Most of the country remembers where they were on June 17, 1994, as they witnessed the first surreal moments of the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase . Houston fans remember it as the night they nearly lost their minds when NBC switched its broadcast of the Rockets-Knicks NBA Finals to show the former NFL star evading police as they pursued him down a Los Angeles freeway.
With the series tied 2-2, the teams were locked in a tight Game 5 battle with 6:39 left in the second quarter at Madison Square Garden when the broadcast suddenly cut away to offer an update on Simpson. Five days earlier, his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman had been brutally stabbed in the doorway of her Brentwood, Calif. home. Now the hall-of-famer was in the back of a white Ford Bronco, driven by college teammate Al Cowlings, as LAPD followed behind. NBC returned to the Rockets after just 42 seconds of game action elapsed.
NBC stuck with basketball for a long stretch, but as the slow-speed chase continued, the network decided—the Knicks now leading 59-53 with 3:40 left in the third quarter—to relegate its coverage of Game 5 into a box in the corner so it could show it simultaneously with the chase. Marv Albert’s play-by-play was swapped out too, as the network’s audio instead focused on minute-buy-minute reports of what was happening in Simpson’s Bronco.
That left Rockets fans scrambling for radios so they could still listen to the game while the rest of the nation fixated on Simpson. This was the team’s first appearance in the Finals since 1986, so they weren’t about to miss a minute.
The heat of the chase even reached the players on the court.
At a TNT luncheon in 2016 , then-starting point guard Kenny Smith told the story about what was happening on the Rockets bench during the chase.
“I go in the huddle during a timeout, I'm like, ‘O.J.'s on the run!'” Smith said. “Then head coach Rudy Tomjanovich comes into the huddle and we're all talking.
“[He’s like:] ‘What are you guys doing?’
“[I tell him:] ‘OJ's on the run!’
“[Rudy said:] ‘What are you doing? We're in the middle of the NBA Finals!’
“He draws a play up, we start walking out and he pulls me back, ‘Is he really on the run?'”
27 years ago tonight: As the New York Knicks pull away late to win Game 5 of the NBA Finals over the Houston Rockets, a standoff between police and OJ Simpson plays out in his Brentwood driveway pic.twitter.com/M4lac07PFa
— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) June 17, 2021
While viewers’ eyes darted between the two headline events on-screen, Simpson’s attention was allegedly equally divided as the Bronco chase wore on. During the 2016 NBA Finals, ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who was an assistant on that 1994 Knicks team, told a wild story about a chance meeting between then-head coach Pat Riley and Cowlings in the weeks following the chase.
“Cowlings waved him over and proceeded to tell him the story of why they were driving so slowly: O.J. wanted to hear the end of the game on the radio before he pulled in,” Van Gundy said. “And when Coach Riley told us that story, I was like, mesmerized by what really goes on. Like I could just see him having a gun to his head, saying: ‘Turn up the radio, A.C., so I can hear the last few minutes.'”
Here’s what the next day’s Houston Chronicle looked like, with Simpson getting plenty of front-page coverage, but the Rockets still getting top billing.
Matt Bullard, a reserve forward on the 1994 Rockets team, told the Houston Chronicle’s David Barron in 2019 that he remembers noticing that the monitors around the court were focused on the chase and being miffed by that. To be fair, the crowd at the Garden struggled for updates in a pre-smartphone era.
“My perspective was that the NBA Finals were the most important thing to have on TV, not a Bronco,” Bullard said.
As it turns out, the rest of the nation disagreed. According to Barron , Game 5 of that NBA Finals drew only a 7.8 Nielsen rating, making it at the time the lowest rated NBA Finals game since the early 1980s. In contrast, it’s estimated that 95 million people around the country watched the Simpson chase, which would have made for a combined 48.4 Nielsen rating.
The Rockets went on to lose Game 5 91-84 and fall behind in the series 3-2. Of course, five days later, seemingly all of Houston was celebrating on Richmond and Westheimer as the Rockets won two straight games at home to claim their first NBA championship.
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