Depending on your age, there are certain days and moments in United States and World history that even decades later you remember specific details about where you were, who you were with and what you were doing. Days such as November 22, 1963 (shooting of John F. Kennedy) and September 11, 2001.
For many Americans, especially sports fans, June 17, 1994 is one of those days.
Just based on the planned sports schedule for the day, it was going to be a busy day in the sports world.
The list of events included:
- The opening game of the first soccer World Cup held in the United States
- The final U.S. Open round for Arnold Palmer
- The victory parade for the 1994 NHL Champion New York Rangers
- A full Major League Baseball schedule including a game in which Ken Griffey, Jr. blasted his 30th home run
- The fifth game of the NBA Championship
But, as an awesome 30 for 30 broadcast for the first time last night on ESPN reminds us, the nation was captivated that day by a “chase” across a Los Angeles freeway that ended with the arrest of a then-beloved sports hero. It is estimated that as many as 95 million people watched the television coverage of O.J. and the white Ford Bronco on that summer night.
Given all that has transpired over the last 16 years it is sometimes easy to forget that in June of 1994 O.J. Simpson was without question one of the transcendent stars of the sports world and American culture. Known as the “Juice”, Simpson had captivated fans during his record setting college and professional football career. But even after his retirement in 1979, Simpson continued to be part of the American culture as a sports analyst, advertising pitchman and movie actor.
When his ex-wife and a friend were murdered in June 1994, Simpson was initially seen as a sympathetic figure before the police shockingly turned their investigation to the superstar.
By June 17th, it was obvious that Simpson was the prime focus of the investigation and when the Los Angeles police came on television and said that O.J. was a “fugitive of justice” it sent a shock across the nation.
At the time, I was in the warehouse merchandise store outside Camden Yards in Baltimore before the Orioles game with the Minnesota Twins and remember watching the announcement with many other fans on one of the television sets in the store. You could just hear the gasps of disbelief that such a prominent national figure was now running from the police.
As the documentary reminds us, the next several hours were very surreal as people both wondered whether O.J. was going to commit suicide basically on national television and also whether it really could be true that this man that seemed so personable and friendly on television could actually commit a double murder.
It was an intense night and in many ways one that forever changed American television. As the documentary also suggests, it was our first real blush of national “reality television” and that night and the months of televised court appearances that followed forever changed how celebrities are viewed in the United States.
While Simpson did not commit suicide that night, the American Hero O.J. Simpson died that night and was replaced by a polarizing figure who still today evokes very different emotions depending on the person and the situation. As we know, Simpson is now sitting in jail as a result of his own actions and choices which are ironically directly unrelated to the actions of June 1994.
However, there is no doubt that his spiral downward began on that bizarre evening when the world watched the former football player who captivated fans with his great speed and grace ride slowly and helplessly through the streets of Los Angeles.
That this was all happening at the same time as so many other significant sports events really made it one of the most interesting days ever in the world of sports and one that I and many others will always remember.