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Kareem and OJ: Crime and Punishment

An exclusive excerpt from I Wear the Black Hat

I had to take a lot of psychological tests. These tests asked certain questions. One of the questions was, “When you walk into a room, do you think everybody’s looking at you?” Yes! “When you walk into a room, do you feel people are talking about you?” Yeah, I do. Now, if a normal person says “yes” to those questions, they have some kind of complex. They have some kind of problem. But (for me), it’s true. I know when I walk into a room, people are looking at me. I know when I walk into a restaurant, people are talking about me.

— O. J. Simpson, telling the truth

I didn’t really seek attention. I just wanted to play the game well and go home.

— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, being honest

It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common. We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky — for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife. This is more than a significant detail. But let’s think about that specific dissonance last. Before we examine what makes them different, here’s what makes them similar …

  1. Both are known by names that do not reflect their original identities. Abdul-Jabbar was born Lew Alcindor, which he changed for religious reasons; Simpson was born “Orenthal James” but chose to go by his initials for simplicity and panache.
  2. Both attended college in Los Angeles during a period of massive social upheaval: Abdul-Jabbar arrived at UCLA in 1965, while Simpson showed up at USC in 1967.
  3. Both were culturally defined by their response to identity politics. Jabbar refused to participate in the ’68 Olympics in accordance with the black power movement and has recalled an “antiwhite” phase he explored during high school; Simpson is generally viewed as the first black athlete who was able to break into the white world of advertising endorsements on a national scale.
  4. Both had high-profile relationships with white women (and were unjustly criticized for it).
  5. Both began their professional careers in small markets (Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee, Simpson in Buffalo) and both finished on the West Coast (L.A. and San Francisco).
  6. Both were the premier superstars of their respective sports throughout the 1970s. This is unquestionably true for Abdul-Jabbar, the winner of six NBA MVPs from 1971 to 1980. It’s a more debatable designation for Simpson, but he was absolutely the best running back in an era dominated by the running game.
  7. Both played at least one season longer than they should have.
  8. Both became actors who are best remembered for supporting roles in absurdist, farcical comedies directed by David Zucker (Kareem in Airplane!, O.J. in the Naked Gun series).
  9. Both are — to wildly varying degrees — vilified figures. One was vilified slowly, for reasons that were shallow and often specious. The other was vilified suddenly and dramatically, in a way history will never forget. But they each illustrate something uncomfortable about the relationship between those who are famous and those who consume fame. There is a collective expectation that celebrities — and especially black celebrities — will calibrate their relationship to the public within a specific window of acceptable exposure. They will not be too private or too public. The size of the window is different for every person, but it always (somehow) exists. And if a celebrity drifts outside that space — in either direction, and for any purpose — that (somehow) validates whatever people believed about them in the first place.

 

I am not, in any way, trying to argue that the “unpopularity” of O. J. Simpson is mainly a reflection of his media persona. This would be like claiming Christianity became popular because people trust beards. The reason Simpson is despised is because virtually all rational humans believe he brutally murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown and a handsome waiter named Ronald Goldman (who happened to be at Brown’s home when the killer showed up on the evening of June 12, 1994). After a trial that lasted almost a year, Simpson was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. It’s still not totally clear how this happened. The best argument is that the Los Angeles Police Department wrecked the prosecution’s case by attempting to frame an already guilty man. Another strong possibility is that the prosecuting attorneys were amazingly inept and choked under the pressure. Still another theory suggests that the jury was unconsciously equalizing centuries of racial unfairness by allowing the black Simpson to walk for a crime he clearly committed; a more insulting (but not impossible) hypothesis is that the members of the jury were not educated enough to understand the magnitude of the DNA evidence. There is, I suppose, the infinitesimal possibility that Simpson actually was innocent, and that the twelve members of the jury are the only twelve Americans who saw this case devoid of bias; a handful of rogue contrarians have made the argument that the murders were actually committed by O.J.’s son Jason, which is slightly less ridiculous than it sounds (but only slightly).

