Matt Guokas may have had the hardest job in America 20 years ago tonight. The entire country was mesmerized by a low-speed police chase on the L.A. freeways, and he had to watch a basketball game.
It wasn’t just a basketball game. It was Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Then again, it wasn’t just a police chase. It was O.J.’s wild Bronco ride.
Everybody over 35 knows the O.J. Simpson story. Well, everybody except 12 jurors who couldn’t spell DNA if you spotted them a D and an N. If you’re under 35, you probably have no idea how big the Simpson saga was and how it has affected your life.
So bizarre that Simpson could be crowned the most influential athlete in the history of American culture — or lack of culture.
To grasp that, imagine if he’d blown his brains out that night.
Or better yet, never (allegedly) killed his ex-wife and her waiter friend five days earlier.
First off, somebody might actually remember who won the basketball game. Sports fans tuned in to see the Rockets-Knicks, then the Bronco was spotted with O.J. crouched in back holding a .357 magnum to his head.
NBC started cutting away and eventually went with a split screen. On one, Tom Brokaw did play-by-play of the chase. On the other, Guokas and Marv Albert analyzed the Knicks’ scoring problems.
It was no contest. The game got a 7.9 rating, the lowest for a Finals contest in 15 years. The chase drew 95 million viewers to all the networks.
That was five million more than watched that year’s Super Bowl. Domino’s set a sales record that night, and the appetite for O.J. was just beginning. We were eventually served more than 25 books, approximately 9,827 National Enquirer covers and even a movie comedy titled "Orenthal — The Musical."
The chase was arguably TV’s first reality show. Instead of actors reciting scripts, cameras simply showed real people in strange situations. It cannot be coincidence that when Simpson went on the lam that morning, the attorney who read O.J.’s suicide note to media was named Kardashian.
Robert begat Kim, Kourtney and Khloe. Simpson spawned a media revolution. Nobodies like Kato Kaelin became celebrities. The Jersey Shore, Kate Gosselin and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Beverly Hills, D.C. and Karachi all should pay the Real Killer of Brentwood residuals.
Simpson blurred the lines between news and entertainment. CNN was almost wall-to-wall O.J. for the next 16 months. In a 2010 documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark said she initially got hate mail from soap-opera fans who had their shows pre-empted. Then they became addicted to O.J.
"They got really upset the Simpson trial was over," Clark said. "People would come up to me on the street and say, ‘God, I loved your show.’ "
Was that Judge Lance Ito, or somebody playing Judge Lance Ito? Courtroom drama became a cable TV fetish, even in Russia. When president Boris Yeltsin attended a summit in 1995, the first thing he supposedly asked Bill Clinton was, "Do you think O.J. did it?"
Without Orenthal, would media have turned downtown Orlando into Camp Casey Anthony in the summer of 2011, or Camp George Zimmerman two years later? Would Nancy Grace even exist?
Another winner: Jay Leno.
David Letterman didn’t do O.J. jokes because people were murdered. Leno told 795 of them in his 22-year Tonight Show career. The first couple of hundred, along with The Dancing Itos, helped propel him to a ratings lead he never relinquished.
Among the losers:
• David Hasselhoff. The Baywatch star hoped to ignite a singing career with a pay-per-view concert that night. It got lost at sea.
• The "Naked Gun" movie series. It was tough to keep the franchise going after Detective Nordberg turned into a real-life Mr. Hyde.
• The Bronco. Ford discontinued the line approximately two years and 43 million jokes after the chase.
The Trial of the Century also exposed America’s huge racial divide. We can’t really lay that solely at Simpson’s Bruno Magli-covered feet.
And we can’t say he was the sole cause of Honey Boo Boo, Big Brother, Snooki, TMZ, Greta Van Susteren, the NBA‘s mid-90s slump, the decline of Western Civilization, and Geraldo Rivera still being employed.
But when you size it all up, even an O.J. juror would have to admit the glove sort of fits.actor, concert, movie, music, tv