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From the time he was let out of jail, and especially since the end of his civil trial, in which he was found liable for the deaths of his wife and the equally unfortunate Ron Goldman, O.J. Simpson has cultivated a growing appreciation for Florida, Miami in particular. Despite a few vocal protesters, it seems Miami has welcomed him with the open arms usually reserved for murderous dictators and drug profiteers who retire here to launder money and, more important, their maculate reputations.
While O.J. has denied seeking a home in Florida, and his daughter Arnelle has stated emphatically, "We don't know what we're doing, but we have no plans to move here," conjecture has focused on the allure of the state's liberal bankruptcy laws, which may allow the Juice to avoid some part of the $33.5 million civil judgment. Florida has an unlimited homestead exemption, which means O.J. could -- with some fancy legal footwork -- protect a portion of his remaining assets by investing in anything from a posh waterfront mansion to a sprawling ranch.
It's no wonder that O.J. is attracted to the area. Miami enjoys an image as a city with a short memory and therefore as a great place to reinvent oneself, to shed old personalities like ugly cocoons and emerge clean and beautiful. Convicted tax evader Ian Schrager, for instance, became one of the rehab heroes of South Beach after his success with the Delano Hotel. West African businessman Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, with a history shrouded in mist, spread around a few dollars and became a celebrity despite an impending jail sentence. When Jurgen Schneider fled Germany two years ago, accused of defrauding investors there of a few billion dollars, he made a beeline for South Florida. He was caught and hauled back home before he could make the desired transition.
On lower rungs Dade politicians and businessmen have become icons after suffering through legal problems and their own buffoonery. Mayor Raul Martinez of Hialeah, for instance, won re-election just two years after being convicted of corruption charges. Joe Carollo, now mayor of Miami, was voted off the city commission for the loony things he said, only to reign victorious after an almost miraculous re-invention. (It's testament to renegade ex-commissioner Joe Gersten's complete ineptitude that he has, so far, been unable to manage the normal transformation from criminal-on-the-run to Miami sainthood.)
Fishing for a reason to golf in Florida -- and ever eager to lend his high-profile name to a good cause -- the Juice entered the Celebrity Golf Challenge to benefit sickle cell anemia at Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne. Outside, he was greeted by about a dozen demonstrators against domestic violence who shouted "Killer" and "Get the hell out of Florida" while sporting signs that read "Butcher" and other insults. O.J. waved back and smiled from the fourth green; other people were fawning like waiters hoping for a big tip.
The Marlins' $61 million slugger Gary Sheffield said he was happy to share the course with O.J.: "I think it's great when he comes out and gives back to his community, and that's what it should be about. The man is free and should be left alone." Dale Davis of the Indiana Pacers dittoed the sentiment: "O.J. still has a life. He still has to do what he has to do." And Sixx-9, from the R&B band Deep Six, opined, "It's hard to see, [O.J.] being a star for years and suddenly having to make a new life again."
Event organizers praised O.J. for supporting the cause and scolded the media for focusing on the protesters rather than on publicizing the turnout for the charity. Leonard Starke, spokesperson for the tournament, complained, "It's disappointing when you work so hard to do an event of this magnitude, and the purpose for which everyone is gathered is lost in the shadows." He continued, "If anyone, including Mr. Simpson, decided to play and pay in this tournament and support the cause, then we don't pass judgment on those persons. The only controversy here is the word itself. There's no controversy. I don't see anybody fighting. I don't see anybody screaming. I don't see anybody in pain. I see a group of people -- black, white and Hispanic -- enjoying themselves on a beautiful day. That's the point, not O.J.'s guilt or innocence. Only God knows that."
O.J.'s presence might have backfired, celebritywise. While a host of B-list personalities showed, including Independence Day's Vivica Fox, stars like Denzel Washington and Spike Lee, who organizers say indicated they would appear, didn't. Critics wondered if the stars were reluctant to appear because of O.J., but it's common for busy A-listers to break such promises. The celebrities themselves failed to announce the reasons for their no-shows.
Before the tournament O.J. encountered Miamian Steven Thiele, a former bodyguard -- and an ex-con also trying to undergo a transformation to respectability as a pro golfer -- who was hitting balls on the driving range. Thiele wanted to meet O.J. to "show his support," but, less altruistically, he also wanted to impress the Juice enough to get a job as a personal assistant. "I hoped if he saw me hit balls, he might let me play with him," said an enthusiastic Thiele, a low handicapper who usually shoots about 75. "We got into a conversation, and O.J. said, 'I think we could use someone to complete the foursome.' I told him I didn't have the money, so he said he'd pay." The act of good will cost O.J., who contends that he's broke, an extra $375.