I can't say that I remember it like yesterday, but I do remember very clearly where I was when the Juice was on the loose in Los Angeles.
I was 16-years old. I played AAU basketball in the summer with the Atlanta Celtics organization, and that day we were playing in a tournament on Cleveland Avenue in southwest Atlanta.
Playing with the Atlanta Lakers (at the start of the Atlanta Celtics, before Dwight Howard and company, we were all called different names based on our age. The Lakers were the oldest group; then came the Atlanta Warriors; then the youngest group was the Atlanta Celtics. After a while it just became easier for everyone to be the Celtics, so by the time I was in college the other names had cycled out and everyone was the Celtics – for the record) was quite an experience.
For any number of reasons I didn't know what I was getting into in the spring of my 9th grade year. I went to Tucker, which was a school that was about 55% white and 45% black, but the bulk of the kids I played with were from downtown, inner-city Atlanta. I was the only non-black player on my team and one of only two white players in all of the Atlanta Celtics organization (side note: the other white guy's name was "Ice" – wow).
My team practiced at what we all called Bedford Pines, but is now called J.D. Sims Recreation Center. My Tucker teammate and future Georgia Tech basketball player Darryl LaBarrie (he played for the Atlanta Warriors) used to tease me all of the time that there were more bullet holes at Bedford Pines than anywhere else in Atlanta.
That may well have been true, but perhaps not more bullet holes than where we were the day O.J. Simpson decided to get into his white Bronco and ride his way into infamy.
I was used to being the only white person around. After a few years of playing basketball in downtown Atlanta, that wasn't anything new for me. The Atlanta Celtics organization spent the summer cleaning up Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in order to get money to travel the country for our AAU tournaments (this was before Adidas and the like just wrote the check for you). So many summer nights (11 PM – 4 AM) for me in my teenage years were spent cleaning up peanuts, Coke, cheese dip and vomit with folks in prison-release programs.
Those were my teenage years – not exactly "The Wonder Years".
Back to O.J.. That day we were playing at the recreation area near Cleveland Ave in southwest Atlanta. Guys like future Georgia tight end and power forward Larry Brown, future LSU center and 76er Jabari Smith and future NFLer Earthwind Moreland were all my team. But we were all in for a bizarre day that day.
We were getting ready to play as day turned to night, and the lone TV in the recreation center was tune in to NBC for the NBA Finals which was about to tip. Then O.J. jammed his way into pop culture infamy with his California cruise.
I'd never felt so white – I guess that's the best way to put it – at least I should say it had never been so obvious my mother and I were the only white people around as it was that night. The entire scene was bizarre. No one knew what was next.
That night I knew what was coming down the line months later with the split-down-the-middle reaction we got from both races regarding the verdict in the case. For the record, as a 16-year old kid I certainly didn't care one way or another about O.J., but this was a big deal in the black community in which I was quite literally in the middle of that night.
I don't remember anyone cheering for O.J. that night – not where I was – but there was an air of giggliness about it… maybe because I was surrounded by a slew of young black men who, like me, could not believe that O.J. Simpson was doing what he was doing.
What, exactly, was he doing? 20 years later I think it makes a lot more sense, but that night in southwest Atlanta none of it did make sense.
To transition to more about college football and less about me: O.J. Simpson is just one of a growing list of controversial Heisman Trophy winners… but none nearly as infamous as him.
I've voted for the Heisman Trophy every year since 2005 (let me note that everyone in the media doesn't vote for the award, so I'm special like that). But I have to say that of the guys I have voted for three have had some post- Heisman issues.
The first guy I ever voted for was Reggie Bush in 2005… he had to give his back. Cam Newton, who once said I made up quotes about him – perhaps not remembering that I recorded our conversation – was the second controversial player I voted number one.
That was the most confusing, yet straightforward vote I've ever had. Someone or something around Cam Newton was dirty – perhaps Cam himself. But the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, said he was available to play in the SEC Championship Game. If the NCAA, bloodied, flawed and now falling under its own weight, says a player is good to go then that person is eligible to win the Heisman.
At that point the ballot is not difficult to figure out: "As my first choice to receiver the Heisman Memorial Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding college football player in the United States for 2010. To the best of my knowledge, he confirms to the rules governing this vote."
Of course you have the usual media blowhards that were trying to draw attention to themselves by saying: Hey, I'm a voter, but I am not going to vote Cam Newton… or I am going to protest the entire process by not voting at all.
If you don't vote then you are not a voter, and the Heisman folks make you very aware of that. If you are a Heisman voter, then you need to vote – not act like a spoiled baby not getting what they want.
But I thought something every similar, and much more serious, was going to happen this past year when Florida State's Jameis Winston (pre-crab legs) had some major, and not funny in any way, legal issues.
I really thought he was in some real trouble. I'm not convinced Florida State is out of the woods on that one yet, either. But, in the same manner as Newton, when State Attorney Willie Meggs said that no charges would be filed on December 6th, that meant, to me, that Winston was eligible to win the award.
I have to say that its pretty sad that two of the last four Heisman winners have had to be cleared in some manner – but that might be a sign of the times we live in. O.J.'s wild ride 20 years ago was a peek into the future in terms of the celebrity of sport, and our obsession and even elevation of normal people onto a pedestal because they can run, throw or catch like no one else.
Super athletes are normal, flawed people – never was that more clear than June 17, 1994.