Hakeem's first title? Or O.J.'s last run?
That was the choice that 95 million viewers and I faced twenty years ago, on June 17, 1994. But little did I realize that we were faced with a bigger choice: Whether or not to demythicize professional athletes.
And O.J., of course, is Orenthal James Simpson, Hall of Fame NFL running back, the first to rush for 2000 yards in a season. In 1995, he would be found not guilty of a double homicide, then liable for those same murders in a subsequent civil trial.
13 years to the day after his not guilty verdict in those 1994 murders, Simpson was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in a separate case. He currently resides in a Nevada correctional facility, eligible for parole in 2017.
On June 7, 1994, while Hakeem was driving the lane against Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, O.J. was driving north on California's 405 Freeway in a white Ford Bronco, on the run from the law.
And both were broadcast live on national television.
I remember where I was: At my cousin's, in the kitchen. I remember what movie they were getting high to in the next room: "Dazed and Confused." Such is the peculiar nature of adrenaline-fueled memories: The merest of details are stored with remarkable precision.
I barely remember the Finals between Hakeem's Rockets and Ewing's Knicks, although having chosen to watch the game on the 11" Panasonic in the kitchen, rather than enjoying the movie and its hydroponic trimmings on the giant Sony Trinitron in the den, had to mean I was engrossed in the hoops matchup.
What I do remember was NBC breaking into the coverage to show O.J. and a squadron of squad cars moseying up the 405.
Before I left for my cousin's, my father called me to our TV. Robert Kardashian (he of the famous-for-no-good-reason coven of daughters) was reading what sounded like a suicide note from his friend O.J. Simpson. Days earlier, Simpson's ex-wife had been found murdered, along with a young waiter, outside her Brentwood house.
While lacking a true "I did it" sentence, Simpson's note was a combination apology and tacit admission of guilt. It was shocking enough.
But what was on the TV screen now, hours later, was beyond shocking. Beyond any adjectives, really.
I was staring at the image of Simpson in the back of that white Bronco, a gun to his own head, police vehicles slowly and almost elegiacally in pursuit. I swear I counted 11 black-and-whites—eerily apropos, since O.J.'s gridiron heroics involved making 11 opponents chase him.
Then NBC switched to a picture-in-picture, with the game in one box, and the chase in another. I could watch both. Split my attention.
Or I could change the channel, and watch this surreal low-speed chase full-screen, and with commentary.
It was 1994. Roberto Alomar had yet to spit in an umpire's face. Latrell Sprewell had yet to choke a coach. Steroids were for bodybuilders. Tim Donaghy was a rookie NBA ref. Rae Carruth was a Colorado Buffalo. Lance Armstrong was an up-and-coming cyclist, who had not yet been diagnosed with testicular cancer.
In other words, even though Poison had already sung "Something To Believe In," sports was something I still had faith in. I had had no reason not to.
Make no mistake: Simpson was not my first hero-athlete to fall from grace. That dubious honor belonged to one Mike Tyson.
I had thrilled to Iron Mike as a boxer. I had never seen, still have never seen, knockouts like he assayed. That infectious, gap-toothed (or more accurately, missing-toothed) smile he flashed every time he flattened me in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out made me smile in turn, every time.
When Tyson could no longer hide his demons, I sorely missed the Tyson of my memories. But at least the heartbreak followed an orderly path. Tyson committed a crime, Tyson got convicted, Tyson served time. Justice prevailed.
Further, this was a guy who had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, and he had likely seen or endured things that made life more confusing and difficult for him than for most of the rest of us. So though Tyson's behavior was hideous, it was to some degree understandable.
Earlier that year, Tonya Harding's scandal was national news. But like Tyson, Harding came from a difficult background, which helped explain her situation as well. And justice seemed to come in the form of her failing to medal, while her victim took silver.
Ben Johnson? He was immediately caught and punished; the system worked. Pete Rose? It was easy to picture this ultracompetitive guy betting on his own team (he never bet against them), and like Johnson after him, he was punished in the most severe manner possible.
But perhaps most striking was this: Each of those people, at the time, ceased being the role model they once were. Certainly they ceased for me. And in my naivete, I thought the same was also true for the public at large.
In short, sports by and large still seemed like a place we could look to for heroes, if we looked carefully enough.