I’m not going to try and reprove the state’s case against Simpson, because no person needs that. What I’m interested in is the period after Simpson’s acquittal, considered from the (fictional) perspective of an honest, wrongly persecuted O.J. It necessitates an ethical question that is rarely asked: If you were wrongly accused of murder and found not guilty, how would you live the rest of your life, particularly if everyone in the world still believed you were the murderer?

“I advised him, and many people advised him, to do what Claus von Bülow did after he was acquitted [of trying to kill his wife]: disappear from the public view.” These are the words of Alan Dershowitz, von Bülow’s appellate lawyer in 1984 and an advisor to Simpson’s defense team. He said these words in a documentary titled O.J.: Monster or Myth?, an ostensibly pro-Simpson film that makes O.J. seem extra guilty. “Of course, O. J. Simpson never followed that advice,” Dershowitz continued. “On the night of the acquittal, he called in to The Larry King Show.”

Because Simpson has always seemed so bombastically culpable, it’s impossible to view his post-trial profile in any other way. But for a moment, let’s pretend: Let’s pretend that you are O.J. and that you are innocent. Let’s pretend that someone you once loved was murdered, and every coherent person in the world assumed you were the killer. Let’s pretend you were acquitted in a trial that everyone watched on television, so the espoused wrongheadedness of the outcome is culturally omnipresent. Let’s also pretend your skin color is a central aspect of the conversation, and that you’ve already been famous for twenty-five years before any of this had happened, and that Joni Mitchell has written a song about you (sarcastically titled “Not to Blame”) that doubles as a backhanded condemnation of Jackson Browne’s relationship with Daryl Hannah.

How would you live the rest of your life?

There are three options:

  • The first option would be to leave the country and live as an exile in someplace like Australia or France. At first, this will seem like the smart move. It almost feels like the obvious move. But it has some glaring downsides. On a practical level, it would mean abandoning or uprooting your children (who, in theory, would now need you more than ever). Despite being found not guilty in the criminal trial, you would still need to return to the U.S. for the inevitable civil trial. But these are the small problems. The larger problems are more metaphoric. If you’re innocent, leaving a country you love makes it seem like you’re imprisoning yourself. It’s like self-imposing a penalty for a crime you did not commit. More important, fleeing the country as an innocent person makes you seem guilty. One assumes part of Alan Dershowitz’s advisement to Simpson was based on the fact that Dershowitz never believed his client hadn’t committed the crime he was acquitted of.
  • A second option would be to exit public life while remaining in America. This feels like a reasonable tactic. Yet it would be virtually hopeless, even in the bygone twentieth century. Simpson had been appearing on television commercials for over twenty years (most notably for Hertz rent-a-car) when he suddenly found himself featured on multiple TV networks, all day long, for over a year. This would not be a situation like J. D. Salinger, where only weirdos wanted to find you; you’d be hunted by tabloids on a daily basis (particularly if you were putting sincere effort into being unseen, thus making every image even more valuable). You also have to consider how unnatural this shift would feel to a person of O.J.’s stature; for most of his life, being famous was the best part of who he was. It was the intangible reward for being fast and difficult to tackle and socially intelligent; it granted him access to a tier of society that would have normally shut him out, and it allowed him to date women who looked like Nicole Brown.
  • The third option — and the one Simpson selected — was to actually live like the innocent person he portrayed himself to be. He actively looked for publicity and tried to monetize his experience (which seems callous, but — were he truly innocent — not undeserved). He played a shitload of golf. He went to all the Los Angeles restaurants he’d missed when he was in jail. He did not show any remorse, based on the principle that there was nothing for him to feel remorseful about; he did not express a preponderance of grief over the death of his ex-wife, but she’d now been dead for over a year. Imagine the emotional complexity of living inside that situation: Would there not be an overwhelming desire to return to the amazing life you once had? Would a return to this life not seem owed to you?

