Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cut to the Chase

On this night in 1994, O.J. Simpson led the police on a slow–speed chase.

Many Americans were watching coverage of the NBA Finals. Houston and New York were tied, 2–2, when they tipped off Game 5 in Madison Square Garden that Friday night, and it was an exciting game. The score was tied at the end of the third quarter. On top of that, it had been a close series.

The NBA Finals were being carried by NBC, the network for whom Simpson had been an NFL analyst, and, when Simpson, a passenger in a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend and ex–teammate Al Cowlings, began leading the Los Angeles police on the chase on the freeway, NBC gave it split–screen coverage with the game.

Actually, the game got the short end of the stick while the chase was in progress. The game was shown in a smaller portion of the screen while the chase was in a larger portion of the screen.

NBC's affiliate in Los Angeles didn't even show the split screen. It just showed the chase — until after Simpson surrendered to police. Then it showed the split screen — when there really wasn't a reason to show what was happening in the yard of Simpson's estate.

By that time, the truly dramatic part of the chase was long over.

When the chase was in progress, though, there was a lot of drama. Viewers learned that O.J. had a gun with him.

June 17, 1994, would have been a rather dramatic day in sports even without the NBA game. The New York Rangers celebrated their first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years. Arnold Palmer played his final round at the U.S. Open. In baseball, Ken Griffey Jr. matched Babe Ruth's record for most home runs before June 30. But that Bronco chase is what people remember.

Shortly before, one of Simpson's defense attorneys appeared on TV to read a rambling letter from Simpson to the media, in which Simpson told those closest to him, "Don't feel sorry for me. I've had a great life." He urged them not to remember "this lost person." Many who heard the letter being read believed it was a suicide note. Simpson's lawyer urged him to give himself up, as he had promised (but failed) to do earlier in the day.

I have heard it said that the image of that Bronco was one of the most memorable moments on TV in the last half century — exceeded only by TV coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the scene of Simpson's eventual acquittal, the Challenger explosion and the death of Osama bin Laden.

The O.J. case polarized the nation by race. Whites overwhelmingly thought he was guilty of the crimes; blacks overwhelmingly thought he was innocent.

Twenty years later, blacks are more inclined to say he was guilty, CNN reported recently.

But 20 years ago tonight, the nation sat transfixed in front of its television sets watching the Juice's slow–motion run. Americans would take sides later. Twenty years ago tonight, they were wondering how it would end.

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