Twenty years later: The night O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase crashed the NBA Finals

 Motorists wave as police cars pursue the Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings and carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson (inset), on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase June 17, 1994, on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.

Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

The limousine was going around to Manhattan hotels picking up NBC broadcasters. It was three hours before tipoff of Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Nobody was thinking basketball.

“He’s going to kill himself,” one person said.

Matt Guokas was the network’s lead analyst. He can’t recall who made the glum prediction, but there wasn’t much disagreement.

“Why do you think that?” Guokas said.

“He can’t stand not to be liked,” the person said. “So he can’t stand this.”

He was O.J. Simpson. This was arguably the most memorable, surreal and influential night in modern sports history.

Twenty years ago, Simpson got into a white Ford Bronco, pointed a .357 Magnum at his head and held America captive. It was the bookmark event for Generation X. If you don’t remember where you were that night, you were probably too young to remember anything.

It was bizarre. You had a sick feeling. It was very unnatural.

-- Matt Guokas, NBC NBA Finals analyst on the night of the O.J. Simpson car chase

“It was bizarre,” Guokas remembers. “You had a sick feeling. It was very unnatural.”

The scenes played out in Los Angeles, but millions channeled them through NBC’s cameras in New York. Years earlier, the network inadvertently made TV history with the Heidi Game, when it cut away from a dramatic NFL contest to show the movie about pig-tailed Swiss girl.

This time, NBC had to decide whether to stick with one of the NBA’s most important events or cut away to a police slow-chase of a possibly suicidal sports superstar who was threatening to splatter his brains all over his friend’s SUV.

The drama devoured everything. June 17 was also the start of World Cup in America. Arnold Palmer played his final heart-tugging round in a U.S. Open. The Rangers celebrated their first Stanley Cup in 54 years with a victory parade through downtown New York.

As if that wasn’t enough, David Hasselhoff had a pay-per-view concert in Atlantic City that was supposed to show America he was more than just a pretty lifeguard.

“This isn’t about making money,” he said. “I just want people to know I can sing.”

Elvis could have returned and done a duet with Mr. Baywatch, and it wouldn’t have mattered. O.J. killed the competition, and his biggest (non-human) victim was Game 5 between the Rockets and Knicks.

The series had PR problems to begin with: It was the first Finals in four years that didn’t have Michael Jordan. Neither team could shoot. America couldn’t stifle its collective yawn, though at least the principals seemed to care.

“People say this is not great theater or doesn’t have the drama of other Finals,” Knicks coach Pat Riley said then. “They’re not feeling what players and coaches are feeling.”

It didn’t help when Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, and her waiter friend, Ron Goldman were found slashed to death the night of Game 3. Then the Who-Dunnit shockingly turned to Simpson. He was supposed to surrender to police that Friday morning. A teetering Finals did not need this announcement:

“The Los Angeles Police Department right now is actively searching for Mr. Simpson.”

O.J. was on the run.

Simpson’s lawyers followed with another press conference. One of them sported a pompadour and a name that would one day invade pop culture like a swarm of lice.

Thankfully, Robert Kardashian didn’t have any of his three young daughters read the note Simpson had left before high-tailing with his old USC and Buffalo Bills blocker A.C. Cowlings.

“Don’t feel sorry for me. I have a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J., and not this lost person.”

Don’t feel sorry for me. I have a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J., and not this lost person.

An excerpt from the note O.J. Simpson left behind on the day of the Bronco chase

That’s what riveted America. Who was the real O.J.?

A congenial football god who’d carved a second act as an analyst, Hertz pitch-man and the lovably inept Detective Nordberg in the “Naked Gun” series? Or an abusive husband who snapped like a hall-of-fame sociopath?

If America was confused, NBC was zombified. Simpson wasn’t just an on-air personality, he was buddies with Bob Costas, Marv Albert and the entire Peacock gang. NBA sideline reporter Ahmad Rashad was one of the 24 people thanked in Simpson’s suicide note.

The makeup artists at Madison Square Garden were crying before the game. Everybody had to grapple with the Jekyll-Hyde question while maintaining their brave TV faces.

NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol sat in the fourth row at Madison Square Garden, watching a small TV screen with a phone glued to his ear. He talked mainly to NBC News President Andrew Lack. They were trying to figure out how to handle whatever might evolve.

