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'ESPN 30 for 30' - 'June 17, 1994' Recap

by Joel Keller, posted Jun 17th 2010 11:03AM
OJ Simpson pulls into his house during the infamous white Bronco chase - 'June 17, 1994' on 'ESPN 30 for 30' Most people who are over the age of 25 probably remember the major event of June 17, 1994. It was the day that O.J. Simpson and A.C. Cowlings took the Los Angeles police, an army of TV helicopters, and 95 million Americans on a slow chase up the 405 freeway. He was supposed to turn himself in that morning and be charged with murdering his ex-wife Nicole and waiter Ron Goldman, a story that had riveted the country all week long.

But to sports fans like me, O.J. wasn't the only story. The Rangers had just won the Stanley Cup, and they had their ticker-tape parade in lower Manhattan that day. Then, while the white Bronco was slowly making its way to Brentwood, the Knicks and Rockets were at Madison Square Garden, playing the pivotal fifth game of the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Arnold Palmer was playing his last-ever US Open round, the World Cup opened in Chicago, and baseball was chugging along despite the rumblings of labor strife.

Filmmaker Brett Morgen (who directed 'The Kid Stays in the Picture') tries to recapture that day in the documentary 'June 17, 1994,' part of the mostly-excellent 'ESPN 30 for 30' series. While Morgen does a mostly effective job of capturing the chaotic nature of the day, but he also tries to force feed chaos and drama into a day that didn't need any more of either. By doing it, he diluted the impact of what was a memorable day.

Morgen decided to do away with the traditional documentary conventions for this film; there was no narrator, no talking head interviews. Instead, he decided to inter-cut archival news footage of the day with raw audio and video from the various sports satellite feeds, along with audio of the police negotiator talking to Cowlings -- "I'm A.C. You know who I am, goddammit!" -- and Simpson by cell phone.

We see Chris Berman and Brent Musburger musing that no one is going to care about the Open because of O.J., a broadcaster at a Royals-Mariners game making "too soon" jokes about the murders, Bob Costas trying to figure out how to transition from news about the chase to talking about the game. The footage is cut in a manner that mimics a person changing channels, undecided on which momentous event he or she wants to watch.

For the most part, Morgen captures the powerful memories of the day. He illustrates well how this was one of the first cases of America being collectively fascinated by an event, prodded along by a breathless and all-watchful media. Remember, this was before the days of MSNBC and Fox News, when CNN was the only 24-hour news outlet out there. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. So this was an event mostly driven by local LA news stations with their ever-present helicopters, and helped along by the networks, who treated the story as if it was a presidential assassination attempt or a Space Shuttle explosion.

Morgen also does a good job of capturing the sports fan's dilemma that evening: watch the NBA Finals or watch the chase. I remember being at my friend Ken's new apartment, watching the game and actually being a little frustrated that they were cutting away so much to follow the Bronco (I also remember running out of gas on the way home that night, but that's another story). But I could understand why NBC seemed so confused that day; they didn't want to be behind on the story, but they also wanted to fulfill their contractual obligation to cover the game, which also happened to be a big ratings draw.

If Morgen had stopped right there, veering back and forth between the game and the chase, the hour would have been pretty powerful. But he decided to add the other events, even though they added little or no significance to the story.

I live in the New York area and remember the Rangers parade, but had no memory of it being that same day; I'm sure most people outside the area couldn't have cared less. The Arnold Palmer story was touching but didn't even enter most sports fans' radars that day, given the other events. And the looming baseball strike was a major story all summer long, but it really wouldn't come to a head until a month and a half later, when the players pulled the trigger on the strike that ended up canceling the World Series. It really had no impact on how people remembered June 17.

One thing that struck me about seeing the footage from that day was that it suddenly felt like a hell of a long time ago. And not just because of that silly mustache on Keith Olbermann or the fact that back then Robert Kardashian was known as O.J.'s lawyer and not Kim, Klohe, and Kourtney's dad. But it's a day that's stuck with a lot of people for sixteen years, and, except for the side stories, Morgen did a good job of helping people relive it.