When considered objectively, Simpson’s public profile during the late 1990s accurately reflects the reasonable response of a stubborn, egocentric person who did not murder two people. In a weird way, it’s the strongest argument in his favor (and maybe the only one). But it was a terrible, terrible move — and not just because I believe he murdered those two people. It would have been a terrible move even if he had not. He forced people to hate him, even if they barely cared.

It took me a while to figure out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not beloved. When I became obsessed with basketball in 1980, he was my second-favorite player, and I just assumed this opinion was roughly shared by everyone (because Kareem was the best player, and — since I was eight — I assumed people were obligated to respect whoever was the best at anything). But I slowly got the impression my dad didn’t like him, and neither did my older brothers. And whenever people interviewed him on TV (about anything that wasn’t directly tied to a game he’d just finished), the questions always seemed obtuse and insulting, and Kareem always seemed annoyed or bored (or both). In January of that year, Sports Illustrated ran a profile on Abdul-Jabbar titled “A Different Drummer” that depicted itself as evidence that Abdul-Jabbar was becoming a more open, less moody superstar (moody was the word everybody always used). But this, of course, is not how magazine profiles operate. When a reporter claims that his or her subject is evolving in a positive manner, it’s inevitably a way to catalog every unspecific criticism that has ever been levied against that subject in the past. It allows the reporter to be negative without taking any responsibility (because how can a story be considered a hit piece if the alleged takeaway is how the target is becoming a better person?). The story opens with a description of how a crowd at the Forum did not boo when informed by the PA announcer that Abdul-Jabbar had a migraine headache. Was Kareem supposed to feel good about this? Is he supposed to be elated that people didn’t blame him for being incapacitated? Later, the writer asks Abdul-Jabbar how he felt about the way the media had reversed its position on him, suddenly deciding that he was a better player than Bill Walton (who they’d collectively argued was the more complete NBA center in 1977): “I view that with total cynicism,” he replied. Which was both a) the correct answer and b) proof that he wasn’t changing at all.

If you tried to sum up Abdul-Jabbar’s lifelong problem with the public into one thought, it would be that he was “not likable” — not necessarily unlikable, but distant and difficult to love. He had an adversarial emotional compass; it seemed like you were supposed to appreciate him more than you were supposed to root for him, which is acceptable in every idiom except sport. Like so many unusually tall people, it was hard for Kareem to seem ecstatic about playing basketball. The profession didn’t feel like his choice. For agile seven-foot skeletons, basketball is rarely an obsession. It’s a game they are pressured to pursue, usually before they turn thirteen years old. [Former NBA guard Steve Kerr has noted that a key exception to this inclination is Tim Duncan, a six-foot-eleven adult whose infectious love for basketball mirrors that of a caffeinated five-foot-eleven schoolboy. This might explain why Duncan is liked by almost everyone, despite sharing the same stoic, mechanical demeanor as Abdul-Jabbar.] If a great tailback decides that football is barbaric, he can run track or wrestle; if a gifted shortstop finds baseball unsatisfying, he can usually excel at golf or tennis. Undersized hoop prodigies are inevitably good at every possible athletic pursuit, so they’ve consciously selected basketball over everything else. [I have no doubt that — had he chosen differently — Steve Nash would have been the greatest soccer player in Canadian history.] But such alternatives do not exist for human giants, and Kareem is the best example. This is not to say that he hated the game of basketball, because that would be untrue (if you count high school, he played it for twenty-eight consecutive years). All it means is that Abdul-Jabbar didn’t really have agency in the matter. There was no better option for how he could spend his life. And what made Kareem so different was his total unwillingness to pretend that he did not know this.

