The World Cup, NBA Finals, and OJ’s ride down the 405

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June 17th, 1994 will go day as one of the most fascinating days in the world of sports, a day in which events from the worlds of soccer, basketball, and football collided and intertwined to constitute a perfect dramatic storm, a day in which the personal problems of an American football icon from the past overshadowed the sporting events that took place that day. I watched this unfold and unravel in an Irish bar on Michigan avenue on an extremely humid evening in the Windy City on the first day of the World Cup, accompanied by a legion of German fans, who had just seen their team open defence of their championship with a 1-0 win over Bolivia.

The 1994 World Cup was being played in the United States for the first time ever.  Chicago was one of the many big cities hosting group games. The event was finally supposed to bring soccer out of the minor leagues and catapult it into a major sport along with football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The buzz was tremendous.  Chicago was host to two of world’s most promising teams: the three-time (and defending) champion Germany, and Spain, a perennial also ran who nevertheless always had a huge number of talented players. I was partisan to Spain (and still am to this day) since I had learned to love the game while I lived in Madrid during a one year study abroad program.  The Spanish had not won much but were always counted as favorites nevertheless.  Germany, as usual, was loaded: Lothar Matthaus, Ruddi Voller, Oliver Kahn, plus current USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann, just to name a few.

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Coinciding with the World Cup were the NBA Finals, being played between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. The Knicks big star was Patrick Ewing who was playing in his first NBA Finals, and he was matched up against Hakeem Olajuwon. It was a battle of two of the finest finest centers of their generation, and the second meeting in a championship game since Ewin’s Georgetown team had beaten Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars in the 1984 NCAA title game. Olajuwon, a former soccer player from NIgeria, had beautiful footwork and a sweet baseline jumper that was unstoppable. Ewing’s game was based on pure power and physicality; he was the NBA’s leading shot blocker and one of its best defenders and rebounders. Absent from the Finals were the Chicago Bulls, who had just finished winning their first of two three-peats the previous year, because Michael Jordan had left basketball to pursue his dreams of playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox.  The Knicks had knocked out the Bulls in the first round of the Eastern conference semi-finals, exacting revenge for the many times Jordan had kept them from advancing in the East.

Five days before the start of the World Cup, Nicole Simpson (OJ Simpson’s estranged wife) and a man named Ronald Goldman had been murdered in Brentwood California. This story was being covered 24-7 by CNN much like the First Gulf War had been in 1990-1991. The story dominated the airwaves and as it gathered momentum, it was beginning to drown out the NBA Finals and the start of the 1994 World Cup. As the story unfolded, it was becoming clear that O.J.himself was a prime suspect in the murder of Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman.  By the time the World Cup was about to kick off in Chicago, Simpson was considered a suspect in the murders and the LA Police Department wanted to further question him. (They had already questioned him once, the day after the murder, when Simpson had flown back from, ironically enough, Chicago).

I had planned to go to Chicago to see the opening game between Germany and Bolivia at Soldier Field. I traveled from Minnesota to the Windy City to meet my brother, who had secured the inaugural game tickets after holding on the phone for 3 hours. We planned a day of sports viewing. We first would watch Germany begin defence of their 1990 World Cup Title against an upstart Bolivian team. We would then head to a bar to watch the second game that day between Spain and South Korea, the other two teams in Group A besides Germany and Bolivia. We also planned to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals (the series was tied 2-2) later that evening.

The plate was set. A veritable smorgasbord of world-class sporting spectacle waiting to be devoured in the great Windy City.

When I arrived in Chicago, signs that the city was host to the world’s largest sporting spectacle, were everywhere: banners with the Cup logo, sports bar with signs proclaiming that they were showing every game. signs at the L and bus stops indicating how to get to the stadium. I got to collect one of those signs when a family friend, a Puerto Rican man who worked at the CTA, presented me with one of them as a gift. After giving me the sign, he also wondered why we were so excited to watch soccer, a sport he didn’t consider to be equal to any of the other American sports. I realized that the typical American fan, even one of Latin American origin, still viewed soccer through a different prism, and still didn’t pay soccer any respect.

On Friday, we took the L downtown.  After a quick lunch at Millers Pub, we made our way down to Michigan Avenue. The electricity was palpable as Germans and Bolivian fans headed towards the stadium, singing songs and waving flags. Some inter-mingled in the streets’ many cafes and restaurants. World-class soccer was alive in the Windy City. I’ve never been as exhilarated going to see a game.

