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.
Thiele was impressed with O.J.'s cheerful behavior. "He was a great guy, the same personality you saw on TV. I thought there would be a bunch of people out here screaming at him, but I was shocked at how many supporters were out here. All I saw was positive energy for O.J."
On Saturday, competing for the grand prize of a silver Toyota Land Cruiser -- which the Juice declared he would donate to charity -- O.J. made it obvious that winning and image were important to him. He was competitive, always keeping track of how well the other teams were doing, and always very aware of the media. After a good drive he turned to news cameras and said, "I hope you got that one on tape." On the next hole, after a bad drive, he left the tee walking with a pronounced limp and complained that "these old knees are hurting. I'm living on Motrin."
The former star seemed desperate to be one of the boys. He continually complimented other players on their drives -- "Oh, that's a good one" -- their putts -- "Close, it's very close" -- and slapped his partners affectionately on the shoulders. After a bad round of drives he joked, "It's absolutely criminal what we're doing here today!"
When reporters grew impatient, realizing they were in for eighteen holes of this banter, a few suddenly broke out of the pack, shoved a microphone in O.J.'s face, and yelled, "What do you think about the protesters? Are you planning to buy a house in Miami?" O.J. completely ignored the intrusion; handlers pushed the frustrated reporters back, promising a later interview.
Although the news media followed O.J. nearly everywhere, they barely reported on the amazing support O.J. received. A designer-clad white couple in their forties, pedaling bicycles, shouted, "Thanks for coming, O.J. We love you!" Employees of the park, black and white alike, asked for autographs. Two women spontaneously hugged him. O.J. hugged them back, his large arms wrapped around them tenderly.
Hendry Georges, age twelve, arrived with about ten other black kids. Georges and friends posed with a beaming O.J. for a photograph between holes. "They just need to leave O.J. alone," he declared. And why did he like O. J.? "Because he's famous, and we don't usually get chances like this." He'd never seen O.J. play football but was excited by being in such close contact with a person famous for any reason. "I want him to do a fundraiser for our park. That's Oak Grove Park," he made sure to add.
Rodrick Dennis, age 25, a park employee who chaperoned the kids, considers O.J. a role model, saying, "The kids look up to him. People should stop sticking on [the murders] and let it rest, let the man move on. Everyone needs to move on." Dennis too griped that the press was turning a positive event into a negative one.
O.J.'s foursome finished the humid, blue-skied day eight strokes under par, ultimately losing out to comedian Lewis Dix and his team. After the last hole the Juice strode aggressively toward the pro shop. He soon realized he was being taken down by the hounds, so he reluctantly answered some questions. Simpson admitted there were indeed protesters outside the grounds, but claimed, "You know, I didn't even see the signs." He spouted prefab phrases: The protesters had a right to their opinions. He was innocent. He would address the second trial judgment on appeal.
As he moved on to the autograph pavilion, O.J. deflected questions about whether he planned to move to the area and accused the media of conspiring to ruin his Miami welcome. "Last time I was here, there was overwhelming support everywhere I went, from Don Shula's [restaurant] to Miami Beach. After I left I was told there was a controversy. Why don't we see that controversy in person? We just see it after the media gets involved. Yesterday there were ten demonstrators outside, which I thought got more coverage than the hundreds of people inside that were supportive of the cause, and obviously of me."
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Contained in his self-absorbed bubble, he could easily come to that conclusion. Fans around him cradled freshly autographed helmets and football paraphernalia like holy objects. "I'm never selling this," said Wilfredo Berrios of a signed football photo. "I'm keeping it for my kids when they grow up."
Lest O.J. get too complacent in his popularity, however, some of those that gathered were not as generous as Berrios. While he was signing autographs for free, a group of mostly Anglo and Hispanic fans yelled, "O.J.'s number one! He's the man!" When O.J. stopped autographing, these same fans booed and admitted they wanted the autographs only to sell.
Protester Rosa Kemper of Key Biscayne hoped that O.J. wouldn't be able to pull off a Miami-style metamorphosis. "We want him to know we don't condone murderous actions here. He's not welcome in Key Biscayne, Miami, or the state of Florida."
As O.J.'s children Sydney and Justin were burning up the course in a golf cart, apparently oblivious to the hoopla surrounding their father, reporters asked the Juice how he would celebrate the impending Mothers' Day with his kids. It was a question that had to be asked. O.J. chuckled uneasily and countered, "You know, I have a mother too.