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At first I was confused about why Arnold Palmer was included at all, but after some thought I think it was an insight into the way our culture looks at professional athletes. All the clips of people thanking him for his long career, cheering in the stands, and running down the greens to follow his last shots.. interspersed with clips of OJ's Hall of fame speech about his love for the fans and all the people cheering him during his career, then obviously further interspersed with all the footage of the Bronco incident.

So here's a beloved professional golfer, finishing out his last tournament, vs. an equally beloved football player who is considering suicide after killing his ex-wife. A pretty powerful contrast of their careers.

We exalt our athletes and celebrities because of their performances and what we assume about their personalities based on their public appearances, but can we really never know that much about them?

June 18 2010 at 9:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dave G

Dude, slight typo. Seventh paragraph, 3rd to last word... might want to change that to "big."

June 17 2010 at 9:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dave G's comment
Joel Keller

Got it... thanks!

June 18 2010 at 8:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I remember the day vividly. I was a cub sportswriter with the Washington Times and my beats were the NFL and the Orioles (backup writer). When the cops said they were looking for OJ, my bosses wanted me to get NFL reaction from OJ's former teammates. to try to reach some of his teammates, I called Vic Carucci who was then a beat writer in Buffalo and he said, and I swear this is true, "Here, why don't you try this number for Al Cowlings. He and OJ are good friends. He might talk to you." Of course, this was before Cowlings would be spotted driving the white bronco hours later. So, I call the number for Cowlings. His voicemail identifies it as him, "Hey, this is Al..." I leave a msg and continue on my day. ... He never returned my call.... Also, the Orioles had a game that night. Cant remember the opponent. I went to the game at Camden Yards. While the game was playing, we in the press box had our TVs on the NBA game, and part of the screen was showing the chase. As the game wore on, the box showing the chase got bigger until they werent showing the game anymore. What a day. And, nice review. I wish they would have just stuck with the chase and the game.

June 17 2010 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kevin's comment
John Paulson

Kevin sorry to get to this almost 4 years later but I did check check a website called retrosheet and the Orioles were at home that night against the Minnesota Twins. Baltimore won the game 9-2

June 07 2014 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


I think you nailed it in your review of the show. I remember that day VIVIDLY! I was 15 years old and as most boys that age, I was enthralled by all things sports. I remember the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup and the parade that followed. It was such a big deal because it had been 54 years since their last Stanley Cup (remember the chants of "19-40"). I also remember the Knicks-Rockets series and how intense and close it was. And I also remember the looming baseball strike being ever present (the Yankees were in 1st place in the AL East for the first time in many years).

Perhaps it was the NY-LA divide that made it such an odd and important day. Those of us on the east coast in NY wanted the game and typical sports news. This was our moment to shine (again...NY sports hadn't really had many championships before this year for a long time --- aside from the '91 NY Giants, it was the '86 Mets!!!). But this non-sporting event in LA was taking all the nations attention away. And it frustrated me and many others. But at the same time, we were still curious as to what the hell was going to happen.

I liked the show, but I personally would've gone the route of NY media vs LA media and who was competing for the rest of the country's attention. I felt like this was the moment that sports-media trumped actual sports-events as news.

June 17 2010 at 12:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joel Keller

I swear I've heard it referred to as the I-5 at times and the 5 at others. I've been in SoCal enough that I should have known the difference. Either way, I got the freeway wrong. I'll fix it to say "the 405."

June 17 2010 at 11:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How is Arnold Palmer's last round of golf not a big deal? How is the start of the World Cup on American soil not a big deal? How is a ticker tape parade in New York not a big deal?

That was the point of the documentary...there were all really, really big deals but were far overshadowed by the OJ situation. Even Griffey's home run, where he tied BABE RUTH for most home runs by June 30 is pushed aside as a minor detail where on any other day, it could have been the top story.

It's too bad you missed the point so badly because that was a great piece of television.

June 17 2010 at 11:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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