Twenty five years ago, the country was transfixed by a white Ford Bronco slowly driving down the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles in the late afternoon. There was a warrant out for the arrest of former football player and movie star OJ Simpson following the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her 25 year old friend Ron Goldman. That evening, all of the network news shows were focused on the chase down the freeway that ended at OJ’s home in Brentwood where Simpson was placed under arrest just before midnight on the east coast.
June 17th, 1994 has been become infamous, marking a major moment in pop culture along with the trial that followed. Everyone older than 35 years old can tell you where they were when they turned on the television to watch the chase. My father was in a suite at the White Sox game where they paid no attention to the baseball game on the field. I was one year old and my mother was happy that I went to sleep easily so she could spend the night watching. While I have no memories of the freeway chase, like many others of my age I have seen and read so much about it that it feels like I was there on some level. Since the chase was twenty-five years ago, a whole generation has grown up only knowing this OJ, not OJ the football hero. The memories of OJ for his incredible run against UCLA or his record setting season with the Buffalo Bills have largely disappeared. Thanks to the blanket coverage of the chase, the trial, and the other legal problems that landed him in prison OJ has long since changed from a sports icon and successful pitch man to a pariah. The FX limited series The People Versus OJ Simpson that was released in 2016 further cemented Simpson’s status as a bad actor for people too young to remember the night of June 17, 1994 or the nearly 30 years prior to that night when OJ was a hero to millions.
Marking this anniversary cannot be done without remembering the chaos that engulfed the sports world during the chase. Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets was being played at Madison Square Garden. It began as a golden day in New York sports with a parade for the new Stanley Cup champion Rangers that preceded the Finals game at MSG. The television coverage of the OJ chase famously started as a split screen on NBC with the finals game and the chase sharing the screen, but OJ quickly became the story. NBC continued to shrink the basketball game until it was both physically and mentally in the corner. The Knicks ended up winning that game, led by Patrick Ewing’s 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 blocks. It put the Knicks one game away from their first NBA championship in 21 seasons, but the Knicks lost the next two games, Houston won the championship, and the Knicks have now gone 46 seasons since their last title.
In the last 25 years, both OJ and the Knicks have faced a quarter century of futility. The Knicks have only had one other finals appearance, in 1999 where they were Ewing-less and were crushed by the Spurs in five games. Of course, many other teams have not won a championship since 1994 either, but in New York expectations are higher. And that makes “Knicks Nation” even more frustrated. Every positive moment is blown out of proportion hoping it is the team’s next big success. Only in New York would a bench player having a hot streak turn into “Linsanity” (now even he has a ring). But with the Knicks, the hype always seems to turn into hopelessness. Patrick Ewing is regarded as one of the best players of all time that never won a ring. The hopes that players like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis might lead them to a championship have vanished like OJ’s hero status. Steve Kerr turned down the Knicks coaching job to coach the Warriors. That has worked out well for him, to say the least. More recently, the hope of getting the most hyped draft pick since LeBron James, Zion Williamson disappeared when they received the third pick instead of the first in the upcoming draft. Just a few days ago Knicks fans watching the NBA Finals saw free agent hopeful Kevin Durant rupture his achilles, putting his career and his possible future as a Knick in jeopardy.
For 25 years Knicks fans have faced constant disappointment on the court and in the management ranks. “Knicks Nation” has watched in frustration as mismanagement and bad luck have plagued the franchise that seems further away from making the NBA Finals than it ever was. But much like OJ’s legacy, which has been defined by his transgressions, the Knicks legacy has not fared much better. But not every legacy was tarnished after June 17, 1994. Stock holders in the Ford Motor Company watched with delight as sales of the Ford Bronco went up after the chase. And while the Knicks won’t get a Bronco on draft night, maybe they’ll get a thoroughbred that will lead them back to the Finals one day.