There’s a B-side from the rock band Pearl Jam titled “Sweet Lew,” written by guitarist Jeff Ament (the “Lew” in its title refers to Jabbar’s Christian name). If you listen to the song casually, you wouldn’t immediately perceive it as a criticism of Abdul-Jabbar, as the lyrics are mostly complimentary and kind of juvenile ["Wilt the Stilt had nothing on you / Lambchops and Afro-do, Milwaukee Bucks and a barbecue"]. But Ament’s interior motive for writing the song was based on a negative encounter he had with Abdul-Jabbar upon meeting him at a charity event. Ament (a lifelong hoop fan and a decent player as a high school student in Montana) was deeply hurt by Abdul-Jabbar’s abject lack of interest toward his personal fandom. He didn’t even pretend to care. This is telling. What made Pearl Jam dissimilar from their platinum-selling peers (most notably Nirvana) was that — despite being completely suffocated by a level of fame they did not anticipate — they still felt an obligation to appreciate the people who bought their records. Perhaps they did this naturally, or perhaps they did this as a social compulsion. Either way, Pearl Jam has always felt a responsibility to return whatever adoration was directed toward their existence. The motive of that return is beside the point, because the effort is what matters. It’s certainly possible to dislike Pearl Jam’s music, but you can’t hate them as people, unless a) you believe they are somehow fake and b) you have some kind of teenage punk fixation on realness. To any normal person, a facsimile of gratitude is enough; that facsimile is an acceptable amount of emotional access. When Ament met Abdul-Jabbar, all Kareem needed to say was, “Thanks, man. That means a lot. Good luck with your life.” He would not have needed to mean any of those words. Even if he’d been transparently acting, it would have been enough to satisfy a person who had pre-decided to love him. But Abdul-Jabbar can’t do that. He can’t ignore the stupidity of that false relationship, which is why a song like “Sweet Lew” exists. Kareem (being Kareem) loves jazz music — but even if he loved rock, he’d never relate to Pearl Jam (except for maybe “Corduroy”). He would prefer mid-period Rush: “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.

As he’s moved into the winter of his life, Abdul-Jabbar has grown conscious of his image and has tried to evolve into a conventionally nice celebrity — which is disappointing on two levels. He has grown more patient with interviewers, partially because they have migrated to his side: It seems increasingly absurd that this intelligent, well-spoken, socially conscious person who is the all-time leading scorer in the history of basketball cannot get a job as an NBA head coach, simply because he’s not super friendly. He had a cancer scare in 2008, so that generated some warranted sympathy; as an author, he’s probably done more for the lost history of twentieth-century African-Americans than every other athlete combined. He made a cameo on a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel, and it’s so goofy and superfluous that only a jerk could criticize the decision. Muslims don’t drink alcohol, but Kareem still endorsed Coors. If he’s a villain, he’s the best possible kind. Still, there are parts of his personal history that will never evaporate. He may ultimately be remembered more affectionately than anyone would have guessed in 1980, but that turnaround will always be framed as a surprise. He played the game, but he didn’t play The Game. He refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it, and he refused to pretend that other people’s obsession with abnormality required him to act like the man he wasn’t.

There’s very little about the life of O. J. Simpson that could be classified as “under-reported.” However, I can think of one element that totally is: His 2007 memoir, If I Did It. The existence of this book is deeply, vastly, hysterically underrated. My natural inclination is to try and compare it to something equally unusual, but I can’t isolate a comparison. I want to write something along the lines of “If I Did It is as bizarre as _________,” but no cultural minutia fits in that space. Roman Polanski would have to make a biopic about Charles Manson’s music career.

Let me first describe what this book is: It’s the nonfiction story of Simpson’s relationship with Nicole Brown, plus one fictional chapter (near the end) in which O.J. explains how he would have killed Nicole, always staying within the facts and parameters of the actual homicide. After 123 pages of straightforward romantic memoir, O.J. casually drops in the following one-sentence paragraph …

Now picture this — and keep in mind, this is hypothetical:

