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'Juice' on loose in most surreal 90 minutes of all time on TV news

The eve of Ireland’s date with destiny against Italy brought a Hollywood storyline to news channels across America, recalls Vincent Hogan

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OJ’s mugshot. Photo: LAPD/ZUMA Archive/ZUMA Press

OJ’s mugshot. Photo: LAPD/ZUMA Archive/ZUMA Press

OJ’s mugshot. Photo: LAPD/ZUMA Archive/ZUMA Press

In the hotel bar of the Marriott in Parsippany, we had commandeered an arcade basketball machine, maybe not the smartest shout given the thirst in need of slaking now.

Copy filed on the eve of Ireland's showdown with Italy in the Giants' Stadium, our day-long pre-occupation with the triple-digit heat of New Jersey and a tournament already finding reference locally as "The World Cup of the Heat and Humidity Index" was beginning to dissipate.

So we began imagining ourselves onto the hardwood of Madison Square Garden where, that very evening, the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks were playing out Game Five of the NBA finals, orange balls suddenly caroming wildly off just about every corner of the furniture around an untroubled net.

On a giant TV screen above the bar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were working their poetry in the Garden when - suddenly - the screen switched to a California freeway and the bizarre image of a white Ford Bronco jeep rolling gently west, pursued by two rows of seemingly unhurried police vehicles.

It took a while for the din of the bar to quieten and Larry King's voice to find traction.

Justice

"Simpson is a fugitive from justice now for almost 12 hours," he announced, his words stitched to CNN live images from a news helicopter, the world's most famous car-chase about to unspool before our eyes.

OJ Simpson, better known to some of us in that bar for cameo appearances in 'Naked Gun' movies than a stand-out gridiron career with the Buffalo Bills, was on the run having been formally charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

An utterly tragic and horrific story, yet for the next 90 minutes or so our almost giggling fascination lay with how America covered its news.

Crowds waved from almost every overpass as the Bronco, driven, we quickly ascertained, by Simpson's lifelong friend and former college and pro team-mate, Al Cowlings, eased slowly towards Los Angeles.

Some of those waving to the jeep held up home-made signs reading "The Juice is Loose!"

King was able to tell us that Simpson had a gun in the back and that he was threatening to hurt himself. He'd declared himself innocent of the murders before leaving what were now being interpreted as farewell notes to family and friends.

At a late afternoon press-conference, the content of one of those notes had been made public, Simpson writing: "Don't feel worry for me. I've had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real OJ and not this lost person."

After a day-long search, police had tracked him down in the back of Cowlings's Bronco somewhere in Orange County and, now, the California Highway Patrol was essentially running sentry duty as OJ made his way home to a sprawling mansion, just off Sunset Boulevard.

The assumption that he was suicidal drew 'expert analysis' from a psychiatrist first, a forensic pathologist next. A supposedly close college friend of his came on air, weeping as he begged OJ to give himself up.

Encouraged to deliver a detailed personality profile of Simpson, the crying man unhesitatingly obliged, declaring him someone who "always handles himself like a gentleman."

News anchors glibly speculated that, maybe, OJ was suffering "multiple personality disorder" here whilst declaring that Cowlings would be "vital here in talking him down." The man with a gun to his head was public property, you see, a rolling news story clearly more compelling now than any pituitary gods of the NBA playing to a skeleton audience.

Once off the freeway, the Bronco - hazard lights flashing - ran into traffic, people running along footpaths, blowing kisses, clenching fists. By the time they reached OJ's home in Brentwood, the road was clogged with satellite trucks that had, clearly, got there quicker than the police.

Movie

This was a Hollywood movie now, America completely lost in it. As the jeep turned into Simpson's drive, someone rushed at the driver's door, Cowlings aggressively resisting their attempt to open it. Two policemen intervened, dragging the unidentified male away.

Minutes later, Cowling's was out of the Bronco, gesticulating angrily towards police at the gate. And King, running commentary from a Washington studio, could calmly tell us that two photographers had "tried running across the lawn" and been instantly arrested. Then, dusk closing in, this movie stalled.

OJ, we discovered, was negotiating his surrender by "cellular phone" now and wanted to talk to his mother. As the light bled away, he was still in the Bronco, still armed and volatile, but - the world was assured - still talking.

Bizarrely, a dog came to the jeep (his pet presumably) and stood staring, closer to this story now than a frothing media, swamped by the dwindling light and an information flow beginning to run dry.

Eventually, our TV screen returned to the Garden, the broadcasters almost feigning normality again in a world now fixating with the man in the jeep and that gun in his hand.

What would OJ do?

In the bar of the Marriott, we finished our drinks just as the news came through that Orenthal James Simpson had been taken safely into custody. It seemed hard to believe that the hour and a half just gone hadn't been hallucinatory. But Italy and that concrete oven of the Giants Stadium slowly slipped back into the conversation again.

And we slipped away into the New Jersey night like forgetful movie-goers. Outside, the temperature remained hostile.

Outside was America.