A few seats away from Ebersol, NBA Commissioner David Stern lobbied for the network to stick with basketball. But 3,000 miles away, a patrolman spotted Cowlings’ vehicle on Interstate 405.

A police car armada soon formed. About 20 police and news helicopters swarmed overhead. It was reality TV before anyone realized what reality TV was.

The driver yelled that Simpson was in back cradling a gun and that the cops better back off. Cowlings may have been harboring a fugitive, but at least he wasn’t going to get a speeding ticket at 35 mph.

“I wasn’t running. I was just trying to go to Nicole’s grave and go to her,” Simpson told detective Tom Lange over the phone. “I can’t do it (suicide) here on the freeway. I couldn’t do it in the field. I want to do it at her grave. I want to do it at my house.”

The exchange made network air. Police started blocking freeway entrances to clear traffic. Thousands of people started lining side roads and overpasses, hoping to see the caravan of craziness. Signs started popping up.

As Matt Guokas called an NBA Finals game, the nation was riveted by O.J. Simpson.

“Go O.J.”

Newsweek described it as “Equal parts police chase, VIP motorcade and demented victory lap.”

You didn’t have to be Heidi to want to see more O.J. and less Riley.

"I think the nation was captivated by that,” said Jeff Van Gundy, who was a Knicks assistant at the time. “I think the teams were locked in very much to that series.”

They were about the only ones. Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 30th home run of the still-young season that night against Kansas City.

NBC’s announcing team didn’t dare go there. The final instructions from the broadcast truck:

"Do the game, but be ready for anything.”

The network would cut away to Tom Brokaw’s play-by-play of O.J. and Cowlings, it would return for Albert doing Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Patrick Ewing. The basketball guys were told not to comment on anything except the game. Talk about ignoring the elephant in the Bronco.

“I had a sense nobody was watching the game, or worried about the game or cared,” Guokas said.

Costas and the pregame crew turned their backs on the game to watch a monitor showing the chase. Fans wandered from their seats to find TVs tuned to CNN, ABC or CBS. If smartphone video had existed back then, 16,661 people probably wouldn’t have noticed if Ewing’s shorts had fallen off.

NBC opted for a split screen. Call it a half-Heidi. Midway through the second half, the Bronco pulled into Simpson’s driveway. A 27-man SWAT team was scattered about the property. Snipers were ready to fire if Simpson made a wrong move.

A standoff ensued. Networks scrambled for any morsel of information. A man identifying himself as Robert Higgins called ABC and said he was outside the driveway gates. The network quickly put him on the air.

“I see O.J., and he looks scared,” Higgins said.

“Thank you, Mr. Higgins,” Peter Jennings replied.

“And Bababooey to y’all!” Higgins said, invoking a catchphrase from Howard Stern’s radio show.

Jennings, apparently not a Stern listener, had no reaction. After a few seconds, Al Michaels broke the silence.

“That was a totally farcical call,” he said.

The whole thing seemed too farcical to be true. After 45 minutes, Simpson went into the house, had a glass of orange juice, called his mother and was put in handcuffs. No. 32 for the Bills became No. 4013970 of the L.A. County jail.

Police found $8,750 in cash, a fake beard and mustache and a passport in Cowlings’ SUV. As he was being led away, there was no mention of Simpson asking who won the basketball game.

“There’s nothing I can say to adequately convey what I’m thinking,” Costas said back in New York. “I had almost no interest in the game. I watched the news 90 percent of the time.”

For the record, New York won 91-84 to take a 3-2 series lead. The game drew a 7.8 rating, the lowest for a Finals telecast since 1979.

Conversely, 95 million people watched the chase and standoff on the various networks. That was five million more than watched that year’s Super Bowl. In fact, it was more than watched any Super Bowl until 2008.

Domino’s Pizza reported record sales that night. And nobody realized the obsession was just beginning. The Simpson saga spawned the Trial/Circus of the Century, where DNA evidence indicated a 1-in-57 billion chance that blood found at the murder scene was not O.J.’s.

His blood was all over his house, his gloves, his socks, his ex-wife’s condo, NBC’s ratings, Hasselhoff’s singing career and pop culture around the world. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to the U.S. a year later, the first thing he asked Bill Clinton was, “Do you think O.J. did it?”

The verdict said no. The O.J. jury would say that 20 years ago, Simpson was guilty of taking us for the ride of our lives.