What follows that sentence are fifteen pages written exactly like the previous 123, except that we are now supposed to assume all the actions described are some nightmarish fantasy Simpson created for our entertainment. When I first purchased the book, I assumed this section would be a description of “murder strategy,” in which O.J. describes how a clever person would have committed these crimes (as opposed to the brutal, unsubtle manner in which they actually occurred). But this is not the case. Instead O.J. creates a second character (a fellow he calls Charlie) who rides along with him to Brown’s bungalow and watches him stab Brown and Goldman to death in an act of animalistic rage. Nothing is delivered in a theoretical context. There’s lots of profane dialogue throughout the passage, and the phrases are amazingly specific (at one point, O.J. imagines himself saying, “Fuck that. I’m tired of being the understanding ex-husband”). When he “fictionalizes” the physical confrontation with Goldman, he describes his adversary’s fighting posture precisely and mocks Goldman’s attempts at karate. It’s expressed like a memory, and I’m almost certain that’s what it is. The inclusion of the Charlie character is the only thing that makes it seem unlike the conventional view of what happened that night; I’m not sure if Charlie is supposed to be a literary device (so that O.J. has a vessel to turn his interior monologue into a printable conversation) or if this is some perverse attempt at implicating Simpson’s buddy A. C. Cowlings as an accessory to murder. The “fabricated” anecdote ends back at Simpson’s residence, where O.J. describes how he would (did?) manage to sneak back into the house and take a shower before leaving for LAX and flying to Chicago; at this point, If I Did It resumes being a memoir, in which Simpson gives his account of the arrest and the days that followed (it also includes a full transcript of his first interview with the LAPD). In other words, this is a short book in which a guy intimately describes his bad marriage (which is supposed to be real), how that relationship made him feel (which is also supposed to be real), a detailed account of his ex-wife’s murder (which is supposed to be unreal), and the man’s memories of what happened in the wake of her death (which is not only real, but verified by audio tape). And it’s all written in the same voice, seemingly for the same purpose.

The story behind the publication of If I Did It is part of the reason this book is destined to become a lost artifact, despite its temporary status as a bestseller: The book was originally a pure money grab: Simpson and his cowriter (screenwriter Pablo Fenjves, a neighbor of Brown’s who paradoxically testified against O.J. during the ’94 trial) were to cobble the book together for Judith Regan, a highly successful, highly unscrupulous publishing magnate with HarperCollins, a company owned by News Corp. The machinations of what was really going on here remain unclear; Fenjves was told that the revenue would go toward Simpson’s children, while Regan later alleged that her only motive for publishing the memoir was to prove Simpson’s guilt. Regardless, the book was aborted before it came out. The public was predictably outraged by what it assumed If I Did It would be, and further incensed by a TV special that was intended to coincide with the book’s release (in theory, Barbara Walters was going to interview Simpson during the November ratings sweeps). For a moment, it looked as if If I Did It would never exist. (HarperCollins reportedly destroyed four hundred thousand copies of the book before it went on sale.) But then something even more bizarre occurred: A bankruptcy court in Florida awarded the rights to If I Did It to Ron Goldman’s estate. As one might expect, the Goldman family had always been very, very against the book on the grounds that it exploited the death of their son. But Simpson (despite his victory in the criminal trial) had been found guilty in the civil suit filed by the Goldmans and now owed them $33 million. And since Simpson was living in Florida — a state whose bankruptcy laws were heavily tilted in O.J.’s favor — the Goldmans were never going to see any of that money. So a judge decreed that the Goldmans could publish If I Did It as financial compensation for Ron Goldman’s death. The family made some key changes to the book’s presentation, most notably the addition of a not-so-subtle subtitle (“Confessions of the Killer”) and one of the most consciously misleading book covers in the history of literature: The words I DID IT are printed as large as possible in red, while the minuscule word IF is lodged inside the letter I.

My copy doesn’t even have O.J.’s name on the cover, a crazy idea that makes total sense. The reason it makes sense is that people still do not like the idea of O. J. Simpson writing this book. They want to imagine that the book was created against his will. If you don’t believe me, try reading If I Did It in public. The moment anyone figures out what you’re actually holding, they reflexively embrace (or feign) disgust.

“Why would you want to read that?” a writer friend of mine asked when I told him how fascinating it was.

“Because it’s a murderer writing about murdering people while still pretending he’s innocent,” I said. “It’s totally unique. Would you prefer to read an essay by a journalist who interviewed O.J. about this situation?”

“Well, yes,” said my friend. “That would be great.”

