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SUMMER OF ’94 WILL BE DEFINED BY O.J. SAGA

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It's been nearly two months now since the grizzly turn of events that transformed a waiter's errand of returning a pair of eyeglasses into a double murder and the subsequent apprehension and arrest of O.J. Simpson. The former Heisman Trophy winner has been in jail most of the summer now, piling up legal bills that would make even the Clintons feel lucky. As the world well knows, O.J. will soon get his day in court, and then some.

The commotion has been uncommon, even for a public figure. In many ways it's as if the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were just found. The crime scenes remain untouched. The roads in front of both Nicole's condominium in the heart of Brentwood and O.J.'s estate in the hedges beyond are off limits to traffic, adorned by YOU WILL BE TOWED signs. Not that that's stopped the curious. Road closures or not, the Simpson case has turned into its own unique Southern California theme park. First stop is Nicole's condo, the scene of the crime, then drive the two miles to O.J.'s place - timing it of course - and finish off the ride with the famous pear tart at Mezzaluna.At O.J.'s place you can marvel at the incongruity of the possibility of anything sinister going on in an area so peaceful, so guarded (not a home without a Westec Security sign in the front yard), and so rich.

The material world has been very good to O.J., that much is obvious. Also to his neighbors - at least until this current inconvenient invasion of hordes of the curious tramping on shrubs and flowerbeds.

The theme park's souvenir stands are apt to spring up anywhere. People on freeway off-ramps selling "Don't Let O.J. Get Juiced" T-shirts. Venice Beach stands selling "Pray for O.J." and "O.J. Was Framed" shirts and posters (next to memorabilia immortalizing Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix). One shirt shows O.J.'s face and says "He Loved Her, He'll Always Love Her."

There are no Down-With-O.J. shirts or signs. He is innocent until proven guilty and that goes triple for his fans. There are some things too awful to imagine, and this is one of them.

The case's developments get front page coverage daily, and lead the nightly TV newscasts. Certainly there have been more ghastly murders this summer - right here in L.A. there was the movie executive who arranged for the murder of his handicapped son, and his wife, for the insurance money. There was the Pasadena woman who hired out her husband's murder and then the hitman's as well, just to be sure. The Mendendez brothers case - Beverly Hills rich kids accused of killing their parents - continues its search for a jury that won't hang itself. Every day the gangs in South Central count up their tallies at sundown.

But it's the O.J. case that overshadows them all. It's the O.J. case that hits home. It's the O.J. case that further defines just how great the impact of sports and its heroes is on 20th Century American life. Because O.J. Simpson could run fast and hard, and not get crossed up by mere leg tackles, because he could carry a football for more yards in a season than anyone before him, he assumed a favored place at America's table. When O.J. shows up, give him a nice seat - and pick up the check. When O.J. auditions for a movie, give him the part.

To think that he might do something unthinkable cramps the mind and rivets the attention. To think that a star athlete would be on that side of the action.

There is really almost no precedent. As Herb Caen wrote the other day in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle (Herb Caen writes a blurb . . . about O.J. . . . almost every day), only one star athlete has ever been convicted of murder.

"That would be the well-forgotten V. St. Leger Gould, Wimbledon finalist in 1879," writes Caen. "Who was arrested for the murder of a rich Danish widow in 1907 (her cut-up body was found in a trunk he sent to the railroad station in Marseille, France).

"Despite his fancy handle, St. Leger Gould was hanged, appropriately," Caen finishes, along with this parting shot of gallows humor: "He specialized in the drop shot."

One hundred years from now, who knows what they'll be writing about O.J. Simpson. The happiest ending - for him and for all who connect with him - would be an acquittal, leaving the case's chief legacy - at least the O.J. part - the demonstration of the truly powerful aura a sports figure assumes (much to Charles Barkley's consternation) in our day and age.

Whatever the truth, that will always remain from the summer of '94 - the phenomenal time and attention devoted to the life and the trials of a pretty good running back.