With some extra free time these days, I’ve been watching and rewatching sports highlights and old sitcoms on YouTube, including the 1994 NBA Finals.
The rough and rugged seven-game clash between Pat Riley’s New York Knicks and Rudy Tomjanovich’s Houston Rockets was not a showcase of beautiful basketball; it did, however, feature multiple interruptions of live coverage of Game 5 for news footage of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco on a California freeway as numerous police cars chased him.
June 17, 1994, a day that lives in infamy in U.S. sports history. Simpson was charged with two counts of murder that day, for killing his ex-wife (Nicole Brown Simpson) and one of her friends (Ron Goldman).
O.J. Simpson was a fugitive on the run.
How the game ended
Looking back at the intense game and its multiple skirmishes, it’s surprising that nobody was ejected.
The Knicks beat the Rockets 91-84 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Houston. Back-to-back losses in Texas ended New York’s hopes of its first championship since the 1972-73 season. Knicks fans in Gotham and beyond are still waiting for another title.
Hakeem Olajuwon had 27 points and eight turnovers for Houston in the loss.
Knicks pivot Patrick Ewing delivered a 25-point, 12-rebound, eight-block performance.
O.J. Simpson news footage
This version of the broadcast includes multiple interruptions of the game as NBC News and anchor Tom Brokaw provided updates on the developing story:
Helicopter footage of the car chase and updates from the ritzy Brentwood neighborhood after the Ford Bronco’s arrival were captured live.
Revisiting Game 5
USA Today published a look back at Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals in October 2016, which began this way:
“It’s arguably the craziest sports and culture crossover that’s ever transpired: As the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets played Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals, the world simultaneously watched O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings drive through Los Angeles freeways while being chased by police.
“As it turns out, the Rockets were watching too.
“At a TNT luncheon on Tuesday, former Rocket Kenny Smith remembers sitting on the bench during a timeout in that crucial Game 5 and catching something on one of the televisions sitting at the media table nearby.”
Coverage in The Washington Post
Twenty years after that unforgettable night, The Washington Post looked back at the story as it unfolded. The online version of the story, penned by Cindy Boren, was entitled “The night a white Bronco chase stole the 1994 NBA Finals.”
Boren crafted a memorable story that opened this way:
“Twenty years ago this month, the city of New York and Madison Square Garden were rocking. The Rangers were about to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 53 years and the Knicks were playing the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.
“And then perhaps the most surreal day in the history of sports happened.
“New Yorkers were partying as the Rangers kicked June 17, 1994, by parading through downtown Manhattan. ‘It was an amazing feeling just to be in New York at that particular time,’ John Starks told ESPN Radio. ‘You had both teams in the playoffs, both in the Finals, and the city was just electric. You couldn’t get no sleep. I still have people come up to me today and just talk about that time, how they didn’t sleep for about two months.”
More details of the O.J. Simpson saga
Boren referenced a CBSSports.com article by Ken Berger (“Forgotten Finals: Remembered for all the wrong reasons”) to highlight how the broadcast transformed from normal to unbelievable.
“In a suite high above the Garden floor, (Knicks President Dave) Checketts saw something he never imagined he’d witness in a Finals game in his own building.
“ ‘A lot of people were not in their seats, and I didn’t really know why,’ Checketts said. ‘I couldn’t tell exactly what happened, so I did what I did all the time, which was turn around in my chair to watch what was happening on the screen. I turned around, and all I could see was the white Bronco.’
“ ‘At first,’ (Knicks General Manager Ernie) Grunfeld said, ‘I thought it was a commercial. Suddenly, no one was paying attention to the game.’ ”
Boren cited Berger’s report to include these details, too: “Newsday’s Neil Best told Berger that he noticed that Bob Costas, the pregame and halftime host, was watching something else on a TV monitor. He was looking at images of Simpson’s friend, Al Cowlings, driving Simpson in the Bronco with the California Highway Patrol in pursuit.’ ”
The Washington Post writer then offered this historic info: “NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBC President Dick Ebersol were, according to Berger, arguing about whether the network should cut away from the game. As halftime approached, it was an increasingly moot topic. NBC was showing the Bronco and the game in split-screen, then the chase was the main image with the game in a corner cut-in. Finally, Best told Berger, ‘The only people in the country who were seeing the game were the people in the arena.’ ”