“Would you want to read a roman à clef about an ex–football player who murders two people and escapes prosecution?”

“That might also be okay,” said my friend. “It would depend on the execution. But those are different situations. It’s just fucked up that O.J. is the author of the book you’re reading.”

“He didn’t make any money off it,” I replied. “Why is someone interpreting the event a better source than the person directly involved?”

“Because he’s obviously lying,” my friend said. “And it’s just weird.”

It is weird. That’s true. The book is nuts. But that really wasn’t my friend’s argument. He was using the word weird in place of the word wrong, because wrong seems self-righteous. “It’s just wrong” seems like something Mitch Albom would say about If I Did It. But this wrongness — this abstract wrongness that can’t be verbally justified, because it harms no one — is why O. J. Simpson is despised in such a culturally penetrating context. It’s a hatred that transcends his alleged crimes or his ability to divert justice. When Lizzie Borden was acquitted of her parents’ murder in 1893, the people of New England were outraged — but Lizzie didn’t taunt the public for failing to convict her. She just moved into a nice house with her sister and became a recluse. A century later, Borden is “hated” by no one; anyone captivated by her life is predisposed to think about the murders from her perspective (and to hunt for any clue that might validate her improbable innocence). Over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved. But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement. He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book, he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him, and that he perversely wants the world to remember that he killed them (even if he’s somehow internally convinced himself that he did not, which is what I always assumed during the trial). He keeps reminding people that he is famous because two other people are dead.

There are many, many sports fans who believe Kobe Bryant raped a woman in 2003 and was never penalized.

Nothing — nothing — has happened in the subsequent ten years that would lead anyone to be convinced Kobe was wrongly accused. But Bryant refuses to acknowledge that the incident even occurred. He won’t answer any question related to the accusation and just pretends like he doesn’t remember anything about it. A lot of people still hate him for this, but they can’t access the incident in question. It’s now a footnote to the rest of his life. They have to hate him for other things, so they accuse him of shooting too much and being a terrible teammate and trying to be cooler than he actually is. We have to inject our distaste for his alleged crime into things that don’t really matter, so most of the criticism comes across as unfair and ad hominem. Kobe (probably) did something bad in Colorado, but he handled it perfectly. O.J. keeps doing the opposite. He elects to tell a terrible story that cannot not be interesting, because he’s the only person alive who can know what he knows. There is no comparable text to If I Did It. If the only thing that mattered about reality was the proliferation of information and perspective, it would be an invaluable document. But nobody thinks this way, except maybe me. If I Did It teaches us nothing we consciously want to know. It only proves that O.J. knows the most about what happened on June 12, and that he doesn’t care at all.

In Airplane!, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar portrays Roger Murdock, the doomed aircraft’s copilot. However, the principal comedic utility is that he’s really playing himself (but refuses to admit it). His most memorable scene is when a little kid enters the cockpit, instantly recognizes him, and says, “I think you’re the greatest, but my dad thinks you don’t work hard enough on defense.” It’s funny, but also smart: Movie Kareem pretends to be offended by the remark, but Real Kareem clearly finds the criticism amusing (or else he wouldn’t have allowed it in the script). It shows a sense of humor that he had never presented before. But the joke is bigger than that. The core of the joke is that it’s ridiculous to pretend that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is anyone besides himself. You can’t be a seven-foot-two character actor; even if Kareem had the acting chops of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he can’t disappear into another being. He can only be who he is, and even a child can see this. So the center of the joke (better known as the unfunny part of the joke) is that Kareem is denying who he obviously is. He wants to disappear into society, and that’s impossible. It’s something everyone can understand in theory, but nobody accepts in practice. He is supposed to be happier than he is. He is supposed to like being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he’s supposed to like that we like it, too.

Chuck Klosterman’s book, I Wear the Black Hat is available July 9, 2013, and can be purchased online here.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Chuck Klosterman, People

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Chuck Klosterman is a contributing editor at Grantland and the author of eight books. The latest is I Wear the Black Hat.

Archive @ CKlosterman