What we learned covering O.J. Simpson case: We hardly know the athletes we think we know

The message left on my land-line voicemail that June night 30 years ago, the night of the infamous slow-speed white Bronco police chase, was short and not so sweet.

“Get to California!”

I worked at The Washington Post then, and sports editor George Solomon was quickly rallying his troops for one of the biggest stories of our careers: the arrest and trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Early the next morning, I flew from Washington to San Francisco with one job to do: Knock on the front door at the home of Simpson’s sister to see if she might speak with me. I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about this, but we had to try.

I knocked. She answered. Knowing I had just a few seconds to make my case, I told her I had flown in from D.C. specifically to speak with her about her brother. Could we talk?

She politely said no and shut the door. Not in my face, not by any means, but the door was most definitely closing and there I stood on her front stoop, my sole reason for traveling to California now over.

I went to a pay phone and called George.

“Go to L.A.,” he said. It was that kind of story.

For the next three weeks, I made Los Angeles home, joining a phalanx of Post reporters visiting with Simpson’s USC teammates, staking out the courthouse, speaking with the lawyers who were about to become household names and even having dinner at the now-infamous Mezzaluna restaurant. The night we were there, the only other patrons were fellow journalists.

For most people, the O.J. Simpson saga heralded the start of America’s obsession with reality TV. For me, it started a few months earlier with the Tonya-Nancy saga, as crazy in some ways as what happened four months later with Simpson, with one big difference: the figure skating scandal that riveted the nation for nearly two months began with an attack that only bruised Nancy Kerrigan's knee, spurring her onto the greatest performance of her life, an Olympic silver medal.

The O.J. story of course was, first and foremost, about the killing of two young people.

It’s impossible to overstate the shock that many felt when they found out about Simpson’s alleged role in the murders. Although he was famously acquitted in the criminal case, he later was found liable for the two deaths in civil court and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages to the Brown and Goldman families.

What we learned over the course of those few years was something we are forced to re-learn from time to time in the sports world: that we hardly know the superstar athletes we think we know.

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Simpson was the first famous athlete to cross over into our culture in a massive way, to transcend sports, to become even more famous as a TV and movie star and corporate pitchman than he was as a football player, which is saying something because he won the Heisman Trophy and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nowadays it’s expected that our biggest sports stars will pop up everywhere we look: on commercials, all over TV and social media, creating their own clothing line, sneaker, whatever. From LeBron James to Caitlin Clark, from Tom Brady to Serena Williams, it’s now a staple of our sports fandom.

O.J. started it all.

I met Simpson only once. It was at the 1992 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in New Orleans. We were in the headquarters hotel, on an escalator, heading down. We shared a quick handshake and a few pleasantries. Of course he flashed his deceptively engaging O.J. smile.

I never saw him again. Now that I look back on it, that escalator ride, going downhill if you will, makes a fine metaphor. It wasn’t even two years later that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were dead, and the O.J. Simpson that we thought we knew was gone forever.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: O.J. Simpson case made it clear: We don't really know star athletes