O.J. was different. It turns out he had a difficult childhood too, but no one watching from a fan vantage point could tell. He seemed elegant, polished and poised—a far cry from folks like Tyson and Harding.
Further, Simpson's time in the limelight had shone on long after his football career had ended: "the Juice" was a star on TV (the Hertz commercials I used to imitate when I was late for class in high school) and in movies (the hapless Nordberg in the "Naked Gun" series).
Simpson was even respected for his participation with charitable causes spanning all races and creeds: the night before the murders, he had attended a dinner to raise money for Israel. A photo from the event later surfaced; surrounded by beaming middle-aged Jewish women, O.J.'s charm and approachability were as evident as ever.
Bottom line: Simpson seemed in every way admirable.
But watching his Bronco mosey down the highway with nearly a dozen blue-and-red cop car lights shimmering in his wake, that same affable and classy O.J. suddenly seemed to be, in fact, a murderer.
There was a poem we read in high school, that seared into my brain because it stood out from the rest of the dated, weary, unrelatable rhymes we were force-fed: "Richard Cory," by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It was about nothing being as it seems.
Richard Cory is the coolest guy in town. Rich. Handsome. The guy every other man both loves and is jealous of. A guy who "glittered when he walked." Think George Clooney. Or in 1994, think O.J. Simpson.
You can look up the rest of the poem if you care to. But here is the last stanza:
So on we worked, and waited for the light,And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,Went home and put a bullet through his head.
O.J., right down to the .38 he was pressing against his own temple. The guy every woman wanted, the guy every man wanted to be, had apparently taken two lives, and was about to take a third—his own.
The coolest guy in town was cool no longer.
Despite this apparently horrific-beyond-description behavior, there were crowds—throngs—gathered on the overpasses as Simpson drove under them, cheering, pumping fists, rooting him on.
I'm not using the word 'crowds' idly. I don't have permission to publish the photo, but check this link out. If you've ever driven on the 405, let alone this juncture near LAX, you know how off-the-charts dangerous the highway is. Yet there are folks lining not only the overpass, but the guardrails, and even streaming out onto the road itself, to cheer for a man they had to believe was a killer.
One jubilant spectator was holding up a sign that haunted me, that still haunts me.
It read simply, "Run Juice Run."
This man was urging an ostensible murderer to flee the police, in parlance one would use to urge a running back toward the end zone.
In that moment, seeing that sign, I had two thoughts. The first was, "When the @!#$ did that guy have time to make that sign?" The second was realizing that for some, perhaps for many, an athlete's performance during their games excuses everything that happens before or after the games. Hit that homer, score that touchdown, block that shot, and all else—anything else—can be overlooked.
Since that day, it has become crystal clear to me many times over: Sports has no real sense of justice or even propriety. It's simply a business. Selling tickets, securing sponsorships, landing broadcast deals, marketing athletes with high Q scores, is what drives sports. Not the best man winning.
And we are so starved for heroes that when enough time passes, all is forgiven. Mike Tyson starred in "The Hangover" and has a one-man show on Broadway. Tonya Harding is the focus of a sympathetic documentary on ESPN. Heck, even O.J. was developing a reality "Punk'd"-style show called "Juiced" at the time of his second arrest. If you don't believe me, you can find it on YouTube.
I have realized in life that to find a hero, there is only one place to look: Inside ourselves. Because we determine our own behaviors. We can be the heroes we want to see so badly in our athletes. In short, though they told us to be like Mike, the real heroics come from being you and me.
And as my friend and editor Joel Cordes pointed out, even we will inevitably fail in that hero role, maybe frequently, maybe even spectacularly. But that's when we can look to the other heroes in our lives, our friends and family, and we can pick each other up, as Joel says, "knowing we all the share the same conditions of imperfection."
The point is, hero worship is a fantasy. And I have always preferred the truth to a fantasy. To me, the word "disillusioned" does not carry a negative connotation. To lose an illusion means to see the world as it is; why would anyone prefer an illusion to the truth?
I changed the channel that sweltering June night twenty years ago. I watched the coverage of the chase. I wanted to see a Bronco more than I wanted to see a Rocket.
And I realize now why.
I wanted to be disillusioned.
For Dim & Valentina, my Russian mom and dad. Rest in peace.