The day was hot and extremely humid, and I got winded just walking to the game. I wondered how difficult it would be for the players to play in these conditions.  The stadium was jam packed, and one could see colors of various flags, jerseys, and banners, not just of Germany and Bolivia, but of many other countries.  I especially remember seeing many Mexican fans at the game.  Germany won the game 1-0, but they did not dominate like I thought they would. The Bolivians, who had one of their best team in generations, held their own and created some good chances but could never score.  The German fans vastly outnumbered the Bolivians, and after they scored, one could hear the roar of “Deutchland, Deutchland” reverberate around the stadium.

At the end of the game, we walked back towards downtown, past fans drumming and ratlling noise-makers, fans dancing and rejoicing, fans waving flags and yelling slogans. The World Cup party had begun.

On Michigan, just past Randolph, we spotted a bar with a sign: “All World Cup Games shown live via Cable TV.” A lot of German fans were going in and we decided to follow them so that we could get a good seat for the next game.  An hour later, Spain and South Korea played to a 2-2 tie in the Cotton Bown in Dallas. We would see Spain play Germany in Chicago 4 days later. Unbeknown to us, In LA, OJ’s friend Robert Kardashian and defense attorney read a letter in which Simpson sent greetings to 24 friends and wrote, “First everyone understand I had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder … Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great life.” This was widely interpreted as a suicide note, and reporters now joined the police in the search for O.J.

By the time the basketball game started at 8 p.m. central, the bar was now full of German fans, still decked out in white and green jerseys, and some even had flags wrapped around them. Most of them were were drinking Budweiser, which I found quite odd .  Shortly after the game started, at around 8:30 p.m., NBC’s Tom Brokaw interrupted the game with the breaking news about O.J. Simpson: he had failed to turn himself in for questioning to the LAPD, they showed his friend and attorney Kardashian reading of Simpson’s apparent suicide note; and the latest, O.J had been spotted riding in his friend’s Al Cowlings White Ford  Bronco on Interstate 405.

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What followed was truly a bizarre and captivating spectacle, one that would capture the imagination of the entire country, and one that would serve as the mere appetizer to the whole O.J. murder case trial. The game resumed for a while, but it was interrupted a scant 5 minutes later.  Out of nowhere, the White Bronco appeared on the screen, being followed by 10-15 squad card in a slow-speed chase on the the four-oh-five (as Interstate 405 is widely called).  NBC kept this image up for a while, but then returned to the game.

I was infuriated at first.  The game was very exciting, a pivotal Game 5 with the Finals on the line, and now we were being forced to watch O.J. riding in a white bronco ! As it became obvious that a distraught O.J. may actually commit suicide in the car as his friend drove, the story became too magnetic for NBC to ignore. As the chase continued, it became the main event, the game itself relegated to the small screen, barely visible.

As the White Bronco streaked across the freeway, followed by squad cars by ground and media choppers by air, legions of O.J’s fans began lining the overpasses, cheering for O.J. to flee. They held up signs stating: “Go O.J., go” and “We love the Juice.” It was a surreal event, and indeed superior drama even to the basketball game, a real life soap opera that Hollywood writers couldn’t have scripted any better. Questions buzzed around everyone’s mind: Did O.J. do it ? Was he so distraught that he would actually end his life ? How long would the chase go on for ? Would there be a violent confrontation at the end ?

The German fans were quite baffled by this development.  Who was in the White Bronco ? Why was the game being interrupted for this other news event ? Since I was initially very mad about this, I also shared my frustration. But as the importance of the chase became evident, I turned to one of the German fans and said: “Imagine if that was Franz Beckenbauer in the car.  Imagine if he had just killed his estranged wife, and the police suspected him of the murder.  Do you think then that this would be a bigger event than a World Cup between Germany and some other country ?” The German fan turned to me, the 16 ounce can of Budweiser in the air, a twinkle in his eye, and said: “Now I understand. This O.J., he was a very famous football player in this country, yeah ? He did a very bad thing.”  I took my Heineken and clinked it with his Bud, and said: “Yes he did. Now you understand why the chase is more important than the game.”

In what seemed to last hours, the Bronco continued its ride until it finally ended back in Brentwood at 10 p.m. Central time. The chase had lasted for 50 miles and a couple of hours.  Eventually, O.J. turned himself in to the police. The Knicks won Game 5, a result that I think nobody hardly remembers.

Germany was eventually eliminated by Hristo Stoichkov’s surprise Bulgarian team in the same bracket as Spain was eliminated by Italy, both by identical 2-1 scorelines. Brazil went on to win the World Cup, beating Italy in the first ever PK shootout in the Rose Bowl.  The Rockets beat the Knicks in what was a thrilling 7 game NBA Finals. And we all know what happened in the O.J. case.

 

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