Fourteen-year-old Orenthal James Simpson awoke to the sound of voices downstairs. "Orenthal," his mother called, "you come down here." He got up and ran down the stairs. There, in the living room of the little house in the slums of San Francisco, sat Willie Mays.
"You want to come out with me this afternoon?" Mays asked.
All Orenthal could do was nod. He had no idea why Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants was in his family's living room. It seemed to be a miracle.
To Bay Area boys like O.J., as he is better known, the Giants hadn't brought Mays with them from New York so much as Mays had brought the Giants with him. Mays was at his peak then, and his appeal seemed to transcend color lines. "Wherever I went, whoever I spoke to," Simpson recalls, "people were talking about Willie Mays. And I realized this was a black guy they were talking about and that it didn't matter!"
Simpson will never forget the first time he saw Mays play. Orenthal's father, Jimmy, wasn't much of a sports fan, but O.J.'s uncle Hollis was. One night, when O.J. was 10, he and his uncle went to Candlestick Park to watch the Giants.
"I never took my eyes off Willie Mays," says Simpson. "I had heard about his basket catch and the way his cap always fell off when he ran, and I watched for those things. He did them all. He even hit a home run for me."
Orenthal began imitating the way Mays caught the ball, the way he swung the bat, even the way he got his cap to fall off when he ran. "He was my hero," Simpson says. "I hate to go so far as to say that he was my god, because my family was religious, but it almost amounted to that. I could almost say that I worshiped Willie Mays."
Orenthal's first position in Little League was catcher. He was disappointed, but soon realized he could still become a star like Mays. Position was unimportant. He would be to catchers what Mays was to centerfielders.
Simpson knew sports were his ticket out of the slums. "I couldn't sing or dance, and I wasn't going to be a brain surgeon," he says. "So it had to be sports."
By the time he was 13, Orenthal was already a member of a gang, the Persian Warriors. Once a year the Persian Warriors held a big dance. "We were all underage, of course," Simpson says, "so we couldn't buy liquor, even if we had money, which we didn't. But we devised ways of getting it [liquor] anyhow."