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.”
The Rangers’ parade “was overwhelming,” Adam Graves said (via Rangers.com). “Certainly, it seemed to go on forever, which was fantastic. For me it was the going from block to block and seeing how deep on each block the people were. I’ll never forget the energy that whole spring, which culminated with the parade. It was incredible.”
It was a feeling that the crowd brought to the Garden that night for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Never mind the seemingly impossible story that had been building all week on the West Coast, as evidence was leading police toward O.J. Simpson in the investigation of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. That had prompted only small front-page headlines in the tabloids all week — until Friday night, June 17, when, during the prime-time national telecast of Game 5, police began an lengthy, slow-speed freeway chase of Simpson’s White Bronco.
In “The Forgotten Finals” on CBS Sports.com, Ken Berger recaptures all the details of a fascinating series between the Knicks and Heat, the matchup of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and how the chase stole coverage of Game 5.
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. 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.
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.”
Word filtered down to the players at courtside and found its way into the locker room. From Berger:
The players and coaches were largely oblivious, though Smith, the Rockets’ point guard, remembers glancing at the TV monitors at the scorer’s table as he went to and from the bench for timeouts. “There wasn’t Twitter; there wasn’t Instagram,” [Kenny] Smith said. “We’re getting bits and pieces of what was going on. You just saw the televisions on the sideline and the chase going by. And I’m screaming on the bench, ‘Hey guys, O.J.’s on the run!’ And they’re like, ‘What?’ ” In the middle of the NBA Finals, we’re talking about O.J. on the run.”