night, the Rangers had just paraded the Stanley Cup through the city that day. The Simpson saga had been brewing on the other side of the country and was an afterthought out East. Then, out of nowhere, the series—which had been an ugly, low-scoring, defensive battle—was overshadowed in a way no one could’ve predicted. In CBS Sports’ The Forgotten Finals, then-Knicks president Dave Checketts said he knew something was wrong when he noticed vacant seats toward the end of the second quarter of a competitive contest. “A lot of people were not in their seats, and I didn’t really know why,” he recalled. “I couldn’t tell exactly what happened, so I did what I did all the time, which was turn around in my chair to watch what was happening on the screen. I turned around, and all I could see was the white Bronco.” It’s that vehicle and the frenzy surrounding law enforcement’s pursuit of it that would become better remembered than the outcome of the game.
As the chase continued and I saw the looks of disbelief on my parents’ faces in addition to people cheering Simpson on like he was en route to the end zone, I started to understand the weight of the situation. I know I’m not alone, either.
As word about the chase spread through the building, attention quickly shifted from the game to Simpson. For the broadcast, former NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol argued about whether or not to cut away from the game, which was being split-screened with the chase as Bob Costas served as the medium between both. But in the arena, the priority was clear as fans rushed for the TVs in the concourse. In this pre-smartphone era, no one was tweeting and there weren’t any memes flooding Instagram. Visually, the news was all coming from one source. By the end of the first half the Knicks led 48-37, but few remember this, or the skirmish between Olajuwon and Anthony Mason during the half’s final minute. That’s because even the 20,000 people present in the Garden that night barely saw it. The game had been reduced to a small, insignificant box on televisions nationwide.
The events of June 17, 1994 remain burned into my memory two decades later. Just a child at the time, I had recently been enthralled by the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Indiana Pacers made competitive thanks to Reggie Miller’s villainy. There I was, up late on a Friday night, fully-turnt off the kid-friendly combination of pizza and soda, totally unconcerned with TGIF summer programming because the Knicks had the opportunity to take control of the series. All I wanted to do was see the game and suddenly, O.J. Simpson’s life abruptly spiraled out of control. For a child, this was incredibly frustrating. But as the chase continued and I saw the looks of disbelief on my parents’ faces in addition to people cheering Simpson on like he was en route to the end zone, I started to understand the weight of the situation. I know I’m not alone, either.
Simpson’s NFL days ended long before I was born, so I was aware of his legendary status largely due to old ESPN highlights and stories from my parents. To me, he was the dude from the “Naked Gun” movies. On a scale of Bryant Gumbel to Malcolm X, he had secured his real estate in “non-threatening” territory. Based on what I heard adults rambling about that week, I didn’t think Simpson was responsible for killing Brown and Goldman. But, as the chase continued to prevent my viewing of Game 5, I couldn’t help but wonder what he and Cowlings were fleeing from, and why Simpson—who reportedly had a gun to his head—had to be figuratively talked off the ledge. I also began to ponder whether Simpson’s flight implied guilt and, on a more shocking level, if he was actually about to kill himself on live television.
As an adult looking back at the situation and all of its particulars, I understand now: this was end of O.J. Simpson, the hero. It was one of the first times I became aware of something we’re accustomed to seeing today now that the media in its current form—social media, to be specific—has torn down the veil of celebrity. Image could be built and destructed. In hindsight, the madness of the chase was perhaps the most indelible moment from a year filled with bizarre ones. It began with the Tonya Harding-orchestrated attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan following a 1994 U.S. World Figure Skating Championship practice. Mistrials were declared in the cases against Erik and Lyle Menendez for the slaying of their parents nearly five years earlier. The John and Lorena Bobbitt saga came to a close after Lorena Bobbitt beat mutilation charges on an insanity plea. Kurt Cobain killed himself in April and Jeffrey Dahmer was murdered in jail that November. There was an obsession with drama in 1994 that outshined Richard Nixon’s death, the MLB strike and Woodstock ‘94, as the famed white Bronco hunt skewed headlines past normal, a cultural shift that was reinforced later that summer with the Oliver Stone-directed, Quentin Tarantino-penned Natural Born Killers. Everyone watched that white Bronco cruise down the highway at 35 mph and saw the moment that created the blueprint for the media’s current sensationalism fire drills. It was a spectacle with an already built-in audience that thought they’d tuned in for Game 5 of the NBA Finals and got a generation-defining event instead.
The Knicks won 91-84 behind 25 points and 12 rebounds from Ewing, taking a 3-2 series lead. To this day, it isn’t Ewing’s then Finals-record eight blocked shots in Game 5 that everyone remembers. Though I hope we’ll never see another major news development intersect with a key sporting event again, the frequency of mass-shootings leaves me constantly wary. However, technology has allowed for near seamless transitions to other channels and mediums (God bless the Internet) that would prevent another scenario like the bedlam of Game 5. Twenty years later, both Olajuwon and Ewing are Hall of Famers, the Ford Bronco has been discontinued, and Simpson—as Sports Illustrated points out—is now known as inmate No. 1027820, a resident at Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada where he’ll most likely spend the remainder of his life following a 2008 conviction for unrelated crimes. In the eyes of some, he’s a victim of his own arrogance; to others, karma simply caught up with him. Nevertheless, the name “O.J. Simpson” adopted a new meaning after June 17, 1994, the night he stole the spotlight from Olajuwon and Ewing, trumping the NBA Finals due to infamy, not celebrity.
Julian Kimble just wanted to watch the game that night. Follow him on Twitter @JRK316.